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Susan Pantell With Light Rail Now Project Team · June 2009
Albuquerque — On 17 December 2008 the Rail Runner Express regional passenger
rail (RPR) transit service in New Mexico took a huge leap forward when service was extended to Santa Fe.
Originally opened in July 2006, the rail transit system now runs a total of 93 miles (150 km) from
Belen north through Albuquerque and Bernalillo to Santa Fe.
(See map below.)
With thousands of daily passenger-trips now being attracted, the RPR system's success has stimulated interest in expanding the line southeast to Las Cruces and even El Paso, and north toward Colorado.
Joining about 800 local, state and tribal officials for a December 15th inaugural ride on the Santa Fe extension, Governor Bill Richardson extolled the system's potential:
Two new Santa Fe stations opened the South Capitol Station at the State Government Complex north of Alta Vista Street, and the Santa Fe Depot at the Railyard north of Paseo de Peralta. There are a total of ten stations on the Rail Runner route. Two additional stations in Santa Fe, one at a private development at Zia Road and St. Francis Drive, and one in southern Santa Fe at I-25 and N.M. 599, are scheduled to open in the future. A third new station, at Sandia Pueblo, south of Santa Fe, is also planned.
The train service has five diesel-electric locomotives (MP36PH-3C's) built by Motive Power, and the coaches are bi-levels built by Bombardier. Trains run in push-pull configuration at speeds of up to 79 mph in rural areas and 35 mph in the cities. Each car seats 140 people, with standing room for an additional 60. The trains are elaborately painted with their namesake, the roadrunner, the New Mexico state bird. And – in harmony with the avian theme – the door closing tones resemble the Road Runner cartoon character's signature "beep-beep".
Rail Runner's train service has generally been quite successful, despite low motor fuel prices since the opening. Projections forecast ridership of nearly 4,500 weekday passenger-trips between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. During the first week of service between the two cities, there were more than 33,000 passengers, and on the first Saturday of service to Santa Fe, there were nearly 12,000 passengers. The following week, weekday average ridership was about 4,300. [The New Mexican, 29 Dec. 2008, and New Mexico Business Weekly, 30 Dec. 2008]
On June 3rd, Rail Runner Express recorded its 2 millionth passenger, and Rail Runner officials are touting the operation as the fastest commuter-rail start-up in the past 20 years, currently meeting ridership projections in carrying an average of 4,500 passenger-trips daily between Santa Fe and Belen. [Progressive Railroading, 4 June 2009]
The corridor between Belen and Bernalillo has an average ridership of 3,000 passenger-trips daily (mostly commuter trips). [http://www.mrcog-nm.gov]
Crowd of passengers in Santa Fe are eager to board arriving Rail Runner train on March
The Mid-Regional Council of Governments (MRCOG), which runs the trains, provided free service on the weekends through January 4th, and all trains ran free for Santa Fe County residents until 17 March 2009. The trains were intended primarily as a commuter service, and although Saturday service was provided for the opening, MRCOG did not intend to continue it. However, as a result of the success of the trains and strong public interest in weekend service, the agency approved regular Saturday service. [The New Mexican, 7 Jan. 2009]
The Rail Runner is helping Santa Fe businesses by bringing in customers who live in Albuquerque and elsewhere. The owner of the Zia Diner, Beth Draiscol, told the New Mexican, "The impact for us over the holidays has been fantastic. We're getting a lot of families, couples and people with kids up in Santa Fe for the day. It's a wonderful way for parents to spend the day with their kids." [30 Dec. 2008.]
In Albuquerque, a few steps away from the Downtown Rail Runner stop is the Alvarado Transportation Center, where passengers can make connections to take them throughout the city. Thus Rail Runner has significantly expanded the public's mass transit options throughout the region.
Trains run between 04:23 and 23:30 Monday to Friday, and from 06:20 to 00:20 on Saturday. The Rail Runner has a zone-based fare system, with weekday fares ranging from $1 for one zone to $7.00 for six zones or $9.00 for a full-day pass for six zones. Tickets may be purchased on-line (at a discount) or from agents on the platforms and trains.
The trains run on the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway tracks parallel to I-25 from
Bernalillo to La Bajada, where they tunnel under the road and emerge in the median of I-25. The
trains go into another tunnel further north and then travel on the Santa Fe Southern Railroad line.
Project costs for the section between Bernalillo and Santa Fe were estimated at between $240 and $255 million for the purchase of track, construction of new track, design and construction of stations, and purchase of trains. The distance between these two stations is 47 miles (76 km), so the cost is less than $5.5 million per mile. Phase I of the rail project, from Belen to Bernalillo, which opened in 2006, cost $135 million. That section of the project is 46 miles (74 km), so the cost was only under $3.0 million per mile. Funds came from the federal government and state bonds, and $10 million from Sandoval County.
Operating costs for Phase I were between $8 and $12 million, and a federal grant covered that cost for the first three years. [http://www.MassTransitMag.com] Annual operating cost from Belen to Santa Fe will be about $20 million. Completion of the 93-mile project (with a few more stations yet to be finished) took five years.
On 4 November 2008, voters in Bernalillo, Sandoval, and Valencia Counties approved a 1/8 of one percent sales tax for the transportation district, which will take effect on 1 July 2009. It will generate approximately $26 million annually, half of which will go toward operation of the Rail Runner.
Prior to the opening of stations in Santa Fe, Interstate Highway I-25 was the only major connector between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The workday commute trip was becoming increasingly congested, and while today it takes about 75 minutes between the two cities during peak periods, by the year 2025, it is expected to increase to about 114 minutes. The Rail Runner trip between Albuquerque and Santa Fe takes about 90 minutes.
Rail Runner's convenience and success have generated enthusiasm among other, smaller communities adjacent to or near the corridor it serves.
Eager to connect their residents with the new rail service in Santa Fe, officials in the small city of
Taos are launching a nonstop bus shuttle service, Taos Express.
Recently, Rail Runner Express officials released the results of a survey reporting that more than 90% of passengers are satisfied with the commuter rail service. [KVIA-TV News May 12, 2009] This was consistent with the results of an earlier survey of Rail Runner riders in May of 2008, which indicated that 98 percent of passengers were not only pleased with the service, but would highly recommend it to others.
After the opening of the extension to Santa Fe, the state Transportation Secretary, Rhonda Faught,
expressed her enthusiasm: "The public response really demonstrates that people are excited about
being able to take the Rail Runner to Santa Fe.
This is good news for weekday commuters as well as those who simply want to have transportation
to the capital city." [The New Mexican, 29 Dec. 2008]
Plans are in the works to extend the train service to other parts of the state. The state owns tracks and right-of-way between Lamy and Belen and has plans to purchase track from BNSF extending from Lamy to the Colorado state line.
In an interview published May 7th, New Mexico Department of Transportation Secretary Gary Girón told the New Mexico Independent that he believes the state has “set the foundation for public transportation that could be expanded to Las Cruces and other parts of Northern New Mexico in the future.”
By far, one of the more vigorous efforts at expansion is a campaign by New Mexico Democratic Congressman Harry Teague to expand Rail Runner service into southern New Mexico, including his own district, and southeast to Las Cruces and the Texas border city of El Paso.
Teague's Southwestern Transit Corridor Planning and Fuel Use Reduction Act, co-sponsored by Texas Democrat and fellow US Representative Silvestre Reyes, would explore adding transportation options between Las Cruces and El Paso, including a study to extend the Rail Runner south from Belen, the current southernmost point for the Rail Runner, to El Paso, with stops in between.
"Residents of Las Cruces and El Paso deserve a first-rate transit option like commuter rail. This study will determine whether or not that’s feasible" Teague told the New Mexico Independent [2009/05/07].
The prospect of extending Rail Runner service (and its railroad infrastructure) both north and sourth opens up exciting possibilities. In addition to the new opportunities for regional rail passenger travel, there is an inherent potential in such extensions for forging crucial new links for Amtrak intercity rail passenger service.
A northward etension suggests a possible further connection (in Colorado) to Denver – if the state of Colorado can be persuraded to invest in a state rail development program of its own.
The proposed southeasterly extension to El Paso immediately would raise the possibility of a link with Amtrak's Sunset Limited train, enabling Sunset passengers to access key cities such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
And, linked with possible northern extensions, including a cooperative Colorado state-funded project, a totally new El Paso-Denver Amtrak route could become a reality.
Public transportation advocates will be watching these political efforts with keen interest.
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