Under a cloudless sky, on a 40-degree spring day, Santa Fe Southern Railway's Special Projects Manager Bob Sarr and workers are busy removing a rail siding-a short spur that formerly delivered freight to a nearby pumice factory. Sarr, who wears a long white ponytail and a near-constant smile,***image1*** watches as a couple of guys break the rails apart, cutting halfway through with a metal-cutting torch, then lifting and dropping the dark-brown steel on the ground. The sound is enormous.
This project-cutting and moving rails for scrap and for sale-has been prompted by the impending arrival of the New Mexico Rail Runner.
The commuter train will have a number of archaeological and environmental impacts, but it will perhaps affect the 120-year-old Santa Fe Southern most of all.
According to the Department of Transportation's environmental assessment for the Rail Runner, none of those impacts are significant enough to warrant a route change. Among them: a tiny chunk of wetland at Alamo Creek will be lost; part of the Los Cerrillos Mining District, where turquoise mining began more than 1,000 years ago, is slated for destruction; a snippet of the 404-mile-long Camino Real will have tracks laid over it.
Then there is the Santa Fe Southern Railway. Its partial destruction is great news for gardeners with a spot in their yards for old railroad ties, and Santa Fe Southern stands to make a tidy profit from the sale of steel. But it also begs the question: What do you do with the remnants of an old railroad?
"Whatever you can!" local realtor David Barker, whose office is located in the heart of the Railyard District, says. So far he has committed to buying up to 2,000 feet of steel rails for his office. "I have a couple hundred feet in my parking lot and I'm trying to figure out how else to use them," he says.
Santa Fe Southern President Carol Raymond, Sarr's wife, is bemused by the interest the old line has generated. "It's very strange," she says. "We have people off the street asking for the rails. People use it for architectural detailing. We've had some stolen from us, too."
In fact, Raymond says, recently some thieves showed up at the Railyard near the end of the day. She thought they were Rail Runner employees so she didn't bother them. At this point, Raymond says, she's seen just about every variety of items stolen from the yard-from lawn mowers to useless steel scraps that artists use in sculptures.
But even if a few ties go missing, there is still plenty of money to be made from the steel that remains.
According to the International Iron and Steel Institute, the demand for steel in Brazil, Russia, India and China is expected to increase by 11 percent this year. The organization predicts a similar jump next year. According to a report in the London-based paper The Guardian, steel is second only to oil in terms of commodities. In short, Santa Fe Southern is sitting on a proverbial gold mine. Or steel mine. You get the idea.
"The best deal we're getting now is a bid for $350 a ton," Raymond says. "It started out at $100 a ton, and that was a month ago."
One bidder is Pennsylvania-based Franklin Industries. It's in final negotiations with Santa Fe Southern to buy a large amount of old steel rails, which it will turn into snowplow blades, fence posts and the cleats that provide traction for tracked vehicles such as tanks and bulldozers. The old Santa Fe Southern's remains could also be turned into street signs or highway markers.
Or it could also be used for what it is-part of a functioning railroad. "Almost all of our rails are acceptable for reuse," Sarr says. Sarr came out of retirement to oversee the railway removal.
The duo has been advocating a commuter rail in town for a long time. Yet Raymond notes a "cultural impact" that comes with the Rail Runner. The new tracks being installed will be welded together; hence, no clickety-clack. The train whistle-long annoying to some nearby residents-has fallen silent due to the Rail Runner's secure gate system.
"You've heard whistles in this town since 1880," Raymond says. Not anymore.