Wile E. transit planners
The Railrunner is thoroughly branded, from the unmistakable paint job down to the sound of its doors, which close with a familiar “Meep-Meep.” But what really draws the passengers are conveniently located stations, like South Capitol (velow), alongside a state government complex. All of the major job concentrations in Santa Fe within walking distance of commuter rail.
Albuquerque-Santa Fe-Las Vegas, NM
population 1,162,777 (2012)
With only 2 million people, the entire state of Mexico has fwere people than midsize metro areas like Portland or Sacramento. But half of those people live along Interstate 25 between Belen, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe. This is a land of long commutes: Growth restrictions in Santa Fe have made it a very expensive place to live, and Indian reservations restrict growth to the south. But, thanks to the state government, Santa Fe is a major employment center. That means a lot of people are commuting into Santa Fe from Albuquerque and its northern suburbs, 60 miles away. By 2025, freeway travel times are expected to be at 2 hours.
This geography — a linear corridor, long commutes, and concentrated emplpoyment centers — is fertile ground for transit. in August of 2003, Governor Bill Richardson asked the department of transportation and the local council of governments to study commuter rail and the legislature to fund it; it took only 5 years years to implement. The first trains ran to the southern suburbs of Albuquerque in July 2006, and the line to Santa Fe opened in December of 2008. The key ingredient: the existing railroad line which makes up most of the route carried relatively little freight traffic but had been maintained to 79mph standards for Amtrak service; Burlington Northern Santa Fe was willing to sell it as well as the rest of the line all the way to the Colorado border to the state, nearly 269 miles of mainline track in good condition with room for double track for $75 million.
However, unlike many commuter rail lines, the Rail Runner is not simply a product of putting trains where there happened to be track. It goes right where people want to go. The Albuquerque station is Downtown, right on Central Avenue, next to offices, lofts, and restaurants Santa Fe has two stations: one is next to the major government office complex (the station is closer to the front door of one office building than most of the parking lot is) and the other is Downtown, a third of a mile from the State Capitol and half a mile from the Plaza.
To connect the two cities, New Mexico actually built more than 15 miles of brand new railroad line, much of it in the median of I-25. That’s a notable departure from the typical philosophy of “we’ll run the trains where the tracks happen to be already.” Trip time from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, 60 miles, is an hour and a half, and the intent is to reduce that to 1:15.
The Rail Runner is well connected, too. Of course, there are park-and-ride stations, but 9 of 10 stations have local transit connections, too. The Downtown Albuquerque station is at the main bus transit center, with connections to the “Rapid Ride” bus on Central Ave. (which connects to the major hospital and the university) and the proposed streetcar line. Amtrak and Greyhound operate out of the same facility. There’s a nonstop airport connection bus, too, that meets the trains. Schedules for connecting bus routes are available on the Rail Runner website, and Rail Runner tickets are good for free rides on Albuquerque and Santa Fe local buses. A new regional transit district plans to increase feeder bus service. And, yes, there’s room for bikes on every train.
The schedules aren’t as frequent as some other systems — this is not the densely populated Northeast, after all — but they’re pretty comprehensive. The first northbound leaves Albuquerque at 4:23 AM; the last train of the night leaves Santa Fe at 9:30 PM. There are trains in both directions all day, and there is midday service.
Rail Runner is a remarkable achievement for a small state. Albuquerque/Santa Fe is the 53rd largest metro area in the country, on par with Albany, NY and Tulsa, OK. In that context, 4,000 riders a day is pretty good (It beats Shore Line East into New Haven and Altamont Railway Express into San Jose, CA, for example.)A lot of parts of the Rail Runner story aren’t easy to repeat. But the standards of service, and the quality of the experience, are worth emulating. And so is the political leadership that make it happen.
Shortcut to Santa Fe
When the state of New Mexico bought the line that carries the Rail Runner, it inherited a roundabout route, curvy into Santa Fe. Using the existing track would have resulted in unacceptably slow trips, so a new section was built (red in the map above), largely in the median of Interstate 35 (left), to connect the existing lines (in black) to shorten the distance by 24 miles and trip times by 35 minutes. The difference between the routes reflects different goals. The old line was built to be as level as possible, to allow heavier trains, at the cost iof many curves. The new line, designed only for light cimmuter trains, is much straighter, but with steeper hills.
Passing on the fly
Just south of Santa Fe, a southbound train meets a northbound on a short stretch of double track (above left). This kind of passing manauever is typical on lines like the Rail Runner, which is mostly single track to save cost (above right). What’s unusual is that enither train has had to slow down. Schedules are coordinated so that trains meet at the right places without stopping, and the fact that the line carries very little freight means that trains stay on time.