None of us with any knowledge of the business of Passenger Rail think that it is a walk in the park. Start a passenger train, let alone a full schedule of trains, from scratch requires capital, hard work, luck and a loyal customer base. Preferably that base is a broad one, drawn from a variety of demographics. If you are running a train, you should also hope that both ends of your line originate traffic.
Readers of this blog will recall my skepticism and incredulity when then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson went out of his way to fund rail passenger service for the Mid-Region Council of Governments, AKA MRCOG. This service, one of Gov. Bill's "legacies", from Belen, NM, through Albuquerque, to Santa Fe, is now known as New Mexico Rail Runner Express. Look on my second page to see some photos.
I wrote at the time that the route was too costly and that the whole project would eventually cost the taxpayers of New Mexico many millions of dollars in subsidies. Albuquerque just isn't the kind of metro area that you find in places like Seattle or Dallas. If done at all, the service could have used existing tracks instead of new ones, used DMUs instead of full-fledged communter rail equipment, and grown with demand rather than taking a "build it and they will come" approach. Even now, with heavy rail tracks built all the way into Santa Fe, the equipment could be owned and operate by another entity under subsidy. And New Mexico will now have the dubious distinction of trying to make BNSF Railway run the Lamy to Raton portion of the original Santa Fe Raton Pass line in order to keep just one long distance train, Amtrak's Southwest Chief, running.
In the future, if you hear someone ask, "Who killed the Chief?" the answer will be either New Mexico or Railrunner Express.
The Albuquerque Journal of Sunday, June 19, 2011, reports that the service averages "about" 4,500 passenger boardings on weekdays. That's not a lot. It's why the beginning of the whine has started, as the Rio Metro Regional Transit District board decided to cut weekends from the schedule. Passenger boardings on weekend days of only 1,000 make this seem logical, but the politicians on the board see it as a way to speak to current Gov. Susana Martinez. "Whine! We need more taxpayer money. Whine! The businesses who depend on weekend recreational travelers will lose money. Whine!"
Frankly, as a taxpaying NMer, I don't see why I should have to subsidize riders to the tune of an (estimated) $40 to $80 a boarding just so they don't lose the profit from that latte. I don't think we should let them eat cake, but let them adjust their business practices to take advantage of the business that remains. Or learn a lesson, which is: Don't depend on the taxpayer to keep you in business.
But the better lesson is this. When you're local politician starts to talk about his or her legacy, hide your wallet and your kid's wallet and your grandkid's wallet. The state will be picking their pocket for the legacy forever.
©2011 - C. A. Turek - firstname.lastname@example.org
Also posted on A Bit Off New Mexico.