On Aug. 23, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express derailed in the Railyard. No one was on the train, and no one was hurt—and no one seemed to have much of a clue as to why, as reported in The Santa Fe New Mexican, "the track had rolled from underneath the train," leaving "several wheels of the train … lodged in the gravel alongside the rail." In the story, the operations manager described the event as "just one anomaly that happened," noting that such things "happen all the time. … There's a lot of things that could happen."

I enjoy categorical propositions as much as any other former philosophy major, although it seems to me that train derailments should qualify as one of those situations in which principles of causation come into play.

As it happened, I was one of the hapless drivers stuck at the crossing for 20 minutes or so before participating in a group U-turn performed with a surprising lack of honking, confusion or irritation.

As it also happens, of course, New Mexico's history is inextricably tied to the development of railroads, starting in 1878 when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway reached the state. That history is long and multifaceted, and I doubt the recent derailment will qualify in import for timelines to come. But the history itself will be just one aspect on display for the annual New Mexico Railroad History Celebration taking place this month in the Railyard and other locations throughout town.

I got an early gander at railroad enthusiasts Sept. 2 when I attended the New Mexico History Museum's monthly "hands-on" Making History event. The activity in this case was magnetic science, such as that used to create maglev trains—maglev being short for magnetic levitation.

Museum educators Melanie LaBorwit and Rene Harris led a group in using coil, batteries and neodymium magnets to demonstrate how the magnetic suspension in play with such high-speed trains works. So far, only Asian countries are utilizing the technology (Japan, South Korea and China). According to a recent Asia Times article, China's maglev trains' speeds recently reached 350 kilometers per hour. Maglev trains reduce the possibility of inexplicable derailments and, of course, transport people more quickly to farther destinations. The downside? They are massively expensive, requiring all new infrastructure; in other words, it's difficult to imagine such an endeavor happening here, given how long it seems to take to just paint new lines on the street to indicate turning lanes.

Riley Marks, age 6, and her grandfather Manny Marczak participated in an experiment to demonstrate magnetic levitation as part of the New Mexico History Museum’s monthly Making History hands-on program.
Riley Marks, age 6, and her grandfather Manny Marczak participated in an experiment to demonstrate magnetic levitation as part of the New Mexico History Museum’s monthly Making History hands-on program. | Julia Goldberg

Still, they're pretty cool, and the attendees at the museum's event had fun playing with the magnets, although no one appeared to get full lift-off in the experiment. So it goes sometimes with science, LaBorwit noted, as she helped various folks tighten and loosen their coils as required, experimenting with taping down the batteries to receive better contact. The activity was just one of many the museum provides to demonstrate types of technology in play with elements of the state's vast history. Previous programs have ranged from ones in which participants created computer-generated music, learned to use Geiger counters, and experimented with conductive ink to make light-up valentines. A program involving magic is on tap for next month.

LaBorwit says the museum is in the process of transforming the pop-up space where these events occur the first Sunday of each month (when admission is free for New Mexico residents) into a museum maker space. Patrons will start seeing the transformation over the next three to six months.

"We're really excited about the possibilities and collaborating with other people in science fields here in New Mexico statewide," LaBorwit says. (Email her at melanie.laborwit@state.nm.us to get involved or volunteer.)

While this month's activity focused on future train technology, LaBorwit says the programs are also aimed at highlighting what she describes as "heritage technology."

"A lot of people use the word technology and they think about future technologies and they're thinking about computerized things or 3D printing," she says. "The truth is there's lots of different kinds of technologies that have made life possible." Using windmills as an example, she says, "here in New Mexico, [they] have been used to pump water out of extraordinarily dry ground, which made ranching in the desert possible and transformed our landscape … were important technologies that helped us become who we are."

New Mexico Railroad History Celebration: Opening and Panel Discussion
5 pm Thursday Sept. 13. Free.
New Mexico History Museum,
113 Lincoln Ave.,
476-5100.

New Mexico Railroad History Celebration: Weekend Events
10 am-4 pm Saturday and Sunday Sept. 15 and 16. Free.
El Museo Cultural,
555 Camino de la Familia,
992-0591.

Exhibition and events at multiple venues through Sept. 30; visit nmrailroadhistory.com for information.