Monday, September 14, 2009
All in the Timing
By Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writer
Ten minutes can be a lot of time, whether you're trying to get to work or grabbing some extra Zs.
"Aw, I have to get up 10 minutes earlier, and I'm not happy."
That was Rail Runner rider Jan Biella's initial reaction after operators tinkered with the train schedule as a result of the August opening of the station at Interstate 25 and N.M. 599 outside Santa Fe.
Four to eight minutes, depending on the train, was added to the schedule to accommodate that new stop. That bumped up Biella's train departure time — and she pointed out that another Santa Fe station, at Zia Road, has yet to open.
"They'll add more time. That's the way it goes," the Bernalillo/Santa Fe commuter said at the time. "At some point, it would be too many stations. I think there'll be a pressure probably to have an express train."
The issue isn't lost on Rail Runner managers.
With stops planned at such locations as Zia Road, Santo Domingo and Sandia pueblos and at Montaño Road in Albuquerque, operators are mindful of avoiding service that is too slow for the needs of some.
That means express trains, shorter station dwell times — the time the train spends at the platform unloading and loading passengers — quick "whistlestops" and local service all could be part of the train line's future.
"We know one of the reasons the Rail Runner is as successful as it is, is because it provides a pretty competitive alternative to cars," said Chris Blewett, Rail Runner program manager with the Mid-Region Council of Governments. "And part of that for a lot of people is time."
While time might not be the biggest factor in people's choice to use the system — there are cost, convenience and quality of life choices to consider — "it certainly is an important factor," said Lawrence Rael, executive director of MRCOG.
"It's important enough for us to think about looking at express service as a way to deal with that. We don't want to create a system where folks are disenchanted with the commuter train because it's taking too much time to get to their destination," Rael said. "It doesn't mean you can't build those (additional) stations. It means that those stations may be served in a different manner, with a different sort of schedule."
Location, location, location
Location is one big factor in determining how much time is needed for a station stop.
The time set aside for the Santa Fe County/N.M. 599 stop was evident because, before it opened, the Rail Runner had a high-speed, straight shot through the site.
Now, "you're going from a speed of 79 to slowing down to a stop, and restarting and picking up speed," Rael said, adding that the proposed Santo Domingo stop poses a similar scenario.
Other locations, such as Zia Road and Montaño Road, might not require as much, if any, schedule adjusting because they are located in areas where the train already is moving more slowly.
The average Rail Runner travel time between Belen and the Santa Fe Depot, the northern terminus, is 137 minutes, according to the system map information provided on the Rail Runner Web site. The average between Downtown Albuquerque and the Santa Fe Depot is 93 minutes.
Several options are being looked at to keep travel times convenient. Among them:
Express trains — These would be runs that don't stop at every station but instead help to serve specific markets during key times.
For example, there could be "paired express" service where trains run relatively close together during key commuter periods so that they still have comparable departure and arrival times, Blewett said. The first train, say, would stop at stations A, B and C. The next one would stop at D, E and F.
Express service is "a way to differentiate between our commuters who want to get to Santa Fe as quickly as possible and folks where time is not as much of an issue for them," Rael said. The system already does this to some extent with the town of Bernalillo station, which is bypassed on early morning weekday runs to Santa Fe.
Reducing some station dwell times — "Right now, we have pretty much set dwell times at the stations, whether you need it or not," Blewett said. "So, we'll look at (adjusting) that as well."
Stations where train/bus connections have to be made, such as Sandoval County/U.S. 550, Los Ranchos/Journal Center and Santa Fe County/N.M. 599, require more stop time, Rael said. "Other stations, like Belen and Los Lunas, because they're 'origination stations,' the dwell time there is going to be reduced significantly as we get better and better at this."
The Santo Domingo station particularly could be a "challenge" in terms of how it's served, Rael said. That's because it sits in the middle of a segment where the train is now making up a lot of time. One option for the station could be "whistlestop" service, where the train stops, waits for 30 seconds or so and departs.
Local service — The train managers also talked about adding shorter, local-type trips to the system.
No cap on stations
Blewett pointed out that more stations also translate into shorter commute times for the people who will use those stations.
Gillian Yong can attest to that. Before the Santa Fe County/N.M. 599 station opened she was forced to take the train all the way into the city of Santa Fe, catch a bus, and double back to the community college.
"It's going to be convenient for me," she said.
Merry Crates, an Albuquerque resident who rides the train to Santa Fe, said, "to me, if they're going to open up the stations, use them. Because there's always somebody who could possibly benefit from it."
MRCOG officials said there have been no talks about capping the number of stations.
"I don't see any kind of a physical reason why we would necessarily have to say, 'All right, no more,' " Blewett said. "The trade-off is you add more service, or you change the type of service."
For riders like Biella, who enjoys reading, taking in the scenery or working while aboard the Rail Runner, a lot of time would have to be added to her train trip for her to stop using the service.
"For me, to be able to not have to put up with (automobile) traffic, they're going to have to increase my time by probably at least a half an hour," she said. "At that point, I'd have to decide how much I was willing to do."