Riding the train has improved the whole college experience for Kandis Merrill. The Santa Fe Community College student pays just $42 for her monthly commute from Albuquerque, and she has nothing but good things to say.
"I commute each day three hours and 40 minutes from the time I get from my door to the door of the college and back to my door. It's a long time, but I do that because I love this place and I know what is waiting for me here," she says in the school's cafeteria after wrapping up a chemistry class. "I love the train too. I try to let people feel sorry for me like it's an agonizing, daunting task, but I love it. I wouldn't trade it for the world. … It is a great networking thing, and I get the best afternoon naps, and I am energized and ready for some homework and some house chores."
At first, though, Merrill was frustrated when train and bus schedules didn't align to get her to class and home again. Failed commuting connections were a drag, so she called up bus planners and called them out. These days, she rides Santa Fe Trails Route 22 buses to and from the train station. After she volunteered to survey potential riders, the city agreed to increase bus service this semester. There's no decision yet about whether to continue what has so far been a trial period.
"This is something I feel that has had a long life of word-of-mouth associations with the train that were kind of a negative," she says. "It's going to take a little longer than a semester to get the word out of how easy the experience is."
Merrill's train tale is a microcosm of the larger ridership challenges for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. Schedule frequency and trip duration are the greatest hurdles for potential passengers. Local transit planners see the need to work on connectivity with the system, as evidenced by the change for Route 22. Many who live in Northern New Mexico, however, have yet to try riding it, even though the state-owned train enjoys comfortable popularity with voters.
Train managers are aware that slumping ridership needs a boost, and they've got ideas about how to do it. But first, the Rail Runner has to get past one more rough spot.
"Ultimately I would like to see us be able to run our headways in the corridor where if I showed up to a station without looking at a schedule, I would know that the longest I'm going to have to wait is a half hour; especially if I know it comes on the hour or on the 5-minute mark after the hour, whatever it does. That would be really nice," says Terry Doyle, transportation director for the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which contracts with the state to keep the train in service.
Doyle pauses. There's a big but.
First, Rio Metro has to comply with a federal mandate to install $60 million worth of computers and GPS equipment for a safety system called positive train control, intended to prevent derailments by keeping engineers from driving too fast for load or terrain conditions. Doyle says only after that can managers even think about track improvements and other changes necessary to grow ridership.
"The timing is just awful. If you look nationwide at railroads, most of the railroads that see an increase in ridership also made a significant investment in extending their line into new areas or improving their line or buying more rolling stock so they have better headways, all those things. And all of that translates into better ridership," he tells SFR. "When you look at us, we've kind of been a status quo railroad for 12 years. It would be nice to make that investment and be able to do that, but I think we're going to need to generate some dollars."
Rio Metro lobbied federal transit authorities for a funding package to pay for the train control system. Plus, it borrowed $11 million from the state against future tax revenue to come up with the local match. While all the counties it serves have more taxing authority, Doyle says, train service expansion is not likely in the cards until after the positive train control project is complete. Construction includes a network of communications towers and equipment on the train engines themselves.
The state expects to be repaying debt service on its original purchase of the tracks, cars and engines through 2030 at a total cost of $723 million. It uses money from fuel taxes to pay that down each year. New Mexico also is obligated long-term to operate dispatch radio control along the railway and other expensive duties that are covered now by Rio Metro.
The newly appointed secretary of the Department of Transportation says he spoke with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham about the train early on.
"I think she very well understands what the issues are," Secretary Michael Sandoval tells SFR. "It's well known that we have purchased the train tracks, and whether or not the Rail Runner rides on the tracks, it's our responsibility to maintain and own them. The philosophy now is we want to support that operation as much as possible. It still keeps a lot of folks off I-25. "
Department officials spoke in favor this year of a $2 million appropriation approved to support the train. It was the first time in Doyle's time as a train manager, which started in 2010, that he hasn't felt under attack at the Roundhouse.
He emphasizes that train operations have been consistently in the black, with fare box revenue and gross receipts taxes from the counties served covering the annual cost of fuel and staff. But in each of the last eight years, at least one measure has sought to either study the Rail Runner's efficacy or kill it outright.
Santa Fe County shoppers have been paying a ⅛-cent gross-receipts tax to the North Central Regional Transit District for 11 years, half of which goes straight to Rio Metro to support the train. In addition to that service, taxpayers in Bernalillo, Sandoval, Santa Fe, Taos, Rio Arriba, Los Alamos and Valencia counties get buses from the districts, too. Both the North Central and Rio Metro districts were set up under state laws approved at the same time as then-Gov. Bill Richardson planned the train using a bond program. While the state put up the capital, the districts allow local taxpayers to support the train's ongoing operation.
And under that law, both districts have another 1/4-cent in taxing authority that voters could approve. In the future, Doyle says that's the cash that can pay for more frequent train service.
Public support for the rail is strong. In an opinion survey conducted by Research and Polling, Inc., on behalf of the North Central district last year, 61% of regional voters have a positive opinion of the Rail Runner.
Train rider Roberto Sisneros says he's making the current schedule work.
The postal carrier has worked at the Santa Fe branch for five years; however, it's only in the last year that he tried making the commute from Rio Rancho via rail instead.
"My wife was always telling me, 'You need to ride the train.' I finally decided to give it a shot, and January made it a year that I have been riding," he tells SFR.
While Sisneros used to fill his gas tank three times a week or more, days, now he only does it on Saturdays, when the train schedule doesn't match his shift. Some days when he gets off early, he wishes there were mid-afternoon southbound trains.
"It would be nice if they were just able to run the whole day, but I understand if no one is there, it's a waste," he says. "They run at busy times and so that is what we have."
Sisneros is usually moving at the times and in the direction the train was geared toward.
Santa Fe's never been the favorite child of the Rail Runner. From the very beginning, when service only shuttled between Belen and Bernalillo for its first two years, its bread and butter is the commuter flood of daytime workers. Ridership data shows most passengers are moving north each day from Albuquerque into the capital city, and south back out.
People who live in the City Different and want to move within it or want to head south are at the mercy of the other direction's schedule.
Yet, Santafesinos are still surprising some people. The Zia Station became Santa Fe's fourth and most recent to get service. It sat unused between the start of the service to the city in 2008 and the spring of 2017. Passengers who walk, ride bikes or get dropped off at the stop are proving its relevance.
The station is unique among Rail Runner stops in that it was constructed on private land using state money. Builders who own the property eyed a big transit-oriented development that got squashed by the economic downturn of 2008 and some neighborhood resistance, among other factors.
"Everybody was always questioning what the ridership was going to be like, and nobody really knew," says Merritt Brown, a partner in SF Brown, the company that owns the land. "We thought we would maybe get 20 to 25 riders a day there. It opened with about 50 riders a day and it has just been steadily increasing every month. We get data from the Rio Metro, and we are up to, during the week, pushing it to 110 riders a day. From that perspective we are good, and that is with no parking at the site."
The firm is ready to reconsider the development, Brown tells SFR in an interview with partner Marc Bertram, who adds, "We feel that if we were allowed to have parking there that ridership would jump even more."
While they're just getting started with a timeline on new submittals to the city, the pair is already certain they will propose a mix heavy on housing, with some retail and other commercial space. They say waiting another two years or more for Rio Metro to plan expansion might not be necessary if a local effort could happen faster.
"There's been lots of discussion about increasing local use of the train from 599 to the Railyard in any fashion possible," says Brown. "It's definitely worth getting into the nuts and bolts of that and saying, 'What does it mean? Is that something the city could press for?'"
City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth is the city's member on the North Central district. She notes the board's strategic plan adopted in 2016 called for the district to first stabilize its revenue by asking voters to renew the ⅛-cent tax permanently—a measure that sailed through last November. But raising the tax in the hopes of more Santa Fe-centric trains hasn't been at the forefront. The district next month expects to hire a consultant for its service plan update. That process will include a nine-month study with about 16 public meetings. On the other side of that, Romero-Wirth expects to know more.
"There is no question that down the line, and as we look at climate change, we may need to look at how we improve our regional transportation options, and the Rail Runner may play a role in that," she tells SFR.
Doyle throws out a $2 million annual ballpark for building Santa Fe service expansion, and the scale of that number seems out of proportion to the benefit, says Santa Fe Trails Division Director Keith Wilson.
"I'm not sure the demand is there to justify" the cost, Wilson tells SFR. "If I was to lead something like that, I could not really stand up to Council and say, 'Hey, if you put up $2 million to run the train, you are going to have tons of people to ride it."
The city is also about to embark on an update to its service plan that kicks off in a few months.
"Connections to the Rail Runner are a critical component of our transit system. So when we move into the service planning exercise, we will definitely be looking at the train times and how we can better coordinate our transit service to meet that," Wilson says. "It's not too-too bad right now, but it could be better."
Greater speed is another trait that could earn new riders, and that's mainly tied to track conditions. While the positive train control project is going to eat up the next couple years, smaller track improvements are on the way, too. Doyle says a new siding near Alameda will help with congestion in a section of track through downtown Albuquerque that does not have modern signals, and the transit district should learn soon if it qualified for a grant to improve a longer section of track there.
The train wi-fi, which has been broken more than it's worked in recent years due to an outdated system, will also also get a boost from the positive train control project.
Doyle, the train manager, and Merrill, the college student, both take the long view.
"Part of me thinks it might have been before its time," Doyle says of the train system at large. "I don't think it was an imperative at that time that we had this thing, but I think it was very visionary to go forward with it and I think it's going to be something we are really happy that we have when the economy here starts picking up again and when gas prices go back up."
Merrill's banking on at least one more semester of good train and bus connections. She hopes to see more people from her school, the nearby Institute of American Indian Arts, and others choose the option.
"If we could get more people to try transit," she says, "I just think a lot of people have a preconceived notion of public transportation."
Ridership Trends: How many people are riding?
The number of passengers on a rail line that's competing with an interstate is directly related to the price of gas. When pump prices start to feel painful, commuters choose transit.
So with fuel prices holding in a somewhat cozy pattern, ridership for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express has been on a downward trajectory.
Ridership peaked in 2010 and 2011 with more than 1.2 million riders per year, then tanked along with a national trend. In the last fiscal year, fewer than 800,000 passengers rode.
Santa Fe Trails city bus service has also seen a decrease. Division Director Keith Wilson says that's partly due to fewer trips for connection with train passengers, but there are lots of factors.
"It's not just one simple 'it's the gas prices.' A lot of the research is showing that people's travel trends have changed," Wilson says. "So instead of going out and being social with people, they now sit at home and watch Netflix. And so a lot of those kind of non-commute trips are no longer being made, or the convenience of Uber and Lyft and stuff like that has some level. But not any one of them is a major contributor. Each one has somewhat of a small impact that cumulatively, it adds up to reduce ridership."