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Company Reports - Colo Railroad Builders  


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Colo Railroad Builders

The Solid Choice for North America's Railroads

Written by Laurie Baratti & Produced by Alexander N. Hortaridis

The Solid Choice for North America's Railroads

Founder Larry Colo started the company in 1979 with the opening of the company’s first office in Geneseo, Illinois. He started the business doing what was known as ‘production work’ in the ‘Quad Cities’ area, a Midwestern hub on the Mississippi, between Iowa and Illinois. The original ‘production work’ began with tie-gangs and rail-gangs building main-lines etc. Over time, it quite naturally added in repair and maintenance type work to its business, but kept always to the nation’s railroads.

From the first office in Geneseo, Colo branched out into Texas, opening an office in Lubbock and another in Brownsville, then went on to Nashville, Tennessee, where the pair of gentlemen who currently own this privately-held company now operate its corporate headquarters.

Most recently, the company expanded its operations with the addition of its newest office in Chicago, which opened in March of 2010. Colo then moved into the business of doing construction work, as well as repair and maintenance; and not only for the major railroads, but also for private rail-served industrial facilities.


For more than 30 years, Colo Railroad Builders has served Class-I, Regional and Short-line railroads, along with various municipalities and industrial clients.

Colo’s service area encompasses the major portion of the U.S mainland, with 32 states served thus far. The company’s current area of concentration is the greater Midwest, but its business stretches all the way through Texas, Virginia, and into Pennsylvania. Operating out of five locations, “I would say we’ve worked throughout the U.S., with the exception of the New England seaboard and the west coast,” says Colo’s VP of Engineering & Construction, Steve Vitas. He adds, “Colo works for many large short line railroads, including and currently performs work for Class 1 railroads such as the CN, CP, KCS and the BN.”

Its professional teams leverage their extensive experience to help customers design and organize their project plans. Colo has developed many close relationships with customers and enjoys working as a partner in executing MOW projects. More often than not, Colo gets the call from its customers before the bid. Its valued customer references include Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad (DM&E), Iowa Interstate (IAIS), OmniTrax, Rail America, and WATCO Companies Inc.


Following some fluctuation in the markets over the past few years, caused by the global economic downturn, Colo is seeing its business regain its momentum. “This is all infrastructure, and whether you like it or not, or you’re happy or unhappy with the economy, eventually, you have to do something, because infrastructure does wear down with use,” says Vitas.

Terry Benton, President of the Production Division of Colo says, “Our Class 1 and Short Line customers are spending capital dollars on maintaining their infrastructure. Colo typically rehabilitates or installs over 100 miles of rail, and 200,000 ties per year.”

Although there have been major investments made into the Class-I railways for several years, Vitas explains that, because freight continues to move all the time, “your critical, core type of projects, such as tie-replacement, rail-upgrades, and normal repair and maintenance work has been in the last number of years.”

Steve Scharnweber, who heads Business Development for Colo, former Vice President of Engineering for the DM&E railroad said “I receive calls every week from customers who are planning larger and more strategic projects. Rail seems to be leading the economic recovery rather than trying to catch-up after the economy recovers. It is pretty exciting to be a part of this industry right now.”

As an example, the Canadian National Railroad (CN), which made a critical, strategic acquisition back in 2009 by purchasing the EJ&E, which was a short-line railroad that promised to provide a more efficient route for freight moving through the American Midwest. To complete its integration of the EJ&E, the major Canadian carrier embarked on a program to carry out the upgrades needed to convert the its new acquisition into a Class-I railroad that would allow the CN to essentially bypass the massive congestion in the city of Chicago.

According to Vitas, “It takes about 3 days for a freight train to go from California to the city of Chicago, which is, you know, thousands of miles. It also could take three days to go from one side of the city of Chicago to the other side, so this is why some of these RR have tried to become positioned so that they can bypass this high-density urban population of people and cars.” Out of the CN’s development grew a sort of public initiative, called “CREATE” (“Chicago Region Environmental & Transportation Efficiency Program”) aimed at cutting-down on greenhouse emissions.

The city in partnership with railroads and Federal DOT, engaged in this capital program in order to help separate freight-rail from truck and automobile traffic and make the rail system more efficient. It’s a method whereby, “you separate the road physically from the railroad,” Vitas explains. In conjunction with the initiative, comes the need for new ‘lead tracks’ (leading into and out of yards), as well as some signalization changes to help safely speed up train crossings. The overall aim of these efforts is to alleviate congestion, reduce idle fuel consumption, and thereby improve the environment through decreased emissions.


With 5 key production gangs working out of 5 strategic locations, Colo has the capability to handle any size project throughout the United States. Through its business units, Colo installs hundreds of miles of rail, and hundreds of thousands of ties each year. The company sees its strength as rooted in its ability handle projects of any size, although they especially excel at large projects that require experienced crews and specialized equipment.

Colo’s fleet includes over 200 pieces of specialized equipment, such as its spikers, spike pullers, tampers, regulators and cranes that are built by the industry’s most trusted manufacturers, including Nordco, Fairmont and Pettibone. All of Colo’s equipment is well-maintained to ensure that each project is completed without unnecessary delay.

The spectrum of the Colo’s performance capabilities can be summarized as: Rail gangs capable of producing (10,000+ ft/day); Tie gangs capable of producing (1500+ ties/day); Production surfacing; New construction; Track rehabilitation; Panel turnout construction and installation; Track inspection and reporting; Tailored maintenance programs; and Track pick-up and removal.


Colo uniquely realizes the market opportunities to be found in large and complex undertakings. They pride themselves on taking the challenging types of projects that other companies turn-down, and the ability of their teams to adapt to new, unusual and difficult conditions accordingly. This is balanced out by another part of Colo’s core philosophy, which is careful consideration and planning when entering into its commitments. Collectively, the business is based upon an uncompromising ethic of integrity that says they will never bite off more than they can chew. Backed by technical expertise, a full range of specialized equipment and a workforce trained in the latest rules, regulations, safety and best practices, Colo’s units always deliver their customers’ projects safely, on-time and within budget. All these aspects, taken together, have formed the foundation of Colo’s solid reputation for reliability over the past 30 years.

It's not just the capabilities Colo can provide that make them some of the most sought-after railroad builders in North America. It’s also an adherence to a strict standard in the way their services are delivered, always professionally and always putting safety first. “The things we do are fine-tuned performances,” says Vitas, a claim to which any of its customers can easily attest. On top of that, the company’s performance record really speaks for itself.


Colo Railroad Builders follows a strict set of safety standards. Each Colo employee is trained in and measured by these standards to ensure high quality results. Since 2002, Colo has been recognized annually by the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association Safety Committee (NRCMA) for excellence in its safety practices. Also, for the past five years, the company has also been recognized for its safety policies and practices by the National Railroad Contractors Association, and was awarded a gold-level safety award in 2009.

Colo takes a comprehensive approach to safety planning. Whether or not it is required, and even on the industrial side of the business, workers undergo individual plant training and property-specific training on safety practices for each and every project. In instances where Colo may be working in collaboration with other contractors at the job site (i.e., they are building the bridge, while Colo builds the track), its crews are safety-trained, not just as to the work that they themselves are doing, but also on the activities of the other parties involved. That way, Colo can ensure that its people are receiving optimal safety preparation in any environment.


Colo continually looks to diversify its areas of involvement in the industry, servicing varied market segments and so avoid becoming focused on a single service or limited in scope to a particular industry.

The company’s growth plans remain open to consideration, and may include the acquisition of anything from small mom-and-pop shops all the way up to the formalized companies. Each business unit of the company is its own profit center, so that, although some may be up while others are down, together they continue to constitute a strongly diversified portfolio.

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