On May 6 and 7, the Las Cruces Railroad Museum will hold its ninth annual Railroad Days to celebrate railroading’s past and present in Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley. It promises to be a fun-filled and educational event, with a variety of rail equipment on display, music, model train layouts, historical reenactments and much more.
As an exhibit at the Branigan Cultural Center explains, the arrival of the first railroad in Las Cruces in April 1881 influenced nearly every aspect of the town’s life. Among many other things, the new railroad opened up Las Cruces and the surrounding region to new markets around the country.
Over the years, the economy and freight railroads have continued to grow together. Today, the Las Cruces region is served by two large railroads — BNSF (the successor to the railroad that first rode into Las Cruces in 1881) and Union Pacific — as well as the smaller Southwestern Railroad. Together, they and New Mexico’s other railroads form a network spanning some 1,800 miles, part of a nationwide network of nearly 140,000 miles that serves nearly every industrial, wholesale, retail and resource-based sector of the U.S. economy.
In a typical year, some 140 million tons of freight originate in, terminate in, or pass through New Mexico by rail. This includes millions of tons of coal, chemicals, grain and other products, and it also includes tens of millions of tons of intermodal traffic. Intermodal is the movement of shipping containers and truck trailers on railroad flat cars, and it accounts for more freight moving through New Mexico than any other category of rail traffic.
Intermodal’s importance in New Mexico is sure to grow. BNSF has long had an intermodal hub in Albuquerque, and in April 2014 Union Pacific opened a new 2,200-acre intermodal terminal just down the road from Las Cruces in Santa Teresa. This $400 million facility, located on UP’s famous “Sunset Route,” has already made the southern region of New Mexico a strategic focal point where shippers can leverage the economic and environmental benefits of shipping freight by rail.
Those benefits are substantial, in part because of the scale that freight railroads provide. One railcar of New Mexico coal, for example, is enough to provide electricity for approximately 21 homes for a year; one railcar can carry more than 90 tons of feed for New Mexico’s cattle. This scale helps New Mexico firms compete effectively in a global marketplace and ultimately enables the lower prices to consumers these large firms typically bring.
Freight railroads also make options available to rail customers that might not otherwise exist. For example, if only trucks were used to supply coal, a power plant could probably only use coal mined nearby. But railroads deliver coal economically over long distances, which helps explain why New Mexico coal is used to generate electricity in Arizona.
On the environmental side, one train can carry as much freight as several hundred trucks. That means railroads produce key public benefits such as reduced highway congestion, lower fuel use and related greenhouse gas emissions, and reduced need for costly highway repair and maintenance.
Which brings up a final key point: unlike trucks, barges and airlines, America’s privately owned freight railroads operate almost exclusively on infrastructure that they own, build, maintain and pay for themselves. In the last five years alone, U.S. freight railroads have spent over $132 billion — their own funds, not taxpayer dollars — on capital expenditures and maintenance expenses related to their infrastructure and equipment.
Looking ahead, as the economy grows, the need to move more freight will grow too. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently forecast that total U.S. freight movements will rise by more than 40 percent by 2045. By plowing massive amounts of private funds back into their networks, by advocating for sensible regulatory policies, and by continuing to work cooperatively with their employees, their customers, and government entities, America’s (and New Mexico’s) freight railroads are getting ready today to meet tomorrow’s transportation needs.
As you enjoy yourselves at Railroad Days, remember that railroading in and around Las Cruces isn’t just a thing of the past. In the years ahead, America’s railroads will continue to deliver for Las Cruces, for New Mexico, and for the wider world.