Rael says the nations were nervous because the track would run right through the pueblos, not like an interstate that would run around them.
“There are a lot of cultural issues, a lot of privacy issues that are associated with this,” Rael says.
“Needless to say, we did a lot of work trying to get everybody on board, and we were able to do it.”
The Rail Runner began service along the phase one corridor in July of 2006, just 25 months after the governor had made a 24-month promise to create a commuter rail service between Belen and Bernalillo.
And Rael says the deal came right down to the wire, “We signed the BNSF agreement about a month or two before we actually began running on the track.”
However, Rail Runner’s difficulties were just beginning. Even though the tracks were locally owned, BNSF was still dispatching the line out of its facilities in Fort Worth, which caused problems in the beginning.
“We owned the track but we still had to remember that [BNSF] was doing dispatch out of Fort Worth. Because the BNSF is such a big corporation, because of the labor contracts, you could never count on who was going to be on dispatch on this corridor,” Rael says.
Rael says that even though they had a contract stating the commuter service had priority, every so often a freight train would come along during the commuter route resulting in the Rail Runner stuck on a siding for nearly 30 minutes waiting for it to go by. While it didn’t happen often, the situation arose often enough that concerns were raised and Rael says they decided something had to be done differently.
So Rael says they contacted BNSF and said they were going to dispatch the commuter line themselves, which the freight railroad agreed to.
“At that point [BNSF’s] business model had changed dramatically because of the economy and they were not moving that many freight trains through this corridor anyway,” Rael says.
“And they knew they had a freight easement so we couldn’t unreasonably hold their trains and we wouldn’t do that.”
The Rail Runner took over dispatching in December of 2008 and Rael says that at that point he knew they were completely in charge of their own destiny, with a fair amount of credit to the BNSF.
“To the BN’s credit, and I will tell them unequivocally, the BN, once we had made the deal to get into this relationship where we owned the track and they had a freight easement,” Rael says, “they became completely a different partner. Extremely supportive. Very eager to work with us to make it work. Quite frankly some will tell you they were amazed at how fast we did it.”
While phase one was getting up and underway, the completion of Rail Runner’s phase two was being undertaken, which had its own “uniqueness” as Rael puts it. While phase one ran along existing BNSF track, for phase two,18 miles of new track would have to be constructed along with the usual prep work. Oh, did I mention the mountain range that was in the way?
Rael says fortunately they found a way through, if not around, the problem, “We found a canyon in [the] mountain range that actually gave us the opportunity to keep the grades at 3 percent.
“It was a perfect corridor to do what we needed to get done.”
Then Rael says they had to deal with I-25. As he points out, most cities around the United States have a redundancy to their interstate system, access and frontage roads that you can operate on, should a problem arise on the interstate. This wasn’t the case with I-25.
“We don’t have relief routes around I-25. Mostly because we have these federal lands, these sovereign nations between us,” Rael says.
“So I-25 is the only way to get to Santa Fe and back. If you have a major mishap on I-25 that shuts the interstate down, guess what, you’re stuck there.
“Once you get north of Bernalillo there’s no other way to move cars around. So there’s more and more incidents,” Rael says.
“Once there is an accident on I-25 north of Bernalillo, you’re sitting there as long as the accident dictates that you sit there and what we were experiencing more and more was a lot of that happening.”