There is one idea that should be explored to avoid what will eventually be the demise of a major state transportation investment due to unsustainable losses in operating costs and pathetically low ridership.
A different concept for the Rail Runner is needed. Currently, the Rail Runner is flawed because it relies on very heavy locomotive engines and heavy two-story train cars, requiring unnecessarily significant amounts of energy and time to both start and stop; as well, the daily trips are so slow that few people even ride the Rail Runner.
The freight train scale engines and heavy passenger cars are incapable of quick or efficient operations, nor higher speed travel. The engines alone weigh between 210-220 tons.
The required massive amount of kinetic energy is unnecessary. Kinetic energy is defined as the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its intended velocity. The same amount of kinetic energy is required when decelerating from its current speed to a state of rest. Therefore, these massive engines and passenger cars are slow to start and stop, incredibly energy-inefficient and the wrong concept for modern commuter trains.
An excellent solution would be to convert the Rail Runner to the use of DMUs, “diesel multiple unit” trains powered by on-board diesel engines incorporated into each of the carriages, requiring neither freight-train scale locomotives nor heavy passenger cars. At non-peak periods, a single DMU can make any trip and, at rush hours, cars can be coupled together, matching passenger capacity to demand. Each passenger car is a self contained, self propelled, safe and lightweight carriage with its own internal diesel engine.
Adding passenger cars for peak passenger service requires no additional power source other than the relatively small diesel engine contained within each car.
Europe and Japan have invested heavily in development and implementation of light-rail DMUs. These faster and more efficient passenger trains are also compatible with the current Rail Runner tracks.
If an analysis of operating cost savings has not been prepared, the entire concept of the Rail Runner should be reexamined with a fresh pair of eyes. While noble in its desire to cater to countless stops, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on a more frequent and faster nonstop service between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the two major population centers served. While the current tracks might not support this speed, DMUs can travel as fast as 124 mph.
In 2016, federal regulators finally adopted U.S. railway standards (last amended in the 1930s) for lightweight, faster and more efficient trains. With a Biden commitment of trillions of dollars for transportation infrastructure improvements, the state cannot miss out on a portion of this funding to drastically improve our commuter train.
I strongly recommend that the Department of Transportation immediately investigate creative and modern alternatives to the existing Rail Runner. We must explore a study of the feasibility of the conversion to DMUs from the freight train model currently in use.
For the future of mass transit in New Mexico, we must begin the process of saving the Rail Runner from itself, and be ahead of the curve with solutions and ideas when applying for federal transportation infrastructure funding.
Joe Schepps is president and co-owner of the Inn on the Alameda in Santa Fe.