Neil Keirn living his dream as engineer of Falls Road Railroad in Orleans County

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 1 July 2023 at 8:54 am

Neil Keirn, engineer on the Falls Road Railroad which goes through Orleans County, was photographed on television during a feature on Wednesday by WKBW-TV’s feature reporter Mike Randall.

Becoming an engineer was the dream of a lifetime for Neil Keirn of Middleport.

And knowing the impact of the railroad on industry in Orleans, Niagara and Monroe counties makes the job even more meaningful.

Keirn and the railroad were featured by Mike Randall on WKBW-TV’s Channel 7 on Wednesday.

Keirn is a lifelong Middleport resident who grew up near the railroad and dreamed all his life of becoming an engineer. He watched the trains go by his house, and as he got older began to wonder where they were going and where they had come from. He would go watch the engine switch cars for businesses in his home town, and sometimes he was allowed to ride on the engine.

When he married Medina native, the former Roberta Blount, they bought a home in Middleport close to the railroad. There was an old garage on the property, which Keirn tore down and replaced with a 24’ by 30’ building. The bottom was his shop and the second floor became home to his extensive model train layout.

Keirn had jobs delivering coal for 20 years, then drove truck for Shelby Crushed Stone for five years and put in three years at Home Depot.

He was in his mid 40s when family and friends convinced him he should pursue his dream of becoming an engineer.

“I enjoyed all my jobs and did my best at them, but being an engineer is what I always wanted to do,” Keirn said.

When the late Matt Wronski, general manager of the Falls Road Railroad, asked Keirn if he’d like to go to work for the railroad, he jumped at the chance. Wronski was engineer when the railroad learned the ethanol plant was coming to Medina and they knew they would need more help.

Neil Keirn engineers the train going through Orleans County on Wednesday, while Mike Randall, WKBW TV’s feature reporter, blows the whistle at a crossing. The image was taken from television.

Keirn studied all the manuals, learning air brake and train handling rules.

“When I started actual training, they were surprised at how much I already knew,” Keirn said.

His first day as a trainee on the railroad was Jan. 17, 2007. By March 2, he was promoted to conductor, followed by promotion to student engineer on April 9. On May 11, he became engineer.

“This is what I always wanted to do,” Keirn said.

The Falls Road Railroad is one of five owned by David Monte Verde of Rochester,  president; Mike Thomas and John Herbrand. David’s son Charlie oversees operations with Dan Finucane, who is director of operations; Genesee Valley Transportation in Batavia is the parent company, whose other holdings are Depew and Western in Lancaster; the Mohawk, Adirondack and Northern in Utica; and Delaware and Lackawanna in Scranton, Pa. Scranton is the largest and busiest operation, running six to seven days a week on 90 miles of trackage.

Locally, the railroads provide a tremendous benefit to industries, particularly the agricultural industry. The Falls Road Railroad runs two days a week from Lockport to Brockport, serving Rhinehart’s in Middleport, Millennium Roads in Lyndonville, the Western New York Energy’s ethanol plant and Helena Chemical in Medina, Growmark in Knowlesville and Nutrien AG Solutions in Fancher. In Brockport, customers are Bonduelle and Lineage Logistics, located in the former Owens-Illinois glass factory. Three of Owens-Illinois’ customers get rail cars from Falls Road.

At least half a dozen industries are served by GVT in Batavia, in addition to six more customers that transload at GVT’s warehouse in Batavia.

While the working trains are his regular job, Keirn also enjoys engineering excursion trains for the Medina Railroad Museum. This includes an Easter train, Day Out with Thomas, fall foliage trains and Polar Express.

“I practice how smooth I can operate on the excursion trains,” Keirn said. “My goal is to brake smoothly so passengers don’t realize they’ve come to a stop and start slowly so they don’t realize they are moving. I take pride in that.”

Keirn’s final goal is retirement, and he has tentatively set that date for a year and a half, when he will be 67.