I took my first Rail Runner ride today, Downtown Albuquerque to Santa Fe. The journey was delightful and the scenery eye-popping. I have made the trip several times by car and was amazed at just how much "civilization" can be found between I-25 and the Rio Grande.

Unfortunately, the rabid environmentalist in me was somewhat troubled. Despite the fact that I was on the 7:30 AM from downtown, the train was nearly empty. My best guess would be 25% of the available seats were filled after leaving Bernalillo (the last "Albuquerque Metro" stop heading out of town). I would also guess that about half of the passengers were not commuters in the strict sense. Many appeared to be bicyclists (full gear etc.) who would get off the train and ride back to Albuquerque or day-trippers (fanny pack, cameras etc.)

For a serious environmentalist, this is a problem. There is a significant fixed environmental cost to running the Rail Runner system (by "system" I mean to include the associated transfer shuttles etc.). Unless this fixed cost is offset by commuters using the system rather than their personal automobiles you really have to ask yourself what's the point of it all?

I know that the train is quite popular on weekends and for some special events, but occasional "novelty ridership" is not what public transportation systems are supposed to be about.

Has anyone run the numbers to see how much fuel per rider per day the Rail Runner system uses and compare that to the average person's automobile commute?

Views: 21

Comment by once banned twice shy on August 28, 2009 at 11:13am
Gee, Muskrat, I am not sure your isolated incident is indicative of the Rail Runner's overall usage. From what I understand, they have had more demand than they expected. You weren't exactly on the commuter train--7:30 gets you there too late for most worktime starts. Also, the Rail Runner hasn't even been going for a year, yet. Sometimes it takes a while for people to give up their damn cars. I am certain the Rail Runner people are assessing their schedule and will drop those times when the train is less full after some time. Who knows? I do know that you can't make any judgments based on one ride only...you don't even mention how busy the train was coming back--was it?
Comment by Muskrat Sam Donaldson on August 28, 2009 at 12:46pm
I had a ride back in to town, so I can't say how full the return train was.

The thought had occurred to me that perhaps the earlier trains would be more full, but then I took a look at the schedule. The train prior to the one took leaves downtown at 6:15 AM. Yikes!

Therein might lie the rub; taking the train adds close to an hour to the Albuquerque-Santa Fe commute. Say you work at the capitol and need to be there by 8:00 AM. Assuming a one hour car commute 6:15 is probably about the time you would drag yourself out of bed. Taking the train would probably push your wake up time closer to 5:15 AM. That just seems far too early for most people.

As far as it only being around for less than a year, I assume you are talking about the Albuquerque to Santa Fe segment. The Rail Runner system has been in operation since 2007. I seriously doubt that any ridership issues are due to a lack of awareness. I think many people are like myself; they give it a try and find the added time is just not worth it.
Comment by Masshole in Fringecrest on October 20, 2009 at 9:40am
I can't speak as a commuter, only as a recreational user. I use the Railrunner when a guest is interested in experiencing it. In my view, it was not built for the convenience of the casual dabbler. I would rather drive (I know, the horror, carbon offsetting-wise) and park myself. I can get to downtown SF in 1 hour flat, park close (I know a few tricks), do my thing and get back home in 1 hr. flat. It's very little hassle. The train is a bit of a hassle- drive to the parking lot in the S.Valley (closest to my home and not encumbered by modern downtown parking inconveniences) time it correctly (with two sub-six-year-olds) the trip takes 1:25 if lucky, 1:35 is more like it, and then the walk back to the station (timing the departure correctly, to boot) is a bit wearisome.

But I am someone who doesn't mind driving, knows the streets of Santa Fe pretty well, and like the "in and out" more than the scenery of the train trip. I imagine for someone who thinks driving and navigating Santa Fe is a hassle and a pain, then the Railrunner has more value.

For me and my family, unless we have guests who REALLY want to experience the train (and I don't try top talk them out of it, because I think it's a great asset that should be supported) we drive the Subaru wagon up there.

I, too, would love to get more commuter reaction, and as a corollary, any discussion of the WiFi about to be introduced, which I think will be great until the train hits Algodones and the Pueblos, Waldo Canyon, etc. and then after finally riders pop out into the I-25 median and a signal will be good again... is there any feasible way that the signal can be strong and consistent all the way to SF? If so, that could really make the train commute more valuable, for many.
Comment by Laura on October 20, 2009 at 10:00am
I agree that the 7:30 train probably misses many of the commuters. My husband would have to catch the 6-ish trains to get to work on time in Santa Fe, or at least that's what many of his co-workers do. I haven't heard how the WiFi is doing (that's what my husband is waiting for before he tries the train). Maybe they'll go with a satellite provider to get around the usual land-based wireless gaps?

It IS a gorgeous ride. Much more visually engaging than the Denver to Boulder bus commute I did years ago, which only provided hour-long views of traffic, sprawl, and big box shopping centers. After long, hellish commutes in other areas, I'll take rural scenery any day, every day, even if it costs an extra 20 minutes each way. But that's just me, I guess.
Comment by April on October 20, 2009 at 10:32am
A lot of those people on bikes are commuters. I was one for a while (I moved away, miss the Rail Runner like crazy.) I would ride my bike from my Mom's house to the station in Belen and commute to UNM via bike. It's insanely convenient for cyclists. At least for me anyway. I didn't ride during "commuter hours" often, but when I did it was packed.

I was recently in town for Balloon Fiesta and rode the Rail Runner to the park and downtown on more than one occasion. It was really full on the return trip from Balloon Fiesta Park.
I love the Rail Runner. It's great. Especially for someone like me that hates driving. Wish we had one in New Orleans...
Comment by mateoism on October 20, 2009 at 10:32am
I absolutely love riding the train only because, after years of traveling between SF & ABQ, I have found the drive on I-25 to be unbearable due to tailgating, accidents, speed traps, etc. Yes, I agree that the Rail Runner schedule stinks. But I think its still a great alternative if you can spare the time. I especially enjoy being able to read, write, chat, and/or nap along the way instead of gluing my eyes to the road. And certain runs are packed (try riding the 10:35 train to SF).
Comment by Muskrat Sam Donaldson on October 20, 2009 at 11:49am
Front page! Do I get a t-shirt or something?

Doug R, my use of the term "break even" is meant in the true economic sense, looking at the total resources required to run the RR system and their associated costs and benefits. Trains are an extremely efficient way to move large quantities of goods or people, with "large" being the operative word.

I also don't think the train itself is the biggest offender, but all of the associated feeder shuttles. Ever been at the airport and watched the shuttle from the "Sunport Station" pick up/drop off. Exactly zero passengers (though I see that this service seems to have been discontinued, hmmmm)

The bottom line for me, anyway, is that while trains are wonderful amenities for any community, they have to be a good fit. Traffic in Albuquerque is pretty much non-existent, and for all the talk of how awful it is in the time I have been doing the Santa Fe commute my total delay time has probably been under fifteen minutes.

Given the state's current budget crunch, does spending dollars on an under-utilized commuter train make sense?
Comment by mateoism on October 20, 2009 at 12:12pm
@MSC, I don't see anything on the discontinued link that indicates that the Sunport Shuttle to the Rail Runner has been discontinued. I sure hope that it hasn't! My employer is hosting a conference in Santa Fe in November and we have publicized utilizing the Sunport Shuttle/Rail Runner as the preferred means of getting to/from Sunport/Downtown Santa Fe. I even made a YouTube video showing people how it all works. And when I rode it in August, this little shuttle was so full that it was standing room only.
Comment by Laura on October 20, 2009 at 12:32pm
I would guess the full economic social benefits of the Rail Runner will manifest in the long-term. If Albuquerque grows anything like Denver, Phoenix, or other western cities (I dearly hope not), the Rail Runner will be a huge I-25 congestion reliever 20 or 30 years from now. Right now, ABQ seems a lot like Denver was about 30 years ago (size-wise and traffic-wise). ABQ is not getting any smaller, so if we can learn from the painful growth spurts Denver went through, we will come out ahead. The Rail Runner is a good start, I think.

Also, I wonder if having the Rail Runner in place is already helping position Albuquerque in the slow-motion scramble for national high-speed rail. Although nothing is settled yet, the US High Speed Rail Association recommends Albuquerque for one of the major east-west rail linkups. See UrbanABQ's post, That's more like it, for the details.
Comment by Jay Faught on October 20, 2009 at 1:52pm
I work for the New Mexico Rail Runner and want to answer some of the questions you may have. According to a survey that we conducted last spring, 90% of our riders use the train to get work or school. As for why people ride the train, the top two answers were “it is less stressful than driving” and “it costs less than driving”. You can see the full results of the survey at http://www.nmrailrunner.com/news_survey.asp

Our main focus during the week is getting people to and from work during peak commute times. While not everyone works a standard schedule, we did our best to coordinate train times with the most common work schedules. Due to increased ridership, we’ve had to put additional train cars on our busiest runs. We evaluate the ridership and adjust car length accordingly. Sometimes a train may only be 25% full going one direction, but it could be nearly 100% full going the other direction or even on a stretch before you boarded.

In August we carried over 124,000 passengers and in September we carried over 123,000 passengers. Our later evening trains aren’t nearly as full, but at this point they are getting enough ridership to provide them. We will evaluate ridership, budget constraints and demand to determine any necessary schedule changes.

As for the Wi-Fi… we are in the testing phase in the southern corridor. We still have two more towers to install in the northern corridor before our testing can begin on that stretch. Since we are installing our own towers throughout the corridor we expect to have constant service through the entire journey on the train, even at the stations.

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