Rail Runner Advances

Sept. 28, 2010

The May 28, 2007, issue of Rocky Mountain Construction featured facilities construction for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter train, providing service from Belen south of Albuquerque through Albuquerque to Bernalillo to the north. The article stated that the challenging future for the Rail Runner was continuing service from Bernalillo into Santa Fe.

The May 28, 2007, issue of Rocky Mountain Construction featured facilities construction for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter train, providing service from Belen south of Albuquerque through Albuquerque to Bernalillo to the north. The article stated that the challenging future for the Rail Runner was continuing service from Bernalillo into Santa Fe.

The new railroad bridge grade separation structure crosses NM 599, known as Veterans Parkway. Aerial photo by Lee B. Morgan - EaglesEyePhoto.com The early stages of the Rail Runner met the needs of commuters from immediately to the north and south into Albuquerque. The service to Santa Fe is necessary to aid commuters, many of whom live in the Albuquerque, Rio Rancho or Bernalillo areas. There are many who live in Santa Fe and commute to Albuquerque.

The Rail Runner projects are part of Gov. Richardson's Investment Partnership program in New Mexico. These are special priority projects for meeting critical needs in the New Mexico infrastructure. While the Rail Runner program has been criticized for taking money that could have been spent on regular highways, it has emerged as a major relief for the large number of commuters between Albuquerque and Santa Fe now facing record gasoline prices. The Phase I route between Belen south of Albuquerque and Bernalillo north of Albuquerque has been successful in developing an increasing number of commuters using the Rail Runner.

Until the initiation of Phase II, the major investments in Rail Runner have been the locomotives and passenger cars and the existing tracks from BNSF Railway. Phase II began the most significant costs of new construction.

From the Bernalillo terminal north, the Rail Runner uses the BNSF tracks to the bottom of La Bajada Hill and to the east of the I-25 right-of-way to Waldo Canyon. The route then follows Waldo Canyon to the top of La Bajada Hill and intersects the I-25 right-of way very close to the La Bajada Hill highway Rest Area.

Once the Rail Runner track enters the I-25 right-of-way, the track will continue in the median for 14 miles until the route crosses under the southbound lanes of the interstate immediately south of the St. Francis Drive interchange. From that point, the route will diverge from the interstate highway and enter the Santa Fe high-density area, utilizing existing Santa Fe Southern Railway right-of-way dating from the days when travelers on the old A.T. & S.F. Railroad left the mainline passenger trains at Lamy to the southeast of Santa Fe. For decades, the town of Lamy, NM, existed almost exclusively to support the spur traffic into Santa Fe.

By the selection of the above route, the New Mexico Department of Transportation has minimized the cost of acquiring right-of-way. The median of I-25 for most of the distance far exceeds the needs for future lane additions. The design and concept includes six terminals in the Santa Fe area. Four of these terminal sites have been determined. Two of the sites are being held up awaiting public hearings.

Phase II

In August 2007, the New Mexico Department of Transportation awarded the Rail Runner Express Phase II design/build contract of approximately $125 million to Kiewit New Mexico/HERZOG, a Joint Venture. NMDOT manages the project.

Kiewit New Mexico Co., which recently changed its name from Twin Mountain Construction II Co., is affiliated with the Kiewit organization, known for their major heavy/highway construction projects. HERZOG Contracting has transitioned into a major rail contractor in America and performs a variety of other construction projects as well.

Construction on Phase II began in September 2007 for a planned completion in December 2008.

The work involves 2 million cubic yards of earthmoving; 9,000 cubic yards of concrete for Concrete Box for Rail structures and Concrete Box Culverts; 5,000 cubic yards of concrete for Bridges; 1,000 cubic yards of concrete for Retaining Walls; 650 cubic yards of concrete for Load Transfer Structures; 415 cubic yards of concrete for miscellaneous structures; 3.5 million pounds of reinforcing steel; 72 precast concrete girders; approximately 60,000 square feet of MSE walls; more than 10,000 square feet of gravity block walls; 124,000 tons of sub ballast; 139,000 tons of ballast; 50,000 concrete ties; and 98,000 track feet of rail.

Through Waldo Canyon near the south end of the new construction, the crews encountered more than 200,000 cubic yards of Mancos shale that was unsuitable for construction. This wasted material was considered to be too fragile to be used as fill material because of vulnerability to change when exposed to water. The design team, using 3-D modeling for the entire project, was able to balance the cut and fill through the affected alignment without needing additional fill materials.

From Waldo Canyon, the alignment crosses private ranch land without unusual difficulties. The intersection with I-25 required detouring the northbound lanes into lanes normally carrying southbound traffic. The detour was necessary for construction of a CBR structure. This CBR structure is on a minimally short radius of 2,100 feet and is super-elevated 1 percent to accommodate the regular speed of the trains.

After entering the I-25 median, the route has various drainage structures and roadway grade separations. In all, there are six rail bridges, one highway bridge, six LTS components, and five CBR structures.

The Load Transfer Structure concept, an innovation developed for this project, involved eliminating the need to replace existing concrete box culverts that would not withstand the rail traffic loading. Replacing such box culverts would have been costly and would adversely affect the construction schedule. The LTS concept involves building a small, single-span bridge over the existing box culverts. The design requires 14-inch by 89# H-Piling to be driven to specified minimum penetration or to minimum design loading refusal. The pilings are driven with 1-foot clearance from the wall of the concrete box culvert, thus minimizing the span of the LTS structure. The use of H-Piling eliminates excavation and reduces risk of damage to the existing CBC structure.

The LTS effectively bridges the existing CBC structure. This concept eliminates any additional live loading of the existing CBC. All LTS units are constructed to match the skew of the existing CBCs.

The Concrete Box for Rail is a grade separation structure serving the purpose of an interchange bridge but looking much like a single barrel box culvert. The CBR concept was chosen by the design team as a more cost-effective, less invasive alternative to flyover structures. The CBR provides less visual impact on the environment, while improving durability and ride-ability. These structures, with an average span of 175 feet, will provide portals for the Rail Runner to cross in and out of the I-25 median. Besides the CBR structures at the I-25/La Bajada Hill juncture and the I-25 near St. Francis Drive juncture, there are CBC structures at Straight Street, Ranch Road and Northbound Frontage Road junctures.

Multiple Challenges

The construction has been challenging. Water needed for dust control and compaction was not available within or close to the project limits. A source was located requiring approximately 2 miles of water pipeline to a detention pond near the south CBR. From that pond, approximately 50 million gallons would be supplied to meet the needs of the project.

Approximately 400,000 cubic yards of the earthmoving is within the I-25 median. Most of the remaining 1.6 million cubic yards of the earthmoving is in Waldo Canyon.

The presence of volcanic rock can change the nature of earthmoving. Such was the case with the excavation for the Frontage Road CBR. Crews encountered more than 290,000 cubic yards of Basalt materials. This required drilling and shooting with special control explosives. The crews were then able to remove these materials and proceed without much disruption in schedule.

The construction team worked through the severe winter of 2007-08 to meet the schedule requirements. April 21, 2008, was a milestone day on the project when the automated track welding and the placement of new track commenced. The new track laying started near the mid-point on the 18 miles of new rail.

A major difficulty to overcome on the project has been the severe winter with above-average snowfall and below-average temperatures. In addition, the construction has required detours of significant traffic on I-25 to construct the rail routes under the freeway. It is never easy to work people and machinery between two high-traffic lanes, even in a very wide median. These difficulties have been overcome.

Freelance writer Bruce Higgins retired after a construction industry career spanning over 40 years. He lives in Farmington, NM.


Key Project Participants

The Kiewit New Mexico/HERZOG a Joint Venture is performing approximately eighty percent of the work under the contract. The Design Subcontractor is HNTB.

Principal construction subcontractors are as follows:

  • Windswept Organix — Erosion Control
  • Sanbar Construction — Signage, Striping, Guardrail
  • Coyote Pumping — Concrete Pumping
  • JD Steel/PRS JV — Reinforcing Steel
  • Hank Gallegos Trucking — Trucking
  • R&B Transport — Trucking
  • Wildcat Trucking — Trucking
  • Ribbonweld LLC — Track Welding
  • Terracon — Geotechnical
  • Dustrol — Milling
  • VAE Nortrack North America — Drilling and Blasting

The project management team for Kiewit New Mexico/HERZOG includes the following people:

  • Kevin Swaving — Project Sponsor
  • Rod Hoy — Project Manager
  • Keith Spolar — Project Engineer