Cautionary Approach – New Mexico’s rail woes are a lesson for Colorado’s front range rail
To gauge the potential of Colorado’s planned north-south Front Range Passenger Rail between Trinidad and Fort Collins, perhaps it might help to look at another north-south passenger train system which has been operating in New Mexico for about a decade now.
The New Mexico Rail Runner Express (the moniker is a play on the name of the state bird, the roadrunner) is a double-decker, north-south passenger rail system that runs between the town of Belen, N.M., which is south of the state’s largest city, Albuquerque and New Mexico’s capital city, Santa Fe.
Each Rail Runner train is powered by one locomotive which always faces south and operates in reverse when going north in what is called a push-pull configuration.
The two-phase (Phase II was completed in December 2008) Rail Runner system cost $385 million to build. By comparison, full environment clearance alone (Phase III) for Colorado’s proposed five-phase Front Range Passenger Rail could cost up to $300 million. The construction cost for the Front Range project has not been determined.
One might consider that the Rail Runner is the yet-to-be-built Front Range Passenger Rail in microcosm. The Rail Runner’s track distance from beginning to end is only 96 miles compared with the roughly 260 miles of track needed for the proposed Front Range Passenger Rail. And the two largest population centers on the Rail Runner’s route (the Albuquerque metropolitan area and Santa Fe) just total about 987,000 people, whereas the four largest population centers that are planned to be served by the Front Range Passenger Rail (the Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas, and Fort Collins and Pueblo) have a total population of roughly 3.7 million people.
The New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) and another public entity, the Rio Metro Regional Transit District (Rio Metro), oversee Rail Runner’s operation.