Rail Runner Ridership remained pathetic in 2021

The New Mexico Rail Runner Express (like many transit systems) had been losing ridership for many years before the Pandemic, but the rise of COVID 19 in March of 2020 drastically reduced the number of people who take the train.

And, while (as the chart below shows) the number of riders rose slightly in 2021 relative to the nadir of 2020, the fact is that many transportation analysts believe that “mass” transit has been fundamentally and even permanently impacted in a very negative way by the Pandemic.

After all, the train was primarily used by government workers to commute up to Santa Fe. If a large fraction of them no longer have to make the commute, they get the benefit of 3 or more hours back that they’d otherwise spend commuting AND they have a more flexible schedule.

WILL transit ever come back? Who knows? What we do know is that New Mexico continues to shovel tens of millions of dollars into a  train system with a vanishingly small number of riders.

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14 Replies to “Rail Runner Ridership remained pathetic in 2021”

  1. First off, the station links are pretty much ok but I never looked at planning for this trainset to be diesel electric and not all electric. I think that was a bow early on to Governor Richardson who wanted to be President and done with the project in time to gloat.

    As to having ridership, that can be done. It has to be faster than the car, which an all electric line can do with speeds up to and exceeding 100 mph, also quieter in the neighborhoods and Pueblo. With premium gas already hit $6 plus a gallon in Los Angeles, the single car rider is not faring well this year already with a barrel of oil already at twice the price of not even two years ago.

    Our vision as the Urban Transportation and Policy Board Public Involvement Committee (I was it’s Chairman) was to not have the State of New Mexico and City of Santa Fe incur the costs of I-25 and St. Francis Drive widening. Today it would likely be in the neighborhood of way over a billion dollars (60 miles x $10 million for new SB and NB lane, $30 million for each bridge reconstruction, ROW purchase alone in Santa Fe in the tens of millions not including structured parking at $40 000 to $50 000 a space plus annual maintainance for all of the above)

    So let’s say how to fix it. I offered early on a solution and perhaps research and engineers will either prove me right or wrong.. The Arizona Black Mesa coal mine rail line is no more. It served the now closed Navajo Power Generating Station. It was the only rail line not attached or linked to any other rail line nationally. It also was run on overhead electricity and it’s length in miles was close to that of the Railrunner. The Navajo are considering it as a tourism rail line but that ridership is likely to pencil out a magnitude worse than the Railrunner. My suggestion to State DOT is to get an evaluation of the utility of buying and reusing that electrified line for an all electric Railrunner.

    Nothing ventured, nothing gained is what my Dad always said to me.

    If it meets the engineering tests for reuse and we can find ourselves a low price to pay, a low offer to remove, transport to NM and rebuild it for the Railrunner we could be in business with a truly rapid rail and with ridership to boot. If not we have the parameters necessary to plan to fix the Railrunner line to work.

    1. This has to be a joke. An incredible failure already and you want to spend more money to convert it to a larger economic failure? Let’s be real. A commuter’s time is worth just as much, if not more, than some gas money. There are simply too many stops for this to be viable option for commuters. 500 riders a day (almost all subsidized government employees), and how much do we still owe? It loses more money every single day.
      Shut it down NOW.

  2. Paul ,

    The majority of New Mexico taxpayers either like being fleeced, or they are just plain dumb. I’m thinking it may be latter considering who they vote for.


    Matt Rawlings

    1. Matt,
      Sometimes what the voter voted is not what the voter expected when the voter’s vote is counted.

  3. The entire Rail Runner was a boondoggle set up for Richardson as his personal vanity project that would gain him national attention for his presidential aspirations. At the time it was being promoted, I sat down with a professional cost estimator who had worked for BNSF. In one afternoon we did a cost estimate to construct and operate the train. The estimate was done off-the-cuff from our engineering knowledge. The costs given by the State at that time to build and operate the train were underestimated by at least two times. Our numbers, done in one afternoon were within 7% of the final construction cost and were within about 5% of the actual cost of operations. We even did an estimate using fully loaded passenger cars for 18 hours per day running both north and south. Even with a totally full passenger count, the revenue was not large enough to break even on operating and maintenance (O&M) costs. The train will always lose money and require tax subsidies. There is no way to get enough ridership to pay the costs for O&M. Sinking more money into it by making it fully electrified gains nothing – except spending more money. The State might as well pile tax dollars in the middle of the plaza in Santa Fe and set it on fire – at least that would keep some people warm for a short period of time.

  4. The state’s budget surplus is an opportunity to pay off the Rail Runner’s capital debt and shut it down. But that’s not going to happen, is it?

    The next best option is to privatize the Rail Runner’s operation by seeking proposals from contractors. A private operator may be capable of doing what the state refuses to do: speed service by closing underutilized stations, market the service to tourists, run special trains to major events, etc.

    The worst thing we can do is sink more money into what clearly is a failed business model. If the state is incapable of running a railroad to Santa Fe, extending it to Las Cruces or points north would be insanity.

  5. I am intrigued by Mr. Verchinski’s reply. If the Road Runner can in fact be made to work successfully with electrification and the resulting improvements in speed — and the incredibly expensive costs of I-25 and St. Francis Drive widening avoided — it seems the taxpayers’ longer-term interests would be well served. CO2 emissions reductions are coming at us one way or another, and it does not make sense in light of this fact to dismantle existing infrastructure that could help the state achieve emissions goals.

  6. In the absence of commuting office workers, a commuter rail is redundant. Repurpose the existing resources, quietly and quickly wean the subsidies. If the new use doesn’t work, final disposal will be easier to endorse.

    Ditch the 8-5 schedule, hire the freight schedulers (rail traffic controllers?) to do the coordination work necessary to turn it into:
    1) a high ticket price festival rail used once or twice a month for sporting events and concerts, balloon fiesta, big shindigs at the Convention Center.
    2) a late night drunk rail- divert existing puritanical booze taxes to subsidize service (and its cleaning cost):
    3) a midprice retail shoppers rail running on weekends and midday (perhaps with some van service). Since gov’t offices will be mostly vacant, private lease holders begin converting office buildings into retail or residential spaces, maybe someday run the commute the opposite direction;
    4) actual public transportation -run lines at 5am and 2pm to serve students, nurses, and those gov’t employees who don’t work 8-5 in offices, like building maintenance and road crews;
    5) remove half of the seats and turn them into local freighters for same-day retail delivery services. Price accordingly.
    6) something completely different: decommission and donate the cars (it’s easier and a few months faster than disposing of gov’t property through private sale). Collaborate with the film studios, some trades-based group, and students to create a physical renovation/repurposing competition.
    Get commercial funding for student teams to design and build a clinic, a tiny home, a luxury bar, a scientific lab, an indoor farm, maybe all of the above. Televise and advertise the heck outta it.

  7. It just always felt to me like another “ego” or “legacy” project by then Governor Richardson. Never made any real economic sense. Evidently it still doesn’t… And I love trains, went to see restoration of train down by sawmill district etc. I admit I’ve never ridden the railrunner. Just won’t support the boondoggle continued waste of ego-based projects.

    It’ll turn into free ridership like ABQ bus system. I’ll never ride ART (another ego project but this time by a Republican….) or that bad system either. Homeless, fights, stabbing, etc. would rather just walk and bike.

  8. I worked at an engineering company and spent some time with a professional cost estimator analyzing Rail Runner information as it was being touted as the answer looking for a problem. One of the assumptions we made was 100% capacity for 18 hours per day in both north and south directions. Even at that ridership level, it was impossible to break even on operations and maintenance costs through fare revenues collected. This means that the train will always need taxpayer subsidies to exist. Any additional money spent on the Rail Runner to “improve” is money being wasted as that will never be paid off as fares cannot meet escalating operations costs.

  9. A late comment. Although Spaceport has been an incredible boondoggle, at least the voters of Sierra, Dona Ana and Otero counties were asked to vote on county tax increases to support the project BEFORE the state spent any major sums of money (Otero wisely voted no). With Rail Runner, the opposite occurred: AFTER the state legislature had approved the project politicians came to the voters of Valencia, Sandoval, Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties to ask for increased taxes at the county level for the project. Just another example of the dishonesty involved with Rail Roader and what happens in a state with single party political rule with no meaningful opposition..

  10. Nice and civil discussion. Thanks everyone. If I was back looking at transport I would definitely have asked a few of you to participate in the citizens committee that the MRCOG disbanded.

    Maybe MRCOG never similarly wanted to address the issues of expensive boondoggle projects like the NW loop road.

    And thanks Paul for providing the forum.

  11. I guess the westside commuters and east mountain commuters were never considered in Railrunner planning. Oopsie. And definately having a more user friendly schedule of hours and better ticket prices would help.

    Seems Sir Richard Branson has found other ADD fueled hobbies to persue, the state should demand some type of gigantic refund on the Spaceport financial black hole from Branson. Hell, he should have been spending na TON more of his own money on it to begin with. ALOT more money.

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