Railways 101

Member Profile | Gio Rail Holdings

Growing up, Neil Johnson had family in the rail business. Now, he’s putting a rail company owned by his professional mentor on the fast track for growth. Gio Rail Holdings is owned by Gerald (Gerry) Gionet. Gerry first hired Neil as a conductor in 2004, when Gerry was a regional manager for CP in Southwestern Ontario. Neil says he “learned so much” from Gerry, and by 2013 he too moved into the management ranks at CP.

When Gerry ‘retired’ from CP, he wasn’t done working. He purchased the Trillium Railway Company, and in 2020 he asked Neil to join as Vice-President.

“It was a calculated risk,” Neil recalls. “Did I fully know what I was getting into? No. But I had a good feeling that something special was about to happen. And it is.”

That something special, in a word, is growth.

Neil leads business development, and Gio Rail is on a tear. The company has three subsidiaries. Revenues tripled in three years, and from 2019 to 2020 carloads increased from 3,920 to 5,283.

“The Niagara region’s economy is booming,” says Neil about Gio’s geographic foothold. “We have the perfect recipe. People want to get out of the GTA sprawl, and we have highways, waterways, border proximity, and – of course – rail.”

Neil has positioned shortlines as economic growth contributors to regional committees in charge of economic development. They’ve leveraged existing client relationships, and then “pounded the pavement and knocked on doors to pursue every opportunity.”

“Shortlines have a little bit lower overhead (than other rail companies), so our cost structure is more competitive for first mile/last mile,” Neil says. “We can also be more agile and ramp up or down based on customer needs and seasonality.”

Gio Rail’s 22 employees operate on a streamlined, 7-day-per-week schedule to activate a business model grounded in 30 customers needing 10 cars each week, rather than three customers needing 100 cars. That, says Neil, has helped Gio Rail thrive through the pandemic and the supply chain disruptions it has wrought.

Among the diversified growth options the company is exploring in Canada and the U.S., Gio Rail is close to leasing a CN-abandoned line from Tilsonburg to St. Thomas that’s “in really good shape,” and will help local agricultural and biofuel customers get their goods to market further afield.

Says Neil: “We are on a steep trajectory to grow. There’s no other option.”

He makes clear that growth will be targeted to customers’ trends, needs, and behaviours – while staying true to the company’s vision of being an entity that people inside and outside the company can be proud of.

“We’re about growth, partnerships, team, and family, and we are passionate about adding value in the communities we serve.”