Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Train Isn't Running Yet - And Thanks For Noticing

(Also published in The Albuquerque Journal, January 17, 2006)

As a ten-year resident of Albuquerque who previously lived in the Chicago Area where commuter rail is a way of life, and as an amateur rail historian, I find Albuquerque’s and New Mexico’s entry into the commuter rail business both frustrating and laughable.

Let me first make it clear that I am a staunch supporter of passenger rail as one of the few viable transportation modes of the future. Gov. Richardson and the Mid-Region Council of Governments should be praised for taking a courageous move into the railroad business.

That we are now seeing missteps that will probably take the start of this service well into 2006, and perhaps into 2007, does not surprise anyone familiar with commuter services in other cities. Even Chicago’s Metra, an agency that started with an already functioning system of commuter railroads, is ill equipped to accomplish a new-service startup in so short a time.

Why compare Albuquerque with a metropolitan area the size of Chicago’s? The answer is that Metra, the commuter rail agency in Chicago, has to run many of its trains on tracks owned and operated by BNSF Railway. In order to do so, it has to negotiate contracts with BNSF that necessarily include all of the elements of such operating agreements or purchase agreements that we have to deal with here in New Mexico.

The people at BNSF are no dummies. They have years of experience in getting what they want and need from commuter rail agencies. And no freight railroad today “needs” to have passenger trains. BNSF appears to have seen New Mexico taxpayers coming with their wallets unzipped. They have sold – or tried to sell us a line that doesn’t mean very much to their traffic structure. It is a line they would have considered putting in mothballs if they didn’t have to use it to run Amtrak twice a day to keep the Southwest Chief off their “transcon” through Clovis. That may tell us something about its condition. And now they have asked us to indemnify them from their own negligence if something goes wrong.

For 2006, Metra budgets $1,276,081 for insurance claims and risk management for the BNSF Railway. These figures are only for BNSF lines and come from Metra’s published 2006 budget. Their total projected revenue from trains operating over BNSF lines is $42,765,965. This works out to somewhere around three percent of revenue. By contrast, BNSF is seeking $200 million in coverage and a bonded indemnity of $50 million from New Mexico. The Mid-Region Council of Government has not published any revenue projections that I have seen. However, there are those who believe that the cost of $250 million in liability coverage for the State or MRCOG is in the neighborhood of the same $1.2M that Metra has budgeted for a $42.7M revenue operation. Even at what could probably be a prohibitively high fare of $4.00, New Mexico’s operation would have to hit 10.8 million riders the first year for this kind of liability expenditure to even begin to make sense.

The proposed outright purchase of the line from BNSF raises a number of other troubling questions that I think should be asked soon and in a public forum. Some of these questions are: In what condition is the line from Belen to Raton? Does anyone realize that the line above Lamy is mountain railroad with relatively slow running and high maintenance costs? Does anyone realize that none of the line being purchased can be used to get into Santa Fe? How much will have to be paid to Herzog Transit Services, the contractor that MRCOG has hired for maintenance of way? How has Herzog performed in meeting its obligations under contracts with other commuter agencies? Will Herzog be maintaining the stations? What about the new station in Albuquerque? What is happening to the equipment already on the property? Has the manufacturer extended warranty expirations to account for the delay in implementation of service? Rail technology is changing a mile a minute, so who will pay for needed upgrades in hardware and software when the equipment is finally operational?

Because I know the answers to some of these questions, my opinion is that many citizens will not like the answers. Putting all our rail money into Rail Runner and leaving Amtrak passengers to use our Amshack, for example, is simply the tip of the iceberg of bad planning.

I strongly hope that such problems can be efficiently addressed in a public forum and that passenger rail can take its necessary place in balanced public transportation for the region. Until then, it seems, Rail Runner will continue to frustrate me and make me laugh out loud.

© 2006 – C. A. Turek –
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