T-Rail’s Lisa Tuningley on rebranding Canada’s railroad industry

Plus, the railroader extraordinaire on being one of the guys and feeling “gratitude every now and then”

It quickly comes down to basics when Lisa Tuningley starts talking about women breaking into traditionally macho industries.

The T-Rail Products Inc. president, who has spent more than two decades as a supplier to the railway industry, is recalling her first time on the tracks and how she felt somewhat affronted when “the guys” were not including her in a meeting.


1. “For sitting up at the bar and seeing the action, it’s got to be Rodney’s Oyster House (52 Powell Street, Vancouver)–so entertaining.”

2. “I love the Seahorse Grill (12147 Sullivan Street, Surrey)–the chef there just loves to create unscripted menus.”

3.East is East (4433 Main Street, Vancouver) has great chai tea and ambience–it’s a unique place to take business folk.”

“I told them I could handle anything, but one said, ‘Well, this is embarrassing, but we’ve never had a woman on the track before—we’re just trying to figure out how you’re going to go to the washroom,’” she says. “They were going to pull a porta-potty along for me—how embarrassing would that have been?”

The 42-year-old Surrey resident had assumed that today’s railroader would look much like her. After starting in sales in 1993 at B.C.-based trackwork manufacturer VAE Nortrak Ltd. (which her father jointly owned with Austria’s Voest-Alpine Eisenbahn)—and continuing as vice president after he sold complete ownership in 2006 (when VAE Nortrak became Voestalpine Nortrak Inc.)—Tuningley has long emphasized the need to shake off the stereotypical image of engineer’s cap and blue-and-white striped coveralls.

“It’s all about believing it’s a fair playing field—so if you see a wall, it’s because you’ve built a wall,” she says. “It’s just been different in the past, that’s all. The world is far more open today. You’re allowed to be authentic and wear ruffles if that’s what you like.”

She thinks, however, that industrial behemoths all need to continue to work hard rebranding their working environs. They may not have the same glamour as, say, B.C.’s film industry, but perceptions need to be shifted in “these things that are essential to our economy, for its vitality now and in the future.” Women, she asserts over mushroom-coconut soup and pad Thai at Kitsilano’s Maenam restaurant, “certainly don’t want to walk into a workplace that’s got some poster of a naked chick up on a wall.”

When it comes to the tracks, Tuningley is at the vanguard of that reinvention. After founding her company in 2010, she scooped the EY Emerging Entrepreneur award last year and was a finalist for 2013’s Deloitte Start-Up Award at the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards—recognized for her success at developing a business approach less about the nostalgic golden spike and more about how trains will build the nation in the future. Today T-Rail—headquartered in Surrey with offices in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto—has 12 employees and annual revenues of more than $15 million.

“It’s definitely about thinking of it as the bullet train, not the steam train,” says the single mother of a teenage son, quoting statistics including how 70 per cent of surface goods hauled in Canada are transported by rail. “I don’t want the railway to be known as tracks and trains. I want people to think of it as how we move our goods—it’s simply the energy of facilitation.”

Outside of work, Tuningley stays in motion either via skiing in Whistler or stand-up paddleboarding in White Rock and Haida Gwaii, which is where she also set up Escott Sportfishing lodge in 2005 with her former husband, a sport-fishing expert.

Interestingly, in between a few philosophical bon mots of Carl Jung and Deepak Chopra, Tuningley references the Haida Nation’s appreciation of nature as a way to balance her own life—a thoughtfulness that has her turning up with flowers both for our server and me. (None of us have met before.) “Everyone needs to feel gratitude every now and then,” she proclaims.