ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s crucial, expensive safety equipment the Federal Government is requiring that could now force the state’s commuter rail line to cut some level of train service in the near future.
The Rail Runner is running against a short deadline and an estimated $50-million cost to implement a state-of-the-art train safety system called “Positive Train Control,” or PTC.
As the feds stick to a December 31, 2018 deadline for PTC installation, the Rail Runner is unlikely make it and has already submitted a “limited operations” plan that may result in a reduction to the number of daily passenger trains.
What is PTC?
“When you stick a $50 million price tag on a safety enhancement, it is a burden,” said Augusta Meyers, spokeswoman for the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which oversees the Rail Runner.
Fifty-million dollars is what Rail Runner officials estimate it will take to fully implement Positive Train Control. That includes purchasing necessary equipment, paying a contractor to install it, testing the equipment, and training staff members on how it works.
The Federal Railroad Administration calls positive train control “the single most important rail safety development in more than a century.” The technology is described by some as an automatic, computer controlled braking system. PTC uses GPS satellites, radio towers and ground sensors to track where trains are moving and how fast they’re going, which can prevent high-speed derailments or crashes.
“Basically preventing any catastrophic events along the rail,” said Meyers.
Rail Runner says it takes the technological mandate “seriously,” as the passenger rail line shares its tracks with other rail companies, including Amtrak and Burlington-Northern Santa Fe (BNSF.)
“There’s a lot of freight,” said Meyers. “There are gasses and liquids that could present a major hazardous materials situation.”
While train operators say the Rail Runner has been involved in numerous crashes resulting in 17 fatalities since it first began service in 2006, Meyers told KRQE News 13 that none of the incidents could have been prevented by a Positive Train Control safety system.
Regardless, the Rail Runner also doesn’t have a choice in installing PTC, as the U.S. Congress has demanded it.
In 2008, federal lawmakers passed a bill mandating PTC to be installed on all passenger rail systems. Lawmakers originally set 2015 as the deadline to install PTC. That deadline has since been extended to December 31, 2018.
Rail services that don’t meet the deadline can face consequences, including possible fines of up to $25,000 a day.
While the potential fines are intimidating, so too is PTC technology’s cost. For the Rail Runner, it’s the biggest challenge.
The $50 million bill
“This is an unfunded mandate,” said Meyers, speaking of the federal PTC requirement.
While the state (NMDOT) owns the Rail Runner and most of the rail line it uses, the Rio Metro Regional Transit District operates the actual train service. Rio Metro is taking the lead on the PTC project. The agency is governed by elected officials from various governments in Bernalillo, Sandoval and Valencia counties.
Rio Metro believes it will take $50 million to get PTC installed on Rail Runner’s 96 mile track between Santa Fe and Belen.
But since 2008, Rio Metro and the state have only set aside a fraction of the funds needed for the technology.
Today, only around $3.6 million from a federal grant is available for the Rail Runner’s PTC project.
In March 2017, Rail Runner operators asked the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for a PTC exemption, but that application was denied in an August 1, 2017 correspondence with the FRA.
In its letter of denial, the feds called out the Rail Runner, writing, “several other public agencies have faced similar challenges over the same time period, yet have been able to make more measurable progress in installing, testing and implementing PTC systems.”
While the FRA acknowledged the financial difficulties Rail Runner is facing, it also wrote, “we remind you that Congress first enacted the PTC implementation over eight years ago.”
In response to the comments, Rail Runner spokeswoman Augusta Meyers told KRQE News 13 that New Mexico’s passenger rail service is not alone. According to information about PTC on the Federal Railroad Administration’s website, out of the 41 railroad agencies in the U.S. subject to PTC implementation, only eight have some level of PTC technology in operation on part of their routes. No railroad is listed as having fully completed PTC installation.
“We’re among everybody else who’s scrambling to do the best we can with the funds we have,” said Meyers. “We’ve known about PTC since (2008), but it takes a long time to meet a challenge like that, especially when you put a $50 million price tag on it.”
However, the Rail Runner is listed on the FRA’s website as one of six rail operations that has made “zero” progress towards equipping locomotives with PTC, installing the technology along tracks, installing the technology on radio towers and completing employee training on PTC.
What’s at risk?
There are real consequences for the Rail Runner though that could come with the PTC deadline.
According to a quarterly progress report that the Rail Runner submitted to the FRA on PTC implementation in August, the train services has submitted a “formal request … for limited operations.”
The Rail Runner says that could mean a reduction in the frequency of passenger service.
“That’s certainly an option for us is limited service if we don’t meet that deadline,” said Meyers.
In an interview with KRQE News 13, Rio Metro Board Chair Maggie Hart Stebbins acknowledged the potential cuts as well.
“We’re looking at that,” said Hart Stebbins. “We don’t want to reduce service, but there is a chance under this mandate, for a period of time until PTC gets installed, that we might have to reduce the number of trains that are running.”
It’s unclear though what any of those cuts could look like. Rio Metro officials told KRQE News 13 that they think any cuts could be done with “minimal impact” to riders.
Today, the Rail Runner runs about 20 trains each weekday between Santa Fe and Belen. Typically, those trains carry a collective passenger load of between 2,800 and 3,500 people.
Fixing the problem
So how will the Rail Runner pay for PTC technology? Officials promise that riders won’t have to shell out any more cash.
“We’re not going to raise fares to help pay for PTC,” said Meyers.
Meyers also added that Rio Metro will not pursue a change in the current one-eighth cent gross receipts tax that is levied in Bernalillo, Valencia and Sandoval counties, which pays for Rio Metro and Rail Runner operations.
After a recent meeting with Federal Railroad Administration officials, Rio Metro Board Chair Maggie Hart Stebbins believes that the Rail Runner has a plan that won’t result in fines.
“Their message was, ‘we want to work with you, this is a mandate from Congress, we’re not here to penalize rail roads, but we recognize that you are under a tremendous burden and time constraints in complying with federal law,’” said Hart Stebbins.
She also believes the train has a financial strategy that can pay for the $50 million PTC investment.
“We feel like there is a solution that is not going to add any cost to New Mexico residents,” said Hart Stebbins.
Hart Stebbins says the latest financial plan will allow Rio Metro to bond against the roughly $8.3 million in annual federal funds that the Rail Runner now gets for operations and maintenance to the rail line.
“It’s a tried and true strategy in the state,” said Hart Stebbins of the strategy of “bonding based on future federal funds.”
“It is a relief, to me, having looked at this issue for a long time, to know that we actually have a path forward, a way to fund these improvements,” said Hart Stebbins.
There’s no timetable though on when the PTC project could be finished, and until it is, the Rail Runner is likely to have to scale back service to some degree to meet an alternative safety plan that’s acceptable to the FRA.
For frequent riders, the uncertainty of how PTC will likely affect their ride is unsettling.
“Well you know that’s too bad,” said Ruth Smith, who rides the train several times a week from Belen.
“It’s just one of those things where you just have to, you know, bear it,” said Smith.
“I don’t know what I’d do without it, because there wouldn’t be another way for me to get to work and to pay my bills and what not,” said Avery Marshall of Bernalillo. “It’s a reliable source of transportation for me.”