|Light Rail: Returning Us to the Future|
|Thursday, 06 October 2011 00:00 | Written by Marita Prandoni | Blog Entry|
When my friend from Paris and her family were visiting me this summer, I asked if they had had an opportunity to sample our train service from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and back. She retorted, “Why would we take such a slow train, when in France we can take the world’s fastest?” It's true Europe and many other parts of the world have more advanced trains and rely more on train service than does the USA. Yet this was not always the case.
For decades, more than 100 rail systems operated in 45 US cities. Then, in the late 1920s, General Motors began a campaign to methodically replace this efficient public transit with motorcars and slow, jolting, squealing, smelly diesel buses. Standard Oil of California, Mack Truck, Phillips Petroleum, Firestone Tire and the National City Lines joined GM in this venture. By 1946, National City controlled public-transit systems in more than 83 cities.
New Mexico’s Rail Runner Express has been in operation for several years. It serves a 101-mile corridor through the Rio Grande Valley. It has made more than 2.3 million trips and hosts on average 5,000 travelers a day. According to the Mid-Region Council of Governments, the train has taken about 200,000 vehicles off the road and reduced nearly as many pounds of CO2. An average roundtrip costs $8.
In a state where cities are spread out and many low-income people struggle to pay for gas, the train is a breath of fresh air. The route spans four counties, descending 2,000 feet from piñon-juniper woodland to river valley and the northernmost stretch of Chihuahuan Desert. The atmosphere is lively. People work on laptops, read or—unlike in most commuter trains—visit.
As we pulled out of Albuquerque recently, two kids mooned the train. Graffiti artists display brilliant tags across galvanized steel fences in the industrial back alleys of cinder block and scrap metal. High-density neighborhoods to fancier equestrian properties interspersed with doublewides flash by. Then, there appears a patchwork of lush fields and cottonwood groves. The Sandia Mountains tower to the east.
Passengers are asked not to take photos while passing through pueblo land. An ancient plaza across the river comes into view. Kids often occupy the ceremonial dance court next to the church in a dusty game of pickup soccer. Almost every yard in the adobe village has an horno (an outdoor mud oven). The pueblos remain much like they must have appeared to D.H. Lawrence almost a hundred years ago when he observed, “The great pale-face overlay hasn’t gone into the soil half an inch.…the peon still grins his Indian grin behind the Cross….He knows his gods.”
Only shiny red pickups, TV dishes and a smattering of modern-day middens with items like a cast-off water heater, mattress or toilet behind the rustic horse corral reveal the new century. I noticed a faded façade from an old trading post on the dirt road below the tracks—maybe from the 1940s or 50s—that reads, “Stop Here to See a Real Indian.”
It’s a toss-up. But given a choice, I think I would have to take a slow ride from Albuquerque—past primitive pueblos and through big unbroken land to Santa Fe—over a high-speed train through the Loire Valley.