The way to Santa Fe

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I’ve seen a lot of commuter rail (and I mean a lot: 15 of 18 systems in the United States), so it’s not that easy to impress me. But I rode New Mexico’s Rail Runner for the first time last week, and I was blown away. I’d go as far as to call it the best recent commuter rail startup in the United States.

Why?

Start with the most important criterium: it goes where people want to go. It connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the two most important cities in New Mexico; half the state’s population lives in that corridor. The Albuquerque station is Downtown, right on Central Avenue, next to offices, lofts, and restaurants.

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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.

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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,” and the crowded trains out of Santa Fe (I had trouble finding a seat on the 4:10 southbound) testify to its success.

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, and the Rail Runner serves that travel market well. 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. By 2025, freeway travel times are expected to be at 2 hours. And commuter rail is a productive trip, too: the trains have comfortable seats, tables to work on, and electric outlets for laptops, and wifi is on the way.

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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.

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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. There are trains in both directions all day, and there is midday service. Current schedules are limited by long sections of single track, but the new alignment was designed to add a second track, and they are making the most of the track they have: the southbound train met a northbound at a siding without stopping, which is only possible if both trains are on time.

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But the best part of the Road Runner is the customer service. The crews are some of the nicest I’ve met: they were smiling as they collected tickets, and once, when a passenger wasn’t paying attention and realized too late we’d reached his station, they actually stopped the train for him after we’d started moving again and re-opened the doors. Every station has complete information posted on schedules, fares, and connecting transit. The web site is complete. Tickets are sold on board with cash or credit cards, or you can pre-purchase them on the Web and print them out. A lot of the regular riders I saw were wearing their passes on Rail Runner-issued lanyards so the crew was able to check their tickets at a glance. Everything looks classy: the web site, the stations, highway signs pointing to the stations, the information kiosks, the newspaper racks, the cloth seats, the schedules, and the trains all have the distinctive rail runner logo and colors. In fact, when the doors close, the sound is not the usual buzz but a distinctive “beep-beep.” Everything seems to say, “we’re proud of what we do.”

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The line is also very neighbor-friendly. A lot of the crossings were retrofitted as quiet zones. And the last few miles into Santa Fe, built along an existing rail right-of-way, include a hike-and-bike trail (still under construction, but already well used) running alongside.

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Two years ago, I noted 8 habits of highly successful commuter rail lines. The Rail Runner manages them all:

1. The ideal commuter rail line improves on current transit options.
2. The ideal commuter rail line makes use of unused rail capacity in a corridor where highway capacity is scarce.
3. The ideal commuter rail line serves more than commuters.
4. The ideal commuter rail line has a city at each end.
5. The ideal commuter rail line offers good connections to multiple employment centers.
6. The ideal commuter rail line serves long trips.
7. The ideal commuter rail line connects to local transit.
8. The ideal commuter rail line has stations you can walk (or bike) to.

Rail Runner is a remarkable achievement for a small state. Albuquerque is the 60th largest metro area in the country, on par with Dayton, OH and Omaha, NE. Santa Fe is the 282nd, smaller than Muscles Shoals, AL. The whole state has only 1.9 million people, fewer than live in Houston city limits. 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.)

Morever, the whole thing was implemented in only five years: 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. The first trains ran to the southern suburbs of Albuquerque in July 2006, and the line to Santa Fe opened in December of 2008. A small team did all of this, with minimal bureaucracy, and they based what they did on a lot of data: for example, fares were decided on not based on an arbitrary fare box return ratio but on phone surveys of what people were willing to pay. There’s a great report (84.3 MB Microsoft Word) available from NMDOT on the Railrunner website with a lot of background.

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A lot of parts of the Rail Runner story aren’t easy to repeat. 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. That’s a great deal. But the standards of service, and the quality of the experience, are worth emulating. And so is the political leadership that make it happen.

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