“So you sit back and say, well you know, let’s not be sort of hypocritical about this. Roads don’t pay for themselves. You know we’re all paying [the] gasoline tax.”
Making a Connection
After several studies, it was decided the best line for the Rail Runner would be an already existing piece of track owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight railroad company. Rael says the first challenge posed to them was what made them think BNSF would let them run on their tracks.
“Our first approach to this was that we were going to lease the track or lease time on the track,” Rael says.
“So our first meeting with the BNSF was one of those classic meetings. We walk in and they say, ‘yeah sure you’re going to build commuter rail, okay, well this is like the fifteenth request we’ve had this week.’”
Rael admits they had a difficult time early on getting BNSF to believe they were actually going forward with a commuter rail project. Luckily for them the governor was able to step in again and get them a meeting with the people they needed to talk to, not that it helped them all that much to begin with.
“Their first question to us was, ‘OK, so you guys want to run commuter trains. What’s your schedule?’ And we’re looking at them and I said ‘Well, we’re thinking about running some trains in the morning and in the afternoon and the middle of the day,’ I mean what else could there be?!”
Rael says it was obviously a scenario where one side didn’t think the other knew what they were talking about, but he said they listened when he mentioned the equipment.
“It was when I said to them, ‘Gentlemen, we’ve ordered $35 million worth of equipment from Bombardier to build rail cars. We’re expecting another five locomotives that were ordered from MotivePower in Boise, Idaho, that are going to be arriving here and I need a place to park those.’
“And I said, ‘I don’t know what else it’s going to take to show you we’re serious about this, but we’re serious about this, we’ve ordered the equipment.’”
The BNSF’s response? “Are you kidding us?”
After that, the debate was on. Rael says the line they planned to use for the Rail Runner was actually a less-used spur of BNSF’s transcontinental line, which allowed them a little more leeway when dealing with the freight railroad.
“I think what they finally came to realize is that [they were] paying a lot of money to run trains and to maintain that track,” Rael says.
“And after some negotiations and discussions we finally said, ‘Look are you guys willing to sell it?’”
And the answer was yes. The deal was negotiated for a section of track from Belen all the way to the Colorado border — almost 300 miles of track — for $75 million. The track for phase one was purchased first and cost $50 million. The track for phase two cost $20 million and the remainder, some 200 miles of track was purchased for $5 million. In the end it came out to be about $250,000 a mile for class four track, which traverses three-quarters of New Mexico and goes through the heart of its most populated areas.
“I keep telling people it’s the deal of the century as it relates to track purchases,” Rael says.
“But it clearly set us on the right path. Now we had the money, the governor and his backing … and we had the track.
“And once we had those three things in place, then it was just a matter of executing and getting it done.”
Dispatching the Plan
Once the locomotives and cars were built and the track was purchased, Rael says the Rail Runner was only starting to get moving. First it had to overcome some of the uniqueness that made it special. One of these things was that about 75 percent of the rail line would be traversing Native American land.
“These are sovereign nations under the federal government’s jurisdiction.
“So even though the track was owned by the private company, the BNSF, and the government had just purchased it, we had to go in and negotiate transactions with each of the pueblos individually for use of the track, use of the corridor, etc.”