Amtrak’s Southwest Chief flew through Bernalillo recently making less of a roar and more of a whoosh.
Roller-bearing axles and welded track instead of bolted sections will do that as steel wheels polish steel rails. The old-timey clickity-clack of track noise vanished some years ago, but now another sound is missing: locomotive air horns.
Gone as of Sept. 13 are four horn blasts every time a train approached and sped over the town’s two street crossings and two designated pedestrian crossings. All it took to accomplish that was mounting fatalities, at least 15 years of effort and several million dollars.
The result is 1.5 miles of paved trackside trails and barrier fencing, a walking bridge over the Bernalillo acequia, pedestrian crossings with gates, bells and flashing lights in central and northern Bernalillo and four-quadrant gates at the Avenida Bernalillo and Lucero Avenue crossings to block anyone who might have driven around the previous two shorter gates.
“It’s done from one end of town to the other,” town Public Works Director Troy Martinez said.
The return of peace to one neighborhood was so sudden, two residents said they hadn’t noticed the sudden absence of train horns until contacted by the Signpost. What they had noticed was horns getting louder in recent months without realizing the second pedestrian crossing had opened nearby.
That crossing south of the Sandoval/US 550 Rail Runner station was aimed in part at Bernalillo High School students in eastern neighborhoods walking to and from class. It also created the fourth location where federal regulations require train engineers to sound a standard horn signal: two long, one short, and another long until the front of the train clears the crossing.
Federal Railroad Administration statistics showed 13 pedestrians, all considered trespassers by the railroad, died on the tracks in Bernalillo between 1995 and 2016. The tally since 2000 includes several teens on the main track, one an apparent suicide, another listening to earbuds as a train approached from behind.
Among the adult fatalities have been at least one suicide, a possible homicide, an adult man listening to earbuds and intoxicated men.
Two teens also died about a mile south of Bernalillo on Sandia Pueblo when an Amtrak train hit their vehicle at an unprotected crossing now in a quiet zone with warning lights and four-quadrant crossing gates. And in July 2022, a father and daughter died in a collision with a Rail Runner train at a private crossing north of Algodones.
Town leaders have acted on safety improvements along the tracks since at least 2009 when they added a quiet zone to their priority list for legislative funding requests. However, getting there required agreement among the state Department of Transportation, the Rio Metro Transit District and BNSF Railway plus help from the Mid-Region Council of Governments, heavy lifting by town staff and infusions of cash from town, state and federal sources.
The first phase of the town project completed in 2019 installed a pedestrian crossing with gates, lights and bells connecting east and west neighborhoods at the Downtown Rail Runner Express station. That also added barrier fencing and 0.4 miles of trail on the west side of the tracks.
The now-completed second phase upgraded the highway crossings, built the second pedestrian crossing and extended the trail north and south. Bills for the second phase are still coming in, but the overall cost is about $5 million.
In a typical weekday, Bernalillo sees 19 passenger trains: Amtrak around noon and 3:30 p.m. and Rail Runner commuter trains spread between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. There’s also a middle-of-the-night BNSF Railway local freight train servicing an asphalt plant at Rosario about 25 track miles north of Bernalillo.
Otherwise freight trains are absent since the state bought the Rail Runner line from BNSF, which rerouted its trains through Texas.
Regulations limit the sound level of locomotive horns to 110 decibels, often compared to standing three feet from a chainsaw. Requiring hearing protection is common practice in the railroad industry.
Operation Lifesaver (OLI.org), a nonprofit national safety campaign sponsored by railroads, is currently holding its annual Rail Safety Week Sept. 18-24.