Membership growth accelerates rapidly at ASLRRA in 2021

Providing useful and intriguing information helps the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association attract new members. During the Eastern & Southern Region meeting in Louisville on June 22, CSX Head of Business Development Tom Tisa reviewed the Class I’s critical workforce approach during the pandemic. ASLRRA

Since it was formed in 1916 as the American Short Line Railroad Association, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) has sought to increase its membership each year to strengthen the organization’s stance as the voice of the small railroad industry. To say membership growth has been stellar so far in 2021 is a huge understatement.

Through July 31, the ASLRRA had recruited 101 new members — already besting by far its full-year new-membership record of 83 set in 2019. The previous high for new members gained in a year’s first seven months was half the 2021 total.

The most recent new members include the Illinois Western Railroad, Ringneck & Western Railroad and South Point & Ohio Railroad, as well as Burns & McDonnell, EA Engineering, Science and Technology Inc., Lockton Companies Inc., PCL Construction, PFL Petroleum Services Ltd., Superior Grouting Services, TekTracking LLC, ThyssenTransp LLC, Top Rail Solutions Inc. and Western States Railroad Solutions.

Membership now totals slightly more than 1,000. In addition to regionals and short lines, members include rail switching operators, passenger and tourist railroads, and rail industry suppliers and contractors.

Like leaders at most businesses, association executives last year had a hard time gauging the pandemic’s impact on spending, travel and other expenses when setting the 2021 budget. Therefore, this year’s membership goal was conservative, said Kathy Keeney, the ASLRRA’s vice president of membership and business development, in an email.

But what’s transpired since has been both surprising and encouraging to the association’s staff.

ASLRRA The resumption of in-person events after a 15-month hiatus — such as the Eastern & Southern Region meeting held in Louisville June 21-23 (shown) — is the primary reason the association’s membership has exploded in 2021. ASLRRA

“We have been very pleased by membership renewals for 2021, as well as the number of new members,” Keeney said.

A number of factors have helped drive membership growth, such as the ASLRRA’s Federal Railroad Administration safety and training programs — especially those focusing on Part 243 minimum safety training standards — and advocacy work on federal grants, taxes and  legislative/regulatory issues, including economic and safety concerns.

“Some new members are companies that joined after a key executive from a current ASLRRA member company came on board at a non-member company, and then internally advocated for joining,” said Keeney

Moreover, many short-line holding company members are adding subsidiaries that become new members.

Members ‘over the moon’ to resume connecting in person

Yet, perhaps the biggest driver has been the return of live events after a long pandemic-fueled pause. In June, the ASLRRA held regional meetings in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Missouri, that were well attended and received. The Central/Pacific Region meeting in Kansas City held June 7-9 registered its highest turnout since 2015.

“The resumption of face-to-face meetings after a 15-month hiatus was definitely a large factor,” said Keeney. “[Some] have joined to take advantage of the networking opportunities at our in-person regional meetings, and at our upcoming annual conference to be held Nov. 17-19 in Phoenix.”

 Many people “were just absolutely over the moon” to resume connecting with colleagues in person, she added. There was pent-up demand among members for the return of live meetings.

“[Plus] our new supplier members are very interested in reaching our railroad members in a cost-effective way, and our events provide that opportunity,” said Keeney. 

 When it comes to recruitment, the ASLRRA aims to take a more personal, multi-pronged approach. 


“We attend a few trade shows a year just to keep our name in front of folks. We use social media more than we have in the past, especially Twitter and Facebook, and we’ve had success working membership via LinkedIn,” said Keeney, adding that she reads trade publications and scours Surface Transportation Board filings to stay on top of railroad transactions.

“I also reach out regularly to members that have dropped off over the years to see if the timing is right for them to rejoin,” she said.

In addition, all staff — including ASLRRA President Chuck Baker — seek out referrals and assistance from current members.

“I call them membership evangelists. They are our most-engaged members who go out of their way to encourage colleagues to join our association based on their positive experiences,” said Keeney. “Their colleague-to-colleague testimonials are pure gold.”

 What many prospective members typically consider golden at the ASLRRA are its expertise, support and information. Most prospects — especially railroads — understand the ASLRRA’s value proposition off the bat, said Keeney.

Many newcomers also join to support the association’s legislative and regulatory efforts that are undertaken on their behalf.

“They want to feel more connected to their industry,” said Keeney.

After joining, start-up railroad members often rely on the association’s staff — who have decades of safety, operations, legal and marketing expertise — for guidance, she said. 

Meanwhile, rail supply industry members typically exhibit at or sponsor ASLRRA events to seize the opportunities to promote their company and products or services to short-line decision makers.

“Some of our railroad members strongly prefer to work with suppliers and contractors that are ASLRRA members,” said Keeney. “And the possibility of a dramatic increase in federal spending on railroad infrastructure makes it an easier ‘sell’ for suppliers to see the potential benefit of joining.”