Richmond Pacific's O'Neill recently wrapped a 'fabulous' railroading career

O’Neill retired on Dec. 31, ending her more than 18-year stint with Richmond Pacific Railroad Corp. and its parent, Levin Richmond Terminal Corp., in northern California. Barbara O’Neill

By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor 

When 2023 ended, a longtime contributor to the rail industry in general — and the short-line industry in particular — called it a career. Barbara O’Neill retired on Dec. 31. 

For more than 18 years, O’Neill was vice president of marketing and sales for Richmond Pacific Railroad Corp. and Levin Richmond Terminal in Richmond, California. Her responsibilities included market development, commercial agreements, planning, forecasting, customer service and Class I commercial interfaces.  

Owned by Levin Richmond Terminal Corp., the 11-mile Richmond Pacific Railroad serves the Levin marine terminal — which handles steel scrap, petroleum coke, iron ore, bauxite, coal and other bulk commodities — and 17 other customers in Richmond, which is near San Francisco. 

Prior to joining the short line and Levin terminal, O’Neill served three Class Is for more than 20 years primarily in sales and marketing positions: the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, and CSX. She also spent nearly six years at the Port of Oakland in northern California. 

Late last year, O’Neill, 69, reached the point she was ready to retire after considering it for a while. She wanted to spend more time with family and friends. 

“I would have retired earlier, but then the pandemic hit in 2020,” O’Neill says. 

Yet, it was difficult to finally call it a career because she enjoyed her job so much at the short line and terminal. 

“It was a fun job. The short-line world is more fun since you are close to customers — they’re right there, a few miles away,” says O’Neill. “We can switch cars for them three times in one day, or on a weekend, if that’s what a customer wants. We make it easier for customers and offer a very friendly environment.” 

Barb and Husband Spending more time with family — predominantly her husband Jim (shown) — and friends was the main driver behind O’Neill’s decision to retire. Barbara O’Neill

A Class I can’t provide that same nimbleness as short lines, she adds. Looking back, O’Neill says she relished the long part of her career that was spent with the large railroads, as well. 

“It was also fun to work for Class Is, but I’m not sure it’s that much fun anymore,” she says. 

Father knew best 

O’Neill wouldn’t have drawn so much enjoyment from railroading if she had pursued her original goal after graduating in 1976 from San Jose State University in San Jose, California, with a Bachelor of Science degree in liberal studies and business. She wanted to be a teacher. 

“But there were only a few teaching jobs at the time,” says O’Neill. “My dad knew someone at the SP and told me I could get a job there. I said: What’s SP?” 

Despite her lack of railroading knowledge and railroad acronyms, she joined the Southern Pacific in 1977 as a mail clerk. She later moved into operations as support for the “blocking book,” and then into marketing and sales.

“You could work your way up in those days,” says O’Neill. 

She developed sales and marketing experience in a number of commodity groups, including chemicals, non-ferrous metals, food and beverages, steel and international intermodal. She worked with shippers in many different industries to ensure their products moved in a timely manner at a competitive rate. 

Had the SP and UP not merged in 1996, her work history likely would have been drastically different. 

“If it had stayed as the SP, I probably would have worked there my whole career,” says O’Neill. 

After the merger, she stayed at UP for just a year — the company’s culture and makeup negatively differed too much from the SP, she says. O’Neill then served CSX for two years in an off-line sales role in California, and then decided to join the Port of Oakland. 

There, she was responsible for developing business by working with a number of large beneficial cargo owners, including Walgreens, Williams Sonoma, Cost Plus World Market, J.C. Penney and Sears. She also acted as the port’s ambassador via meetings and port tours, served as its liaison with BNSF Railway Co. and UP, and developed short-haul rail opportunities for local shippers. 

“Dealing with coal and other bulk materials wasn’t pretty, but it was a good experience,” O’Neill says. 

From port of call to answering short-line call 

Her experience with and knowledge of short-haul moves came into play when a sales and marketing opportunity opened with the Richmond Pacific Railroad and Levin Richmond Terminal. She decided to seize it to work in a new and inviting industry, and joined the company in 2005. 

The Richmond Pacific — which interchanges with BNSF and UP — previously was a smaller short line called the Parr Terminal Railroad that operated just three miles of track in a shipbuilding area. Now, most Richmond Pacific’s customers are receivers. 

O’Neill focused on marketing, sales, logistics, pricing, and managing customer relationships and partnerships. 

“It’s a small railroad, but we could have 20,000 cars in one year,” she says, adding that Richmond Pacific’s annual traffic typically varies from 16,500 to 20,000 cars. 

Since some customers are increasing their movements of cooking oil and biofuels, the short line needs to expand. The Richmond Pacific is working with BNSF and UP on a plan to accommodate traffic growth by upgrading its three yards. The short line has one large yard and two smaller yards. 

“In one or two years, they will need to expand or build out the yards,” says O’Neill. 

In addition to exercising her devotion to the Richmond Pacific and Levin terminal for nearly two decades, O’Neill applied some of her energies during that time to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA), California Short Line Railroad Association (CSLRA) and two Class I short-line advisory groups. She wanted to play a role in helping further the small railroad industry. 

Gotta get involved 

At the ASLRRA, she was active on its board as part of the Pacific Region group, served as secretary of the small railroad committee and was part of the planning committee for the association’s annual convention in 2014. At the CSLRA, O’Neill served as a board member and secretary. 

In addition, she previously served on the Union Pacific Short Line Advisory Board and the BNSF Short Line Caucus for six years each. 

Those Class I short-line advisory groups were ideal for sharing ideas with people from both small and large companies in the rail industry, including Genesee & Wyoming Inc., OmniTrax Inc. and Watco, O’Neill says. 

“You could share different experiences and how you could work together,” she says. “You could share things you need help with, and then perhaps those things get taken to the forefront by Class I management. And you could meet folks at the Class Is who could provide some help going forward.” 

Getting involved and building relationships is important in both the short-line arena and the rail industry at large, O’Neill believes. 

“It’s good to meet with lots of people — I’m a people person,” she says. “I always want to be learning and be open to discovering new things, like AI.” 

She also focused on helping others, which is another key ingredient to a meaningful career, O’Neill stresses. 

“I’d like to think that along the way, I helped mentor some women. It’s still a male-dominated industry,” she says. “Relationships are important, and you can’t just rely on Zoom or texts or emails, you need to keep it personable.” 

Now already basking in the sunset, she believes she had “a fabulous career.” And she hopes others in the short-line industry feel the same way when they reach retirement. They have a better chance if there’s more cooperation among large and small railroads, O’Neill believes. 

“I hope Class Is continue to support short lines,” she says. “Short lines touch customers more.”