Next time you’re stuck at St. Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road watching an empty Rail Runner roll through the intersection, consider this: It could just be looking for a parking spot.
Twice each weekday, the Rail Runner makes an empty run from the downtown Railyard to a rail spur across town near I-25. There the train sits for hours, until it’s time to go back downtown and pick up passengers at the Railyard.
These trips happen only because the Rail Runner doesn’t have a parking spot downtown. They add up to 20 unnecessary miles traveled every day—burning one mile per gallon of diesel, purchased at market prices.
Granted, that’s only $50 a day, but the empty runs also tie up traffic and bug neighbors.
They led Dan Stone, a retiree who lives along the Rail Trail, to recently place a protest sign facing the track. The sign, now covered, read, in all caps, “DERAIL.”
“If it ever does derail, the FBI is going to be at my house immediately,” Stone jokes.
Local officials and transportation planners describe Stone as something of an anti-train curmudgeon. But when it comes to the empty runs, Stone has a point.
“These guys are supposed to be environmentally conscious,” he says. “This has had a lot of impact on the city. It’s bad. It’s bad for probably a couple hundred families in Santa Fe. It’s causing a lot of turmoil because we’ve got blocked intersections that are completely unnecessary.”
Who’s responsible for the empty trips?
Let the buck-passing begin!
The Mid-Region Council of Governments is the lead agency managing the Rail Runner. But Chris Blewett, MRCOG’s director of transportation and planning, says downtown parking falls to the city and Santa Fe Southern Railway, which runs a freight and tourist train business and leases a Railyard storefront.
The Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation, a nonprofit, was chartered by the city to manage the Railyard property. Executive Director Richard Czoski says rail operations fall to the state, SFSR and the city.
City Councilor Rosemary Romero understands the impression this creates. “We’re all punting, is what it sounds like,” she says. But she says nobody is punting intentionally, and that six months into the Rail Runner’s Santa Fe operations, all the parties are still sorting out their roles and responsibilities.
That explanation doesn’t fly with SFSR, which parked trains downtown long before the Rail Runner existed. “It’s shocking to me now that the city is saying, ‘We don’t understand [the Railyard agreement].’ They were in the negotiations,” SFSR President Carol Raymond says.
Raymond is at a “stalemate” with the city over use of the Railyard. She made a ruckus last month over plans for a Disney promotional train to displace her operations. Raymond also worried someone wanted SFSR out to make more room—possibly for Rail Runner parking.
“We heard a rumor that they were wanting to sit there,” Raymond says. “If we didn’t exist, then they probably would hang out there.”
MRCOG’s Blewett says planners never expected to park trains at the Railyard during layover, “mainly because Santa Fe Southern has all their stuff stored there.” New Mexico Department of Transportation spokeswoman Megan Arredondo says there are no current plans to park the Rail Runner downtown but, “if the opportunity arises...it’s always a possibility.”
Parking the Rail Runner at the Railyard would prevent SFSR from boarding its trains there, Raymond says, adding that it’s normal for trains to travel around looking for parking spaces, as the Rail Runner does.
“Neighbors will always have their stuff,” Raymond says. “But sometimes, we have to say, ‘What’s the larger good?’”
Romero agrees with Stone that it would make more sense to park the Rail Runner at the Railyard. But she denies any conspiracy against SFSR.
“Nobody wants to have Carol leave that area. We can all benefit. But the relationships are changing,” Romero says. “I hope we’ve got all the puzzle pieces on the table and we can put them together to make a pretty picture. Carol holds a significant piece of the puzzle.”
Blewett says in the next few weeks, contractors will install electrical and compressed air hookups so the trains can park at the Alta Vista stop. That will cut travel miles from the Rail Runner’s layover—but it won’t stop trains from running empty through the city’s busiest intersection.
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