Commuter rail on existing tracks sounds seductively attractive at first glance. You don’t have to buy right of way or build new rail lines; you merely have to make a few upgrades and buy some used commuter cars and locomotives and–voila!–you have a hip new rail transit line to attract Millennials to your urban area.
If politicians ever did more than take a first glance at these projects, they would realize that it never works out that way in practice. Costs are a lot higher than expected, and even if you only run a handful of commuter trains a day going a maximum of 40 miles per hour, the feds have added to your costs by requiring you to install the same positive train control systems designed to handle the hundreds of 110-mph trains per day that use the Northeast Corridor.
Worse, existing freight lines rarely go where people want to go, so ridership is often low and fares sometimes cover less than 10 percent of operating costs, and of course zero percent of capital costs. Orlando’s SunRail fares aren’t even enough to pay for the ticket machines, much less any of the costs of operating the trains themselves.
One commuter-rail line that may be in an even worse position than SunRail is New Mexico’s Rail Runner, which connects Santa Fe with Albuquerque. Although the two are 65 miles apart, connecting the state capital with the state’s largest urban area seems like a no-brainer, similar to connecting Salem & Portland, Olympia & Seattle; or Sacramento & San Francisco (not California’s largest, but still very large). It is pretty clear that the people who planned the Rail Runner have no brains.
They replaced a commuter bus that charged a $3 fare to go between from downtown Albuquerque to downtown Santa Fe in 60 minutes with a train that charges a $9 fare and takes more than 100 minutes. To make matters worse, the train station is nearly 1.5 miles from the capitol, which is a bit too far for most people to walk. Despite the tripling of fares, Rail Runner‘s revenues covered just 9 percent of its operating costs in 2015.
The state collected $2.6 million in fares in 2015 against operating costs of $30.3 million, not to mention maintenance costs of $2.3 million. Thus, the state could save $30 million in operating costs a year by shutting the trains down, which would also save the $50 million to $75 million estimated cost of installing positive train control.
However, Rail Runner planners left a poison pill in the system: hundreds of millions in debt incurred to start the rail service. This is being repaid at the rate of $30 million a year with balloon payments of $110 million scheduled in 2025 and 2026. The state could easily reschedule those balloon payments if it had a thriving rail line, but if it shuts down the train, it will still end up having to repay $784 million including debt and interest.
Most of these facts are cited in an Albuquerque Journal editorial that comes to the unhelpful conclusion that keeping the service is a question “that will soon have to be answered.” Even more scary facts are brought up in a legislative resolution directing the state DOT to study the possibilities of privatization or replacing the train with commuter buses.
The fact that should tip the balance in this decision has to do with ridership, which is steadily falling. According to data in the National Transit Database file the Antiplanner uploaded yesterday, in 2009 the Rail Runner carried 1.35 million riders. This number fell in all but one of the years since then and by 2016 was down by 37 percent to 0.85 million. The first seven months of 2017 saw 3.9 percent fewer riders than the same months of 2016.
The logical thing to do is to stop throwing good money after bad. Spending another $50 million to $75 million on positive train control is not going to stimulate new ridership. The state should save that money, as well as future operating losses, even though it has to pay the poison pill. Unfortunately, politicians do not operate on the same logic as everyone else, and so it is likely that New Mexico will unnecessarily spend another $400 million subsidizing this train in the next decade.