Legislation proposes changes to train security, warning bells and fines

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

The New Mexico Rail Runner Express could have its own police patrol, would ring its bell for a shorter amount of time in Santa Fe and could tap into more funding under measures moving in the House and Senate this session.

Another measure would increase by $90 the fine charged to people who break crossing arms at railroad intersections with their vehicles — something that happens every week, according to the Mid-Region Council of Governments.

The Senate has approved a measure (SB245) that would allow transit districts to employ law-enforcement officers. The bill aims to protect passengers as well as railroad equipment, and the police would patrol the train corridor or ride the trains, said Lawrence Rael, executive director of the MRCOG, which operates the commuter train.

“It’s just really to provide a dedicated police to manage the safety and operation of the trains,” he said, noting the trains pass through multiple jurisdictions.

The police would be trained at an academy like the one for state police or the Albuquerque Police Department. Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, is carrying the measure in the Senate while Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque, is carrying a companion bill in the House.

Another bill (HB782) would allow trains that are traveling in Santa Fe to ring their warning bells for a shorter amount of time. Currently, the bells — used instead of the train’s horn in quiet zones — must be engaged when a train traveling slower than 40 mph is within 1,300 feet of a crossing. The bill would change that to within 300 feet.

Rep. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, are carrying the proposal.

Another measure (SB395), sponsored by Sen. Tim Eichenberg, D-Albuquerque, would fine people who break a railroad crossing arm $100 dollars, upping the penalty from $10.

Rael said that arms are broken at least once a week in the railroad corridor, which stretches from Santa Fe to Belen. The arms cost $1,500 a piece.

“It happens a lot more than people think,” he said.

Meanwhile, the train could get funding from a bill (HB649) that would raise the excise tax on new cars from three to four percent. Rael said the portion of the money raised by the increase that would go to transportation projects would mostly go to public transportation related to the Rail Runner, such as shuttles, but that the train could qualify as well.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, is pending in the House Taxation and Revenue Committee.

Other proposals this session would look at expanding the Rail Runner to cities including Las Cruces, Taos and Espanola.

Rail Runner ridership in the last month has averaged between 5,200 and 5,500 on Saturdays and about 4,900 on weekdays. The Council of Governments is still studying Sunday service.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com. Read her blog at www.greenchilechatter.com.