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Rail Runner’s run-in with federal safety mandate

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s commuter rail system has two balloon payments to prepare for, in 2025 and 2026.

But another whopper is about to hit the Rail Runner – a $50 million safety upgrade required by the federal government.

Rail Runner operators, already facing balloon debt payments of $100M in 2025 and 2026, must also come up with $50M for a federally mandated safety equipment upgrade. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal )

Rio Metro – the agency that runs the railroad connecting Belen, Albuquerque and Santa Fe – has until the end of next year to install equipment designed to automatically slow trains when they reach unsafe speeds and prevent them from crashing into each other.

The local transit district has had more than eight years to develop a plan to comply with the mandate, and the Federal Railroad Administration appears to be running out of patience. It rejected a recent exemption request by Rio Metro and granted only a fraction of the funding sought by the agency.

But Rio Metro says it may be approaching a solution: The agency now receives an extra $4 million annually in federal funds through a grant program that pays for transit repairs, officials say.

Rio Metro might be able to borrow money by issuing bonds, then using the extra grant revenue to make annual payments on the debt. The details, however, haven’t been worked out.

“I can say that some of us are frustrated that we’re not further along, and we feel an urgency to get a plan in place,” Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said in an interview. “For the Rio Metro board, safety is the No. 1 consideration in our operations.”

Meanwhile, debt service on the Rail Runner costs the state Department of Transportation $28 million to $30 million a year, with the payments expected to reach $110 million in 2025 and 2026. And selling the commuter train isn’t feasible, according to a 2015 study released by the Transportation Department.

As for Rio Metro costs, even if the financing plan works, the agency faces challenges.

It may have to reduce Rail Runner service in 2019 if the safety equipment isn’t installed by then. The deadline can be extended if Rio Metro wins approval for a “risk mitigation plan” – a process that may involve curtailing Rail Runner trips or changing its schedule to limit the risk of collisions.

Albuquerque City Councilor Isaac Benton said reducing service “would be a really difficult pill to swallow, given all that we’ve gone through to keep the Rail Runner going and successful.”

Rio Metro is operated by a board of elected officials from local governments in Bernalillo, Sandoval and Valencia counties.

Deadline extended

The Federal Railroad Administration appears to be frustrated with the slow progress in New Mexico.

In 2008, Congress gave passenger railroads until the end of 2015 to install the equipment, a deadline that was later extended.

Thomas Herrmann, director of technical oversight for the Federal Railroad Administration, reminded Rio Metro earlier this year that the agency had once had plenty of time to prepare for the installation of “positive train control,” as the system is called.

Several “other public agencies have faced similar challenges over the same time period, yet have been able to make more measurable progress in installing, testing and implementing the PTC systems,” he said in an August letter to Terry Doyle of Rio Metro.

Positive train control is aimed at preventing train collisions and other accidents. Supporters say it could have prevented the Philadelphia train derailment that killed eight people and injured 200 in 2015.

The system “is the single-most important rail safety development in more than a century,” Herrmann, the federal official, told Rio Metro in last month’s letter.

New Mexico isn’t alone in struggling to meet the PTC mandate, but it certainly trails plenty of other rail systems.

About 71 percent of the agencies listed on the Federal Railroad Administration website have equipped at least some of their locomotives with PTC systems – one of the many requirements.

Rio Metro is among those that haven’t equipped any trains yet.

Benton, the city councilor, said New Mexico simply doesn’t have the financial flexibility enjoyed by large rail systems in other parts of the country.

“We have had this on our radar screen for a while,” he said, “but we flat-out don’t have a lot of resources to be paying for it.”

The Rail Runner, he said, doesn’t operate at high speeds or on routes populated with many other trains, making the risk less severe than that in more densely populated states.

Rio Metro, in any case, did secure about $3.6 million from the Federal Railroad Administration to help pay for the new technology. Rio Metro had requested $40 million.

That’s in addition to the extra $4 million in annual federal grant funding that might be used to back the bonds.

Hart Stebbins said the new grant funding hadn’t yet been dedicated for a specific purpose, so it’s available to go toward the PTC system bonds. Rio Metro has separate federal grant funding – another $4 million a year or so – that helps cover regular repairs.

17 fatalities

New Mexico Rail Runner Express trains have struck and killed 17 people since the system began operating 11 years ago.

Rio Metro contends that none of those fatalities would have been prevented by the PTC equipment.

Furthermore, the agency says it’s doing its best to comply with the safety standards, said Augusta Meyers, Rio Metro spokeswoman.

“It’s a huge burden, being an unfunded mandate,” she said. “There’s no monies from the state that go into Rail Runner maintenance and operations.”


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