Is the Rail Runner worth It?

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By The Staff




Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Gov. Bill Richardson's most noticeable big spending initiative has been the Rail Runner train, which now extends from Belen to Santa Fe.

Over $400 million has been expended on the project thus far but that's chicken feed compared to his dream of extending the line from Las Cruces to Raton. He's even talked about his vision of a line from El Paso to Denver.

Somehow I never really caught the train bug. They've been a thing of the past to me. Passenger air travel became the rage in the late 1940s. Ten years later, the Interstate highway system made long distance car travel much faster and easier.

Short haul rail transportation in large metropolitan areas remained popular but otherwise many rail lines started going broke. So why are we now thinking that it's such a good deal in the spread out West?

I've ridden the rails between Albuquerque and El Paso a few times over the decades. I enjoyed passing through the bosques along the Rio Grande but the trains were never very full and passenger service declined to a halt.

So now the state wants to spend a huge amount of our money starting it up again? Personally I'd rather bet on the spaceport

I guess it is other considerations that have brought railroads back. Less highway construction and maintenance. Less pollution. Less traffic congestion. Less worry about rising gasoline prices. And the governor tells us there is an economic benefit.

For all those reasons, I surmise, ridership on the Rail Runner is reported to be good and increasing despite the trip from Santa Fe to Albuquerque taking an hour and a half rather than an hour by car. 

Rapid rail it isn't. Europe and Asia have figured out how to go 200 miles an hour but we're stuck at about 59, while passengers watch cars outrun them on I-25.

The main reason for the train seems to be getting state workers to and from their jobs in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The first trains begin arriving in both cities at 7:30 a.m. Many are scheduled again around quitting time.

The Rail Runner is popular. Many state employees buy monthly passes. A little of the shine has worn off because of the extra time for a normal run and further delays for malfunctioning crossing bars and livestock on the track.

We are told the malfunctions are decreasing as bugs are worked out and that the railroad is building fences to keep out the livestock. Trains have killed seven so far.

Other than good schedules for 8-5ers, other riders have problems. Early morning workers who have to report before eight have no train. There are large gaps at midday. And those who would like to go to Albuquerque for a game or concert are also out of luck. So are airline passengers with early or late planes.

The problem is that the neighborhood meetings during the planning process ended up requiring officials to promise not to run the trains during normal sleeping hours.

Another indication the Rail Runner is meant for getting state employees to and from work is that no service was originally planned for Saturdays and Sundays. But some Saturday trial runs while the train was being promoted worked out so well that Saturday service is now offered and Sundays are being considered.

The question remains as to whether $400 million to benefit people living along 90 miles of the Rio Grande is a good expenditure for New Mexico.  Granted, three of the largest cities in the state are in the corridor. Las Cruces would be the fourth if the Rail Runner ever is extended that far.

The train never is expected to make money. Passenger fares will be subsidized by a gross receipts tax in communities served beginning this summer. Annual operating costs are estimated at around $20 million.