Dean Clough

November 3, 2021

Portico Darwin: I've Been Working On The Railroad

What a wonderful visit from our great friends Elizabeth "Polly" Michaels and Primo Harvey, PhD.  Thank you for the proverbial cherry on top of an amazing 3 weeks.  Much love and we can't wait to see that Killer painting in its final location!

But of course, even in this idyllic Land of Enchantment and surrounded by my wife and closest friends,  I can find something to complain about it.  So you've been warned and it's also a wonky-geek piece.  Sorry.

Today I will profess my love for Santa Fe but bitch and moan about its extraordinarily disappointing commuter railroad service to Albuquerque, which is 60 miles to the south.  It is disappointing because it's such a natural commuter corridor and the need was/is there, yet ridership has steadily declined for years, and is going lower.  It's also beautiful - these are the tracks in Santa Fe on which the train runs. 


First, some infrastructure philosophy. 

Somewhere along the way, we were told to accept the fact that highways and bridges and airports and ports are public goods that government can and should pay for and subsidize.  But at the same time, we've been told commuter trains (and passenger trains in general) are different:  they must pay for themselves. 

But no highway pays for itself, so why must passenger rail?  Here is a wonderful and brief editorial on the same subject.

Next, some context on the commuter rail system that's here, called the New Mexico Rail Runner Express.  After the complete line opened in the late 2000's, at a total cost of $385 million,

"ridership continued to increase through 2010, reaching a peak of 1.24 million passengers annually (4,000 on an average weekday).  Since then, passenger numbers have continued to decline year-over-year to a low of under 750,000 in 2019."

Those numbers are from the New Mexico Department of Transportation, and I can anecdotally confirm them.  Each time a train passes us on our morning hikes, it is empty or nearly so.  These are trains arriving and departing at 8:30AM in the state capital.  OK, the legislature is not in session, and of course that makes a difference, but there are plenty of other people that make the commute by car between the two cities.

Why has ridership declined so?  That's easy:  the schedule is a complete and total joke.   There are NINE  stations between the Downtown Albuquerque and Downtown Santa Fe stations, including plenty that serve metropolitan juggernauts like Bernalillo and Kewa Pueblo.  It is 4 minutes between the Bernalillo and Sandoval stations, and that's just one example.  Thus, a trip that takes an hour or less by car takes nearly double that by train - an hour and 40 minutes.   It is obvious getting the train done at all was a corrupt quid pro quo game of "You want to run a train through my town?  We get a station."  

One might ask:  "But Portico, aren't there express trains?"

OMFG I think that's why I wrote this in the first place.  Yes, there are express trains.  Yes, they are just as bad.  There is only one from Albuquerque to Santa Fe in the morning, and one from Santa Fe to Albuquerque in the late afternoon.  If you'd like to take a quick trip from the state's capital to its largest city in the morning for the day, you're out of luck.  And even on the expresses that do run, they only drop 4 stops, so the trip still takes an hour and 23 minutes, for a big time savings of 17 minutes over the local trains.  Yuck.

So the problem is obvious - when you add getting to/from the stations, you're talking 4 hours of commuting per day, vs. 2.  That's why ridership is declining:  people are staying in their cars and keeping those 2 hours for themselves and their families, and rightfully so.

It does not have to be like this.  Here are my proposals for fixing the New Mexico Rail Runner. 

Go Faster
Every train, express or not, is hampered by a 79 mile per hour speed limit, despite the trains themselves being capable of cruising at well over 100 MPH, and also not sharing the tracks with any other carrier.  According to the state, this is due to "track limitations". 

Fix them. 

My friends, trains used to go over 100 miles per hour in the 1930's, powered by steam engines fueled by dirty guys shoveling coal into a boiler, on tracks laid by hand.  We can and must do better almost 100 years later.

Non-Stop Express Trains
Duh.  One express train in each direction in the morning and afternoon.  Downtown Albuquerque to Downtown Santa Fe.   At an average speed of 70 mph, we're talking a ride between the two downtowns taking around 45 minutes.  Now you're talking.

Close stations
Come on.  4 minutes between some stations, and 5 and 6 minutes between others?  This isn't midtown Manhattan, and I'm not sure that even on NYC's subway there are stations that close together.  What an embarrassingly corrupt state of affairs. 

Transit-Oriented Development

This is silly obvious - build walkable communities that themselves are within walking distance of a train station.

I was interested to learn that the New Mexico Department of Transportation actually owns the rails themselves, on the entire line.  That is unusual and a big advantage.  Yet what an underutilized asset!  There's a single contractor that runs a mundane service and the tracks lay empty nearly all of the time.  Why not add a second contractor to the mix and maybe lighten up on the non-safety regulations?  Like dictating where and when a train must stop, and/or the size and type of the train itself.  Why can't I buy a modern version of this and attempt to start a business transporting people in a civilized manner between downtowns, without it being a decades-long morass of red tape?


Gastropub Car
I'll stick a fun one in here to see if you're paying attention.  Why has the bar car been eliminated from commuter trains?  If an adult can be trusted to drive to a bar, have a drink or two, and then safely and legally drive home, why can't we have a proper bar car?  One that reflects the region and today's sensibilities, sure, but something that makes the ride enjoyable, day or night.

It's great getting 4,000 people out of their cars each and every workday.  But let's finish the job and dump the diesel power for the train and go electric.  It would be much quieter, too.

Pay For It
No, none of this free.  Neither is the Port of Long Beach, the Air Traffic Control System, or the I-95 highway.  Get over it.

It's a big Steven Simon day.  First, this is long overdue.  Thank you to my close Chicago pal for donning this recently - it appears this newsletter (and website) are destined for greatness, what with exposure from this big-time influencer.  I mean, this guy recently won an award from his alma mater and everything!


And he followed it up with even more Simon-esque brilliance.  Great stuff, and agreed on Chicago.  Thank you, my friend.

"Great article about the Albany riverfront.  I hope they take action.  I know Louisville and Cincinnati are the same way, with highways blocking access to the river.  One of the many reasons Chicago is among the best cities in the world is the Burnham Plan (1909) that basically put the lakefront off limits to commercial/residential construction and transportation 'improvements'.  I can ride my bike for almost 20 miles north to south along the lake."

chi 1.jpg


And though he was still in Taos, that doesn't mean Arthur takes his finger off the pulse of America and its economy.  He shared with me this tremendous article, that really captures what we're all feeling and experiencing amidst The Great Resignation.  Thanks, my friend. 
NPR's Planet Money and Skimpflation

Thank you to any one that is reading this newsletter.


Let's all get on The Freedom Train.  My God, listen to the American idealism, and look at this bar car.

bar car.jpg

About Dean Clough

Plans To Enjoy Life.