Success and growth have come blazingly fast at the Corman Railroad Group, a diverse railroad services organization headquartered in Nicholasville, Ky.
Starting in 1973 with a backhoe and an undeniable force of personality, Richard J. “Rick” Corman laid the foundation for a family of companies that now employ more than 1,600 people. Even economic slowdowns seem not to slow the rise of the RJ Corman Companies — in the last five years alone, they have nearly doubled their payroll.
Along the way, versatilty, quality and reliability have become trademark traits of Corman operations, which include railroad construction and rehabilitation services, emergency response, rail-related material sales, signaling, switching and railroad worker training.
“Our people,” says Casey Heath, Vice President of Staff and Purchasing, when asked to identify the key components for the remarkable growth of the Corman companies. “There is an entrepreneurial spirit here that is the legacy of our founder, and it really encourages imagination and innovation.
“Diversification is also a key,” he adds. “Instead of focusing on just one part of the rail industry, Mr. Corman went after the whole thing.”
As Corman identified and targeted the niche markets within the rail industry — many of which larger rail companies were unable or unwilling to efficiently address themselves — that he could profitably service, so grew his fleet of trucks. Now including more than 500 power units, Class 7 and 8 purchases have been almost exclusively Peterbilt since 2006.
Over the past five years, the fleet has taken on a vastly different appearance; understanding why requires some insight into the company founder himself.
Rick Corman was an industrialist, an entrepreneur, and “the most unforgettable character I’ve ever met,” according to a Fortune Magazine reporter who once chronicled Corman’s story, which sadly ended when he died from multiple myeloma in 2013 after an inspirational 12-year battle. A farmboy who barely finished high school, he had built the company from scratch, starting as a teenager with a backhoe and a dump truck.
In fact, the young man’s skills with a backhoe had become the stuff of legend. He developed a method of unloading railroad ties that saved time and enhanced worker safety. He also won a $1,000 bet that saw him deftly use the bucket, front loader and stabilizer arms of his backhoe to maneuver the entire machine from ground level to the top of a railroad car, essentially climbing it.
“There is an entrepreneurial spirit here that is the legacy of our founder, and it really encourages imagination and innovation.” – Casey Heath, VP of Staff and Purchasing
If these feats were symbolic of Corman’s spirit, they were also representative of his keen eye for innovation. If there were another quality that would eventually drive his company, motivate its employees and shape its fleet, it was this.
“Mr. Corman valued loyalty,” says Heath. “If a supplier had earned loyalty, Mr. Corman stuck with them. Peterbilt has always worked well with us, and Rick was always loyal and faithful to the people who were true partners.”
Thus, Corman’s relationship with Peterbilt first materialized in 1998 after a previous supplier left the heavy-duty trucking market. A 2006 purchase of about 70 vocational trucks characterized the organization’s approach to fleet development during that period. The trucks, all Peterbilt Model 367s, were each similarly spec’ed for heavy-duty.
The trucks were reliable and steady performers. But the Corman team of shop technicians, much like the founder of their company, began to look for more efficient, task-specific ways to perform the wide variety of services required of their equipment. Heath also gathered input from field personnel and drivers, essentially “wish lists” of capabilities that their one-size-fits-all equipment wasn’t quite perfectly suited to perform.
Soon Corman’s team was in regular communication with their local dealership and Peterbilt engineers, all of whom were busy looking for ways to implement the new, custom solutions that the Corman team had in mind.
What has emerged is a highly specialized fleet that now, according to Heath, includes “more than a dozen” spec-model combinations to perform the unique tasks that have put the Corman Companies among the nation’s leading railroad service providers.
One example of their fleet specialization can be found in their Model 567 grapple trucks, fitted with rail apparatus and featuring self-loading and unloading capabilities and a bed that can carry 20,000 lbs. Operators in the grapple’s “crow’s nest” typically would have to return to the cab to advance the truck just a few feet to continue working down a rail line. But a self-propelling feature and an additional rail gear, “wish-listed” by operators and made reality by Corman shop engineers, have made it possible to advance the truck from the crow’s nest.
Other modifications, developed in collaboration between Corman and Peterbilt engineers, have improved operational efficiency as well. For example, an aluminum hydraulic tank has replaced a steel tank, thus reducing weight and improving carrying capacity. Adjusted frame rail spacing helped make it possible to move the rail gear from off the front axle to behind the cab, thus lengthening the bed and creating space for a fourth axle that further increases hauling capacity.
Medium-duty trucks also get a workout in the Corman lineup. Model 337s are equipped as jobsite service and maintenance trucks, a virtual shop on wheels, built out to 33,000 lbs. with a variety of tools and compressors. The trucks are built heavy, in part because they spend most of their time off road.
“They work the ballast line,” says Heath, identifying the area of rock and riprap often beside a railroad track. “So it’s not just off-road, but it’s off-road at an angle. We had been using a truck that couldn’t handle it, but this chassis has been fabulous under that workload.”
Additionally, Model 365s and Model 367s are equipped with a rotating dump box, allowing the vehicle to ride the rails and dump its load to either side of the track. Corman engineers, body outfitters and Peterbilt engineers all played roles in specifying an air-ride suspension that provided desirable spring-like performance for the truck on the track as well as a comfortable highway ride.
“We are not an easy customer,” says Heath. “When you change specs and drive innovation like we do, you don’t always get it right the first time. There will be more changes ahead.
“But our techs are on a first-name basis with several engineers at Peterbilt, and on a first-name basis with everybody at the dealership. They really took the time to learn our business and offer different suggestions as we came to them with ideas. With as many different needs as we have, the ability to just call them is so important.”