Traveling from Santa Fe to Albuquerque is a study of intermodal contrasts, demonstrating both the promise and limitations of transit as it exists today. New Mexico is, as advertised, a Land of Enchantment, and the view out the windows of the sleek Rail-runner Express train that zips the 156 kilometers (about a hundred miles) from Santa Fe to Bernalillo, Albuquerque and Belen wins my award for most scenic regional rail route in the nation. (For the record, I would say the runners-up of scenic suburban rail lines are Boston North Station to Rockport on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and Seattle to Everett on Sound Transit in Washington State.) The views of mountains and high desert plateau are beautiful. Most of the right-of-way is a segment of the grand old “Super Chief” route, which the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway used to operate between Chicago and Los Angeles, arguably the best train in the nation half a century ago.
To continue this aesthetic paean, the New Mexico Railrunner also has by far the coolest logo and paint job of any train in the country, with sort of a Woody Woodpecker on steroids stylized on the locomotive’s nose, red and yellow painted plumage sweeping back over the train cars. Other western states ought to have transit like that between their major city-pairs but usually don’t. Corridors like Denver-Colorado Springs-Pueblo; Tucson-Phoenix; Austin-San Antonio; Dallas-Houston; Portland-Eugene; Birmingham-Montgomery all ought to have trains tailored for their markets. (Some state governments do get it, of course: North Carolina, California, Illinois among them. And North Carolina’s got a pretty paint job on their locomotives too.)
Albuquerque has also invested in intermodalism, too, integrating its local downtown bus hub, the Alvarado Transportation Center, with the Railrunner as well as intercity Greyhound buses and the one long-distance Amtrak train that still saunters through town once a day on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles.
So, it looks good. And some of the investment pieces have been put in place: new short-distance trains to the outlying areas and a downtown train and bus hub.
But behind all that beauty, true urban mobility is sorely lacking. What’s missing? A robust local bus network. Once I stepped off the beautiful train from Santa Fe at the downtown Albuquerque station and tried to get to someplace else within the city, time started moving slower. Many of Albuquerque bus lines run at intervals of every half hour on weekends, hourly on Saturdays, and often not at all on Sundays. It may look like a network on the map, but it doesn’t really function as one because the schedules are so infrequent it’s time-consuming to make transfers. Waiting involves standing next to large car-oriented arterials that are not pleasant places to be.
And THAT’S the real point: the inadequate bus service isn’t really the fault of the Albuquerque transit operator, a city agency that by all evidence seems to be doing its earnest best in a difficult setting, a setting not of its own making and one of a city that sprawled through the second half of the 20th century by subsidizing the automobile with wide roads. It’s created a suburban landscape that’s very hard to effectively serve with any type of transit, try as they do.
New Mexico is enchanting, but Albuquerque is a puzzle: terrific effort on the first intrastate regional rail line, i.e. the Rail-runner, but focused on a city that has no real center and a bus system that can’t serve most of the people because of the way they’re scattered around. And a good city-to-city train won’t optimize ridership if it’s just depositing people at stations where there are no means of making the final few miles to their ultimate destination. If you want to go from downtown Albuquerque to the state capitol at Santa Fe 70 miles away, the Rail-runner is a great way to go, but to get from any point A to point B within the city itself after 8:00 PM, well, you better call a cab.
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