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Railroad in central N.M. for long haul

Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque wouldn’t be the place it is today were it not been for the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in 1880.

“The railroad brought people from all over the world,” said Leba Freed of The Wheels Museum in Albuquerque. “It built the city of Albuquerque.”

The Santa Fe Railway’s key decision was to choose Albuquerque, or more specifically Barelas, for a rail yard to maintain and repair steam locomotives. Albuquerque’s main drag, Central Avenue, was originally called Railroad Avenue in acknowledgement of its importance to the city.

“The Santa Fe (Railway) built 360,000 square feet of buildings at a cost of $2.5 million in 1915 dollars,” Freed said. “It employed up to 1,700 men, which was a quarter of the workforce at the time.”

The U.S. Census of 1880 lists Albuquerque (population 2,315) separately from Barelas (population 350). By 1915, Albuquerque’s population had grown to about 13,000, swallowing up Barelas as a place name in the census, to become New Mexico’s largest city.

The rail yard remained a hub of activity until after World War II, when the old steam locomotives were rather quickly replaced by more-efficient, less maintenance-intensive diesel engines. Activity in the rail yard wound down and, by the 1970s, ceased altogether.

The city purchased the 27.3-acre rail yard with its 15 surviving shops, sheds and other buildings in 2007. The city’s goal is to redevelop the site, which is a prime location, with an eye on historic preservation, Mayor Richard Berry told the Journal in an email.

“The railroad has a rich history and has been instrumental in the development of Albuquerque and New Mexico,” he said. “I am committed to embracing that history as well as promoting the rail yards as part of the vision of our city.”

Rail activity has long since shifted from Albuquerque 32 miles south to Belen, a city of about 7,300 people that has a major BNSF Railway inspection, maintenance and fueling rail yard to serve trains on the southern transcontinental corridor that links the ports of Southern California to Chicago.

Formerly the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and headquartered in Fort Worth, BNSF is the latest incarnation of what was once the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe.

BNSF is marketing a rail-served intermodal facility at Rancho Cielo, a proposed 6,000-acre master-planned, mixed-use community that straddles Interstate 25 between Belen and Los Lunas. The intermodal center would be a component of an industrial park there.

“We’re patterning our layout to be a mini-Alliance, an inland port,” said Jim Wood of the Albuquerque office of San Francisco-based Coast Range Investments, the private developer of Rancho Cielo. “We’re looking to land the first one or two users at the southern end of the property.”

Alliance Gateway, north of Fort Worth, is a privately developed, 17,000-acre integrated logistics center with more than 140 tenants as well as BNSF Intermodal Facility. In addition to transferring freight from rail to truck, the center has air cargo capabilities.

As planned, the Rancho Cielo Industrial Park would be 1,200 acres of warehouses and manufacturing plants designed as an alternative to motley assortment of rail-served properties that currently exists in Albuquerque.