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Three-mile-long trains may (someday) enhance New Mexico train world

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By Harold Morgan

Here’s a challenge. Visualize three miles of anything as one single thing. It’s hard. Runners, for example, commonly cover more than three miles but are conscious only of the much smaller area that is visible. The question arises because of a recent report that railroads are thinking about running trains three miles long.
What would a three-mile-long train be, besides really, really long?

On Interstate 25 there is a rest stop north of Lemitar. North of the rest stop, a sign says, “Rest Stop Three Miles.”

This is the Walking Sands rest area at mile marker 167, which stands out among the state’s rest areas for its distinctive wood structures. A sand dune area used to be located immediately west of the area, but the dunes seem to have walked away.

Imagine a single train covering the distance from Walking Sands back to the sign. Such a train might have as many as 200 cars, many carrying two shipping containers. And locomotives at both ends. It might need five minutes to pass a given point.

Other than Rail Runner, which sports colorful paint and is visible because it takes passengers through Albuquerque and Santa Fe, railroads get little attention in the state. Our tale here omits Amtrak, which has separate issues. Do remember, though, that about 4,400 Boy Scouts ride Amtrak to Raton for their time at the Philmont Scout Ranch. Out of sight, out of mind.

Two of what are called Class I railroads cross the state: the Union Pacific Corporation (UP.com) and the BNSF Railway Company (BNSF.com). BNSF is North America’s largest freight rail network. UP is second.

Company fact sheets indicate the New Mexico impact.

UP operates 618 miles of track. One segment runs along Interstate 10 from Arizona to El Paso. The other angles from El Paso to Santa Rosa, Tucumcari and the Texas Panhandle. UP’s 485 New Mexico employees were paid $46.6 million in 2017.

The UP’s New Mexico jewel is the 2,200-acre intermodal ramp and refueling station a few miles from Santa Teresa. The $470 million facility opened in 2014. It has, UP says, become a catalyst for additional economic development, including warehouses, trucking and logistical distribution centers. The facility is 11.5 miles long (visualize that!), a mile wide, with 100 miles of rail sitting on 136,000 ties and 218,000 tons of concrete used in construction.

At this time, UP has no plans for three-mile-long trains, Jeff DeGraff, UP director of corporate relations and media, said in an email.

BNSF paid its 1,389 New Mexico employees $119.7 million in 2017. The company owns 1,125 route miles of track and has trackage rights for another 515 miles. That track runs along I-40 in the western third of the state and then drops south to go through Belen and along U.S. 60 to Clovis.  BNSF also runs along I-25 from El Paso to Raton, skipping Santa Fe for a digression through Lamy.

BNSF has rail yards in Albuquerque, Belen, Gallup and Clovis.

Interstate 40 in the Grants-Gallup area offers continuous wonderful trains viewing. The road is above the track. The route is busy with 92 trains per day, BNSF said, that average 8,000 feet long. BNSF has tested longer trains on the route.

Train viewing will gain with the (planned) 2019 reopening of the 40-room La Castañeda hotel, just off the tracks in Las Vegas. The 1,400-acre Central New Mexico Rail Park, now under construction in Los Lunas, is another addition to our rail world anticipated for 2019.

Trains are glorious. They also move much stuff – coal, grain, lumber, cars, asphalt and steel – and provide New Mexicans jobs and a way of life.