Don Davenport stares out the window as the train zips north toward his home in Santa Fe. The television writer laments that work on his current script will have to wait as he boards the Rail Runner in Los Lunas, where he’d been visiting friends.
An unstable internet connection renders his commute unproductive. "It's two hours looking at the pretty scenery, but I could be working," Davenport tells SFR on a recent Thursday afternoon.
When Gov. Bill Richardson rolled out plans for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express in 2003, the project was justified as a means to free up commuter traffic on I-25. In many ways, the train was meant for working professionals.
The Rail Runner travels up to 79 mph between Santa Fe and Belen. At its sporadic stops, the train's doors shut with the same "beep-beep" noise the Looney Tunes roadrunner makes. The snail-like internet connection clashes with naming the train after one of the world's fastest running birds, and compares only in the way it rarely leaves the ground.
Internet connection has been spotty at best for the past two years and there's no determined repair date, says Augusta Meyers, communications manager at the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which is on contract to manage the train system for the state. The communications towers on which the system relies are out of commission from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, leaving riders at the mercy of which car they're in and where the train is traveling along its route.
Further, radios once used in the train's cars in conjunction with the towers were made by Alvarion, an original Rail Runner contractor that filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
The Rio Metro website says the train's Wi-Fi system is being re-engineered, but Meyers admits that isn't a priority. It won't be until the end of next year, when officials hope to have installed a Positive Train Control system (PTC), a federally mandated safety system that slows the train down automatically. New Wi-Fi installation must be coordinated with the PTC.
The long stretch of months with little or no internet connection is not sitting well with some who ride the train.
"If the focus is on professionals and business people, you need to have connectivity," Davenport says.
David Hunt, who works in information technology, understands the Rail Runner's conundrum. He says providing consistent connection takes planning and money that officials don't have.
"You live in an urban area, you take for granted that fast internet is everywhere and cheap," he says.
Other places have struggled with how to keep people connected on their commuter trains, too.
Boston recently chose PTC compliance over a Wi-Fi upgrade, according to published reports. Officials in that city already had delayed an extensive project to install towers along the route after public concern over poles detracting from neighborhood character.
There are 22 towers along the 99-mile Rail Runner line, and the Wi-Fi system is private. Train cars don't rely on cell towers because there's not enough coverage through rural areas, Meyers says.
Outfitting the Rail Runner with a new Wi-Fi system will cost $2 to $5 million, she says. The PTC will cost an estimated $50 million, but Meyers says neither of the eye-popping price tags is likely to lead to limited operation or service cuts.
The Rail Runner is funded through gross receipt taxes, federal grants, fares and fees paid by Amtrak and BNSF for using the line. The train does not rely on state appropriations for operations or maintenance.
Santa Fe City Councilor Joseph Maestas, chair of the city/county Metropolitan Planning Organization, says ticket fares pay only a small fraction of what it costs to operate the Rail Runner, and public transportation won't prosper unless the Legislature creates a dedicated funding source for it. "There's a mixed bag of funding and a lot of jurisdictions involved. Throw in an unfunded federal mandate and it creates so many problems," he says.
Meyers says there's been a decline in ridership over the past three years, with current daily average ridership for weekdays between 2,500 to 2,800. In 2014, that number was closer to 2,800 to 3,000. Still, the train draws a crowd.
Commuters left Santa Fe Depot on a recent evening, joining tourists on the train after work. Some accepted or enjoyed being unplugged, while others complained about the lack of internet connection and spotty cellphone coverage through tribal lands.
Eric Haskins, an architect at Lloyd & Associates, talked about erratic coverage through Kewa and San Felipe Pueblos, saying it might be a result of cell phone providers not installing towers in those areas.
Haskins is a staunch defender of the Rail Runner, particularly when it finds its way into the crosshairs of Republicans searching for examples of publicly funded largesse. He says Wi-Fi is a luxury, and he's satisfied with getting to and from work without harm. As he puts it: "It's safer to be on the train than on I-25 with a bunch of Mario Andrettis."