Wi-Fi woes for NM’s taxpayer-funded commuter train


WHERE’S THE WI-FI?: Commuters on the Rail Runner Express complain that they can’t use the train’s free Wi-Fi service because of service that is either spotty or non-existent.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — One of the features touted by the taxpayer-funded Rail Runner Express commuter train is the use of free Wi-Fi so patrons can work on their personal computers as they ride between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

But commuters have told New Mexico Watchdog the Wi-Fi system is spotty at best and some of them have simply given up trying to log on.

“It’s frustrating,” said Donna Shaffers, who commutes between her home in Rio Rancho and her work place in Santa Fe. “It’s a one-hour ride for me and I’d like to be able to do some work on my computer, but I can’t.”

New Mexico Watchdog approached five commuters last Wednesday at the South Capitol Station in Santa Fe. All five said they were regular customers on the Rail Runner and all five said they had major problems logging on to the train’s free Wi-Fi system.

“I’d like to get stuff done on my computer but the Wi-Fi never seems to work,” said Derek Van Lee of Albuquerque.

Augusta Meyers. communications manager for the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, acknowledged the Wi-Fi system has had problems for months along an eight-mile stretch in the Waldo Canyon area of the Rail Runner route.

“We have a tower down,” Meyers said, citing an incident that occurred back in September.

But that was four months ago. Why is it taking so long to get fixed?

Meyers referred New Mexico Watchdog to the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

NMDOT Rail Bureau Chief William Craven blamed multiple incidents of theft at the base of one of the repeater towers on the corridor.

“The solar batteries that store power for the communications equipment and several solar panels that provide power to the batteries were stolen,” Craven said in an email. “The cabinet holding the communications equipment was destroyed. Stronger locks and other security devices installed on the cabinets after the initial break-in were either stolen or destroyed.”

So what’s taken so long?

“Replacements for the stolen equipment will not be installed until there is an effective security system in place,” Craven said, but didn’t give an estimate on when that might happen.

While Meyers said the Wi-Fi problems are restricted to an eight-mile stretch, a number of commuters told New Mexico Watchdog they’ve experienced problems throughout the system and that the service has been spotty for years.

“I don’t use it very much but whenever I do, I can never get on,” said William Zinn, who said he’s been riding the Rail Runner for five years. “It’s been this way since they announced they had Wi-Fi.”

“There have been issues with Wi-Fi service performance throughout the corridor,” Craven admitted.

Ted Gaudette, information systems officer with Rio Metro, confirmed that up until December, there were “problems for an extended period of time” but insists they’ve been fixed.

“We had a bad period where (the Wi-Fi connection on) the cars were dropping like files on the fleet,” Gaudette said.

He said the contractor, Presidio, has fixed the problem so that commuters should be able to get up to a 3G connection.

“They finished replacing (the power supplies) in December so it hasn’t been long so I suspect some of the passengers have had a bad taste dating back to last summer when we had cars going down,” Gaudette said.

Gaudette said commuters should be able to get consistent connections now, but not through the eight-mile stretch near Waldo Canyon until NMDOT repairs the problems at the repeater tower. And there’s no timetable for that yet.

Gaudette pointed to a link on the Rail Runner website where customers can lodge Wi-Fi complaints. Click here for that link.

“If there are problems, we will look at it and fix it the best we can,” Gaudette said.

The Wi-Fi issue is part of a larger debate about the Rail Runner since its launch.

Created with the strong support and the political influence of former Gov. Bill Richardson, the Rail Runner has been praised by supporters as a forward-thinking project that promises to alleviate traffic problems along the busy Interstate 25 corridor that runs between Santa Fe and the greater Albuquerque area.

“This is a historic day in New Mexico,” Richardson told reporters from a passenger rail car when the Albuquerque-Santa Fe leg was completed in December 2008. “Because what we’re doing today is changing transportation in the state.”

The train has its share of critics.

Taxpayers who live outside the Rail Runner route complain about having to pay for a train that doesn’t service their towns. State Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill in the 2012 legislative session to create an excise tax applying only to those who live in counties serviced by the Rail Runner while exempting taxpayers who don’t.

“Why are we paying for it when we don’t get to use it?” Muñoz asked at the time.

In addition, fiscal conservatives howled about costs.

Originally estimated by Richardson at $122 million, the figure was later adjusted to $400 million and by January 2012, the estimated infrastructure costs jumped to $843.3 million.

There are also two balloon payments totaling $230 million that come due to taxpayers starting in 2024.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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