Four things to know about the Wells Park-Sawmill rail spur

Also: speed humps along Park Ave. to be replaced
The Wells Park-Sawmill rail spur as it crosses 12th. RAKS Building Supply, one of the last commercial customers that uses the line, is in the background. (Photo by Google Street View.)

It was built for a bygone era, to be sure. The rail spur arrived with the sawmill in 1903, not even 25 years after the railroad itself came to Albuquerque, and did a brisk business for many years afterward. But more recently, a certain nearby interstate highway system has not exactly been kind to the rail business, and the sawmill itself is now a neighborhood with a brewpub, hip coffee shop, and other establishments that don't require regular freight train service.

You might have reasonably expected that after a long decline the spur would have faded away into nothing. But instead, like an old-timey cash register that still works with minimal fuss, the spur seems to have settled into a steady if much reduced mission. More recently, there have been a few murmurs about using the corridor for a multi-use trail, though at this point it seems as far in the future as the spur's origins are in the past.

We spent a couple of days delving into this largely forgotten corridor, which is now owned by the state. Here's what we found out:

(1.) Yes, it's still used for freight deliveries
In a normal week, two or three very short trains pass through to make the rounds, usually in the evening or middle of the night. The main customer is RAKS, the building supply outlet on 12th between I-40 and Aspen.

Manager Todd Tavet says they mostly get framing lumber and drywall delivered by rail, and have done so since 1994. The method has two main advantages: First, one train car is equivalent to four semi-truck loads, so it allows RAKS to buy in bulk and save - Tavet guesstimates 10-15 percent. The other advantage is that dealing with one big delivery takes less staff time to process than four small deliveries. The company distributes the materials to its four other stores using its own trucks.

"If you're in the business we're in it definitely makes sense," Tavet said.

Beyond that, freight traffic is sparse. Michael Hartshorne, the president of the New Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society, which is restoring a locomotive near 8th and Haines, said he's seen some tanker cars that would not have been destined for a lumber supply store roll by, but that's about it. 

"For the 17 years we've been there the traffic is probably best described as once or twice a week," he said.

Though the actual legal right of way may vary, this map shows where contiguous track exists, based on Google's most recent satellite photos. But thanks to a lack of maintenance, the track is basically unusable west of 8th. The north/south track at the right is the main line used by the Rail Runner and Amtrak.

(2.) The spur basically stops being useful at 8th
West of the RAKS turnoff, the spur isn't maintained, said Tony Sylvester, who works on the Rail Runner for the Rio Metro Regional Transit District. But the atrophying hardware still serves at least one purpose: Hartshorne said he's seen different rail operators bring trainees to the area to show them what decrepit track looks like.

Elsewhere, satellite photos and on-the-ground investigation west of 8th reveal orphan pieces of track no longer connected to the main line. Here's an example that runs just east of Mama's Minerals and the Tierra Adentro school:

(3.) Maintaining it is not easy or cheap
In recent years, the steam locomotive group has spent about $130,000 upgrading and maintaining what essentially amounts to its own short driveway off the spur (watch some of that work happen here and here). Hartshorne says they may have to spend even more just to get the locomotive out to the main north-south line. It's illustrative of how much money it would take to bring the stretch west of 8th up to standard, even if there was a demand to do so.

"Turns out track ain't cheap," Hartshorne says.

Even at low speeds, derailments can happen. This boxcar had a pretty rough go of it on the Wells Park/Sawmill spur in April. Photo by NMSL & RHS. More photos here.

(4.) A few people have talked about turning it all into a trail
Addressing a meeting of people who had come to check out the city's plans for the Central-Lomas Rail Trail over the summer, former planning director David Campbell indulged in a bit of "what if" and mused at the possibility that the project would be just the first installment of a trail that would one day connect the Rail Yards, Downtown, Wells Park, Sawmill, Old Town, and all the theaters, brewpubs, museums, and other attractions on the way.

"We were amazed at how much possibility there was there," Campbell said at the time.

"I'm fond of calling it the Ale Rail Trail," he added, repurposing the moniker ART for a possibly less controversial aim.

Vocalized daydreams aside, the idea seems a very long way off indeed. Campbell has since left his planning post to become Rio Rancho's city manager. We asked the city for a status update, and also whether its initial informal look at the idea had indicated whether a trail could co-exist alongside the existing tracks or would require all the space for itself. Jennifer Esquivel, the spokeswoman for the city's Metropolitan Redevelopment Agency, said only this: "Connecting the Rail Yards to Downtown and Old Town via the rail tracks in the future would be great, however at this time this is not an active project the city is working on."

Park Ave. speed humps to be replaced

A relatively new speed hump on Park Ave. in the Huning Castle neighborhood. The city believes this and another new hump down the street are not working and intends to replace them.

Though they were installed only earlier this year at a cost of $27,000, the city has deemed two new wider-than-average speed humps on Park Ave. a failure and will replace them at their present location. 

"They just weren't slowing down traffic very much at all," city spokesman Johnny Chandler said. The new humps had been installed as a result of a neighbor complaining that the older version caused excessive vibrations in their house, he added.

The current humps measure about 21 feet in width. The humps they replaced appeared to be about 11 feet wide (using Google Street View and curb segments as measurement reference points).

There is neither a design nor installation timeline for the new speed humps, Chandler said.

Here's are the locations:
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