As far as I know, Victorian morality plays are rarely difficult to decipher and tend to avoid too much irony. But the pending arrival in the Santa Fe Railyard of a special train designed to promote a film remake of the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol is bringing fuzzy morals and irony.
First, the pure absurdity of our story: Amtrak engines will pull a custom-built, Victorian-themed train—significantly longer than a Rail Runner—into the Railyard. The movie it is promoting, Disney’s A Christmas Carol, stars Jim Carrey and is directed by Robert Zemeckis. Early press bills it as a “multi-sensory thrill ride” shot using “performance capture” and projected in 3-D. Zemeckis, inexplicably, has said, “We are doing A Christmas Carol the way Charles Dickens originally envisioned it.”
Disney organizers will offer a walk-through experience, including an “inflatable theater” with an extended trailer of the movie, and hope to lure up to 600 people an hour. This spectacle will inhabit the train track for five days in early June.
The plot to our story develops around the other users of the track. Both the Rail Runner and Santa Fe Southern Railway will be somewhat displaced by this hulking marketing tool, which is sure to guarantee big receipts when the movie (based on one of Western civilization’s classic moral tales of greed and human alienation) is released in November. Both the Rail Runner and Santa Fe Southern Railway have agreed to board their trains farther up the tracks for the weekend. The issue is financial compensation.
The Rail Runner is willing to tolerate the inconvenience gratis. The Mid-Region Council of Governments operates the Rail Runner and is sympathetic to the City of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation’s desire to host Disney’s certain-to-be-inane piece of multi-million dollar advertising disguised as a family attraction.
“We absolutely look at this as beneficial economic development,” SFRCC Executive Director Richard Czoski says.
But the Rail Runner doesn’t rely on a connection to 440 volt electrical infrastructure, which Santa Fe Southern installed and maintains and which will be difficult to access. The Rail Runner doesn’t need to load ice and drinks onto each of its trains like Santa Fe Southern does. The Rail Runner doesn’t host the nearest public restroom to the marketing monstrosity, but Santa Fe Southern does. Santa Fe Southern wants $6,500 for its inconvenience. Disney wants the space for free, and many stations around the country where the train will stop have agreed that free is a good deal for them.
“Other stations may have more track space, less traffic, different scheduling needs; other stations may not be displacing a local business in order to host the train,” Santa Fe Southern Railway President Carol Raymond says. When Raymond had initial conversations with Disney, the company balked at her price. Raymond, familiar with leasing services to movie productions, says this is the pattern—movie companies try to strong-arm small businesses but ultimately pay up if you stand firm. “This is Disney Corporation we’re talking about here,” Raymond says, “I think they can afford it.”
In the meantime, however, SFRCC, which manages all leases on the Railyard on behalf of the city, including Santa Fe Southern’s depot building, negotiated a deal to accept $1,750 from Disney. The city owns the land, went the reasoning, and MRCOG is responsible for the track’s right-of-way, so Santa Fe Southern really has no say in the matter. When things got heated between Raymond, the city and SFRCC, Czoski offered Raymond $4,000, money that would now be coughed up for the privilege of hosting Disney’s rolling advertisement.
It’s not the $2,500 difference of opinion at the core of our story, however, but an emerging battle about the rights of lessors, lessees and property owners. Santa Fe Southern leases only the depot building, not the tracks. However, as a federally authorized freight operator and excursion provider, it has utilized the track for 17 years. When it sold the right-of-way to the State of New Mexico, Santa Fe Southern did so at millions below the appraised value and agreed to donate more than $2.5 million of the $10 million sale to the park. In that transaction, Raymond says, it retained its rights to use the track as it sees fit, within the confines of a joint-use agreement with MRCOG. Anyway, its track privilege is a federal matter that the city has no business in, Raymond says.
The city and SFRCC disagree. Raymond counters that Santa Fe Southern could have sold the track right-of-way as real estate and there would be no Rail Runner and no donation to the park, but she and her train company believed in the vision of the Railyard. Their reward, she says, is to be treated like second-class citizens.
Who holds the legal rights to arrange trains at will and negotiate for lease time on the tracks is a legal matter that has yet to decided. But if a rich corporation wanting to do free advertising on our public lands can instigate this kind of community infighting, there’s a morality play about the values of Santa Fe in the works.