Monday, November 23, 2009

New Mexico tourist train crossing is outdated

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The New Mexico Rail Runner slips into Santa Fe on new tracks with modern signals to guard crossings. But the old tourist train travels to Lamy, N.M., on outdated infrastructure, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. That discrepancy was highlighted recently when the Santa Fe Southern Railway tourist train collided with a car crossing the spur line on Rabbit Road, just south of the city limits.

The driver, who was cited with failure to yield, said she didn't see the flashing lights or hear the ringing bells on the signal as she approached the crossing about 4 p.m. Nov. 1.  The sightseeing train, which was traveling at 10 mph, pushed the vehicle 30 feet before coming to a stop. No one was injured.

Nevertheless, Santa Fe Southern Railway President Carol Raymond has redoubled her efforts to get the crossing improved. One obstacle is determining whether Rabbit Road, also known as Old Agua Fría Road, is a state or county road.  Raymond began lobbying the county for improvements to the Rabbit Road crossing more than three years ago. But recently, she said, she has been informed Rabbit Road is a state road.

State and county officials contacted by The New Mexican this week disagreed over who has jurisdiction over the two-lane asphalt road that stretches across a semi-rural but growing residential area south of Interstate 25.

State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Megan Arredondo said the DOT maintains 1.8 miles of Rabbit Road from the end of Old Pecos Trail west to the intersection with the end of St. Francis Drive and another four-tenths of a mile in front of the Waldorf School. But the rest, she said, is Santa Fe County's responsibility.

County Public Works Director Robert Martinez, however, said the county maintains none of Rabbit Road, which is wholly within the state right of way. The only part outside the state's jurisdiction, he said, is a short section linking it with Richards Avenue through Oshara Village, where the developer is responsible for maintenance.

Maps of the area do not designate Rabbit Road as either a county or state road, nor do they give it a number.

Regardless of who is responsible, the Rabbit Road rail crossing appears out of date. It lacks armatures to block traffic, or other modern systems like those installed at crossings used by the Rail Runner commuter trains. Instead of metal-lined grooves that guide trains' wheels through roads crossed by the Rail Runner tracks, the crossing of Rabbit Road consists of gouges in the asphalt that can get filled with gravel and dirt. The wooden anchors for the metal guardrails around the supports for the crossbucks (X-shaped signs at railroad crossings), lights and bells have been uprooted, leaving the guardrails loose.

Rail traffic at the crossing is down to two or three slow-moving trains a week - using locomotives from the 1950s and passenger cars from as early as 1914 - but vehicular traffic has increased sharply since Rabbit Road was connected to Richards Avenue in May 2008. Commuters from Rancho Viejo and other suburbs off Richards Avenue regularly use Rabbit Road to reach the southern tip of St. Francis Drive on their way in and out of town.

Raymond said she continues to seek improvements from the state DOT because, regardless of who has jurisdiction over the road, the railroad-spur right of way is definitely the state's responsibility. In 2005, the Santa Fe Southern Railway sold DOT the right of way from the intersection of Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive south to County Road 33 in Lamy. The city took over most of the right of way within the Santa Fe Railyard property. The Santa Fe Southern Railway retained the track south of County Road 33, the railroad "Y" in Lamy and the Lamy Depot.

Raymond said she knows of only one other accident at the Rabbit Road crossing since her firm has run the train. More than three years ago, she said, a truck swerved to avoid hitting a train, slid through a fence and smashed into a pile of track materials that the Santa Fe Southern Railway had stashed there.

"I'm sure the accident on Nov. 1 puts it up on their (DOT's) priority list," she said. "That's what they look at, unfortunately, and because the money is limited, they have to judge risk, and how they judge risk is the number of incidents."

The spur line was built between Lamy and Santa Fe in the 1880s by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway to link its main line to the capital city. It was sold several times, finally to the Santa Fe Southern Railroad in 1992. Rabbit Road is not the only problem along the line.

Raymond said other trouble spots include:

• The Spur Ranch Road crossing south of Eldorado. Raymond said a rancher originally built the crossing for his own use, but development of the area is creating problems. Although the open, flat area means drivers can see the train coming, she said, grading of the private dirt road has heaped dirt on the track, creating a potential for derailing the train.

• An unauthorized crossing built by landowner Jack Gallette near Arroyo Hondo. Raymond said a potential problem was alleviated when the county declined to approve a proposed development in the area, which could have meant more traffic using the crossing. Efforts to reach Gallette last week were not successful.

• All-terrain vehicles illegally using the Santa Fe County Rail Trail that parallels the track from Santa Fe to Eldorado. Raymond said ATV drivers sometimes race the train and cross the tracks in front of it, jeopardizing both themselves and train passengers.

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