Story by Katie Mehrer – of local flavor
One enthusiastic Rail Runner rider, settling into her window seat on a blustery Thursday morning, declared, “I’m going to be riding the train all the time now. I can see my family in Albuquerque, it s going to keep me out of the casinos. Thank God. I need a life.” We all have our reasons for riding the train.
“We’ve lived here all our lives,” says Susan Meadows of Nambe, “And we’ve been complaining about the lack of public transportation since high school! We really needed this!” Meadows and her companion, Paul Johnson, are delighted to be taking a pleasant, scenic ride to downtown Albuquerque, where a bus will ferry them to the Albuquerque International Sunport. No long-term parking; no tiring drive.
“I used to live here, but now I live in Texas,” states another rider. “If only we could have something like this in the Houston-Galveston corridor. . . I think New Mexico is so progressive and wise!” she exclaims, fully aware that such a sentence may have actually never been uttered before die Rail Runner. She admits that since she is now a tourist, she can see how the money she spends in New Mexico is being distributed differently than it would have been without the ease of train travel.
These and many more riders are seeing plenty of benefit to the Rail Runner’s 100 miles of track and nine daily trips from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, many of which continue all the way to Belen.
Traveling 79 mph and boasting nine locomotives, New Mexico’s Rail Runner project cost taxpayers $400 million and was completed within five years. How do these facts stack up against other commuter rail projects? The Utah Transportation Authority (UTA) is building a similar 100 miles of commuter rail lines. Its cost will be $1.6 billion, and when finished, it will have taken 17 years to complete. So how did New Mexico’s project beat Utah’s so handily in price and speed of construction? It all had to do with Governor Richardson’s steady championing of the work; consistency in pushing funding through the legislature; and willingness to discuss matters with those, such as highway contractors, who see the railroad as taking government money away from their own projects. Part of his work was also to convince those legislators whose districts do not directly benefit from the project that they would eventually see many indirect benefits, such as increased tourism throughout the state, now that tourists can easily use both Albuquerque and Santa Fe as hubs for daytrips to other parts of New Mexico.
The Rail Runner has become the fastest start-up of a commuter rail train in the country in the past 20 years. Says the projects Executive Director, Lawrence Rael, “Every major project such as this needs a champion, and Governor Richardson is the champion of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. The Governor provided the most important piece of the project, which was the work it took to garner the support of key legislators and funding.” Although Rael states that there are no immediate plans to extend Rail Runner service, he adds, “That doesn’t mean we won’t see service extended in the future…be it directly or through expanding connections to get people connected with the train. A lot depends on the leadership of state and local officials.”
In the past, Governor Richardson has stated his belief that an ideal Rail Runner route would connect from El Paso, Texas, all the way to Denver, Colorado, but plans for these improvements are years away. While nobody is willing to make promises about extensions of the rail service, the state does own tracks all the way to Raton, near the Colorado border.
When Governor Richardson gave his December 15th speech on the occasion of the Rail Runner’s first Santa Fe run, he stated, “During these tough economic times, the Rail Runner Express will provide thousands of commuters a much-needed savings while offering them a safe, viable, and efficient transportation alternative.” Many Santa Feans are in agreement. Government workers and employees of midsized businesses with branches in both cities enjoy not only the work-home commute, but also the opportunity to attend meetings in Albuquerque via train. Students and would-be students are also now seeing Albuquerque, and its advancement opportunities, as much more accessible to residents of Santa Fe and its outlying communities.
“I think it has potential to bring something to the economy, especially if we can figure out a way to move people from these stations out to other recreational areas, like, to the ski area and to mountain hiking trails. Once, the Zia station is ready, I think our company, Eye Associates, will use it more. Our main branch is down there (in Albuquerque), and our doctors and clinical staff go down there almost daily,” stated rider Diane Loftus.
“I work for the state and we go down several times a week. I’m a Blackberry maniac, and I have a laptop, so I probably get more done (on the train) than I would at my desk!” enthused state employee Laura Mulry. On the Rail Runner, many seats are equipped with small table’s ideal for laptop computers and the train is soon expected to offer free Wi-Fi. This would be fitting, as twelve of Albuquerque’s Rapid Ride busses and the Albuquerque International Sunport already provide this service to ease commute and wait times.
“I live in Tesuque Pueblo. I’m going to be coming in six days a week,” remarked Tunte Eaton, who spent the entire ride hard at work on her laptop. “I’m in the law school program at UNM, so I think it’s going to help me a lot because, before, a lot of time was spent on the road. I have my family there (in Tesuque Pueblo). Two little girls, and I want them to grow up on the Pueblo, not in Albuquerque.”
But nothing in New Mexico can exist without controversy, and indeed nay-sayers have poo-pooed the project all over internet chat rooms, saying that it will only benefit government workers and that ridership will soon drop off as people realize they don’t want to be in Albuquerque without their vehicles. Indeed, one Rail Runner rider on a recent trip noted that although she enjoyed the convenience of rail travel, she was very apprehensive about the resulting traffic congestion. And Ms. Eaton, of Tesuque Pueblo, mentioned that although the train serves her needs well, many more in her community attend the night classes at University of Phoenix, and the Rail Runner does not run late enough to serve them.
Not all of the Rail Runnel’s shortcomings can be solved right away. There surely will be growing pains and compromises, but your intrepid reporter decided to answer one of these lingering questions once and for all: is public transportation in Albuquerque good enough that one can take the train down from Santa Fe and efficiently do various errands around town by taking busses?
I put the system to the test. Armed only with the ABQ-Ride customer service number (505-768-2000), a cell phone, a list of errands to run, a total ignorance of Albuquerque geography, and the knowledge that I hadn’t ridden a bus since I was overseas in 2004, I hopped the train. Arriving at the “downtown station” (also confusingly known as the “Alvarado Station” and the “ATC”) I called the number and immediately received a helpful human reply. The operator told me exactly what Rapid Ride bus to catch, where to catch it, and when it would arrive.
At one stop, while waiting for a man with excessive baggage to count five dimes and ten nickels, one by one, into the fare box, I actually witnessed a medi-vac helicopter land on the lawn at Presbyterian Hospital. Cool! After a little shopping in Nob Hill, I called the ABQ-Ride number again and received further instructions for public transport to my next destination. I had to transfer busses, but while waiting for the second bus I noticed the funeral home across the street was advertising its discounted cremation rates on a hand-lettered, light-up sign. How often do you stop long enough to see a detail like that?
After a few more errands and a few more busses, I landed back at the downtown train station with a good fifty minutes to spare before the next train north. A pleasant drink and a chat with the bartender in the establishment across the street helped to fill the time, and soon I was comfortably ensconced in an uncrowded, well-lit train car, headed home. Between the cut-rate crematorium, the whirlybird, the leisure to have a mojito in the middle of the afternoon, and the fact that ABQ-Ride never once asked to put me on hold, I was sold on the train-to-bus connection. It does take a little longer than driving, but it costs less and is so much more relaxing.
Originally from Philadelphia, I found my thoughts echoing the sentiment of traveler Gene Mederos, of New York City. He confided, “If only there were more tunnels … it would feel like home.”
To plan your Rail Runner trip, go to their excellent website, www.nmrailrunner.com