There’s a red vest in Matthew Stone’s office that reminds him of how far the New Mexico Rail Runner Express has come, and we are not talking miles. The vest is from the earliest days of Rail Runner operations during which Stone worked as an engineer, conductor, and ticket agent.
“Actually, I started with the Rail Runner before we had trains,” says Stone.
He takes pride in what he calls putting his “fingerprints” on just about everything it takes to operate the Rail Runner – from those early start-up days to his current position as Operations Supervisor. That title means he wears a lot of different hats.
One of those hats includes supervision and training of the Rail Runner dispatchers, who work around the clock to keep the trains moving. Stone oversees and participates in “efficiency tests” – sporadic train and field audits to ensure that the train’s operations are working safely and by the rules. He is also an emergency responder for any major incident in the territory. Writing the timetables, day-to-day and special event schedules, amendments and updates to operating rules, and many other Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) safety documents are yet other tasks that Stone regularly performs as Operations Supervisor.
In addition to this laundry list of duties, Stone is part of the General Code of Operating Rules Committee, where he was elected to be a voting member, representing passenger trains across America.
A Family Affair
Did he always want to work for the railroad? “I wanted to be an airline pilot,” he says, “until I figured out that I’m afraid of heights.”
Being a third-generation railroad employee certainly helped prepare Stone for his duties. Growing up in Gallup, NM, he was inspired by his father, who recently retired as an engineer for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF). Before that, his grandfather was a track laborer for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF).
Stone began his own railroad career in Gallup as a conductor with the ATSF in the early 1990’s. After a couple of years, he was sent to the National Academy of Railroad Sciences at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS, to become a train engineer. He worked with coal trains and performed yard switching in Gallup until his BNSF seniority led him to operating trains from Belen to Winslow, AZ. He was working “on-call” until an unforeseen incident left Stone a widower, with two young daughters to raise on his own.
“At that point, I decided that I couldn’t work on-call anymore. It’s an 8- to 12-hour run from Belen to Winslow, but that meant I would be gone for 24 to 36 hours at a time,” he says. His parents were helping with the girls, but he felt that it was unfair for them to care for two young children during those long shifts.
Fortunately, this is also about the time he heard that the State of New Mexico was developing the Rail Runner. In January 2005, he applied and was hired by Herzog Transit Services, Inc., the contractor for the Rail Runner. “The best part,” he said, “is that I got to go home every night to be with my family.”
For the initial start-up, there were 8 Rail Runner/Herzog operations employees who were certified to perform all necessary aspects to conduct construction and train service. During this “pre-revenue” period, Stone worked as an engineer, and also provided “flagging,” where he kept right-of-way workers safe during the construction of the train stations.
Once the Rail Runner began service, Stone was the engineer for both the very first passenger train run on July 14, 2006, and the Governor’s inaugural train run on July 17, 2006. He keeps the original paperwork and pictures proudly displayed in his office.
The Rio Metro Regional Transit District took over the responsibility for Rail Runner dispatch in October 2008. Stone was hired as one of the first dispatchers. He attended training in Fort Worth, TX, and after two years was promoted to Operations Supervisor. Around this time, he remarried and had two more children.
His current position, however, does not isolate him from involvement with the major issues along the tracks. “I’ve helped with supervision, training, presentations, customer service, mediation, safety issues, and created full scale exercises as well as mock emergency drills,” he says. “I am an emergency responder, too. I assist the police and local agencies when we have major incidents, derailments, and station problems, in addition to trespasser or vehicle strikes.”
The personal highlights of his career with the Rail Runner include the inaugural train runs, going from a Herzog train engineer to a Rio Metro Rail Operations Supervisor, and serving on the committee for creating and modifying new General Code of Operating Rules, which includes the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC). He enjoys sharing his experiences with his coworkers, and being a mentor and friend.
In both his home life and in his career, Matthew Stone always keeps his eyes on the future, and sees a need to keep trains running down the tracks. “With the uncertainties of our environment, including global warming, we NEED these trains. They will help us to leave less of a carbon footprint, by having fewer single-passenger vehicles on the highways.”
Story By: Martin Frentzel