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.

New Mexico Rail Runner Train Routes

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.

Ridership falling

The New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) and another public entity, the Rio Metro Regional Transit District (Rio Metro), oversee Rail Runner’s operation.

Ridership numbers for the passenger rail service provided by NMDOT and Rio Metro through the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) show a passenger rail service in steady decline from a peak of 1,239,805 passengers in 2010. Since 2011, ridership has dropped every year from it’s peak of 1.23 million passengers to roughly 811,000 in 2017. This year ridership is expected is on pace to be lower still as the line has seen only 306.2k passengers tickets punched through May of this year.

And the Rail Runner operates at a deficit – a big one. A private contractor, Herzog Transit Services Inc., handles the maintenance of the Rail Runner line and equipment at a cost of $17.5 million annually. Figuring in the Herzog contract, it costs about $26 million a year to operate Rail Runner. And last year only about $2.15 million was collected from train fares, all according to figures provided by Augusta Meyers, communications manager for MRCOG.

Meyers says MRCOG has learned after years of operation that Rail Runner ridership depends on two key factors. “We have now had an opportunity to see more clearly how things like the economy and gas prices affect day-to-day service. This is especially apparent in an area like central New Mexico where we don’t have the kind of congestion that forces people to use public transportation.

“When gas prices surpass $2.70 … a gallon, we notice a definite increase in ridership – even as much as 30-percent in some cases,” she says. “Likewise, when they drop to somewhere around the two-dollar mark, we notice that people tend to stay in their vehicles rather than opt for the train.”

A large portion of Rail Runner commuters are those who travel on weekdays – people who work at state jobs and need to get to Santa Fe.

“However, a few years ago with the downturn in the economy, we saw a reduction in state positions, and that too affected ridership numbers,” Meyers says.

But Meyers steadfastly defends the commuter train that is running in the red. “Overall, the Rail Runner serves a vital need within our population – not only offering a convenient and affordable mode of transportation, but also giving people choices when it comes to their daily commute,” she says.

The Santa Fe Station. (Stock / Adobe)

‘Upside-down deal’

New Mexico state Sen. Pat Woods says the Rail Runner is “not a moneymaker” because the plummeting ridership does not justify the cost.

“It’s an upside-down deal that’s costing us to hell… We would all love a new mode of transit that people could use,” the senator says referring to the Rail Runner, “but our ridership is so low that we can’t make it affordable.”

Woods serves on the Senate Corporations & Transportation Committee in the New Mexico Legislature. He adds that he heard from a NMDOT official that the cost of a $6 passenger train ticket would have to be raised to $60 for the Rail Runner to break even. Furthermore, Woods says his state will resort to selling bonds to make a $200 million balloon payment on the Rail Runner’s initial construction costs incurred more than a decade ago. “New Mexico has too much open space to support a commuter rail service,” he says. “It’s hard to have a commuter train when you don’t have anyone riding.”

To improve ridership, Woods is calling for a study that would look into train schedules so that employers won’t have to worry about their employees showing up late for work – two hours late in at least once case – and so that employees would not have to wait a half hour or longer for a train to take them home. “We’ve got to make up our minds whether we want to run the train only for tourists, which could run anytime,” or one that would benefit residents using the train to go to and from work, he says.

Woods adds one saving grace for Rail Runner: that gas prices are on the rise and that should help improve ridership.

A need for speed

But gas prices would have to reach $3.50 to $4 a gallon for the Rail Runner to see an uptick in ridership, says another New Mexico state legislator, Sen. Clemente Sanchez, who chairs the Corporations & Transportation Committee.

“Its future is up in the air,” Sanchez says referring to the Rail Runner. “Complaints [from the public] are that it’s too slow; it makes too many stops [There are 16 along the Rail Runner route.]; and not enough public transportation” from the Rail Runner stops to places people want to go.

Sanchez urges Colorado officials planning the Front Range Passenger Rail to “study it carefully.”

The New Mexico Rail Runner on La Bajada Hill, near Santa Fe, New Mexico (Jerry Huddleston | Wikicommons)

“You would need something like a bullet train or something that is a heck of a lot quicker than driving. It doesn’t make sense to spend two hours on a train to go somewhere when it only takes 15 minutes by car,” he adds. Incidentally, a Rail Runner train travels at an operating speed of 79 mph.
What might address the speed issue but also change the front range rail project completely is the proposed Rocky Mountain Hyperloop. The hyperloop project would run from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Pueblo, Colorado and deliver passengers at a fraction of the time of conventional rail. The experimental project is in its earlier phases and its far from being a certainty with an estimated price tag in the billions for the futuristic project.

Sanchez says that the Rail Runner has been a big investment for New Mexico that’s “hard to turn off right now because some people do use it.”
As to what might happen to Rail Runner in the future, Sanchez states, “We can sell it to a private company, but who would buy it with ridership so low? We could put it into mothballs.”

The only good thing Sanchez could say about Rail Runner is that the passenger train is great for tourists who arrive at the Albuquerque airport and want to see Santa Fe. But, he adds, a tourist train is hardly worth the state’s investment.

Cautionary tale

Colorado’s Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission might look upon the story of New Mexico Rail Runner Express as a cautionary tale. On May 31, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law a transportation bill that has dedicated $8.7 million to Phase I of Colorado’s Front Range Passenger Rail project. The first phase, to be completed 2½ years from now, includes determining station locations, defining mobility needs, preferred alignment and routes, and service operating characteristics including time of service, speeds, and spacing.

For the passenger rail commission the lessons of New Mexico Rail Runner the challenge will remain to convince the public they will be able to avoid the problems of the Rail Runner before the state invests millions into the project. Public hearings will be a part of Phase I, and members of the public are expected to let commission members know what their rail transportation needs are or whether a passenger train between Trinidad and Fort Collins should be considered at all.

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