The 80-inch monitor hanging on the wall above the customer service desk at the New Mexico Rail Runner Express office displays scenes from 33 security cameras along the Rail Runner’s Belen-to-Santa Fe corridor. Three more are focused on the actual train yard.
Monitoring the cameras, answering phones, and sending messages to staff occupy much of the work schedule for the five members of the customer service team who like to think of themselves as a “family.” Despite the other duties, those cameras demand a lot of attention.
“We spend a lot of time watching the cameras to make sure there is no one on the tracks,” says Nicole Perches, an eight-year veteran of the customer service team. “We monitor the cameras for the safety of the passengers,” she says.
Sometimes, though, the staff looks for other things. “When we have big events I’ll look at the cameras to see which stations have the largest crowds. That way I can let the train crew and operations staff know which stations are the busiest.”
In addition to being the eyes of the Rail Runner, customer service employees provide veterans with their Freedom Pass. They also help passengers learn how to read fare rates as well as train and bus schedules in a state that is still learning how to fully take advantage of public transportation.
“We deal with about 120,000 callers annually,” says Jenna Paulson, Customer Service Manager for the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which provides operations for the Rail Runner. “And that’s not counting people we talk to face-to-face during events and walk-ins,” she says. Paulson has worked for Rio Metro for going on five years. She says the entire staff can answer questions quickly because the riding public seems to share similar concerns.
“About 90 percent of the callers ask the same questions,” Paulson says.
It took Paulson between four and six months to become familiar enough with the Rail Runner and associated bus routes to learn the Q-and-A portion of her job, and that’s how long the average employee takes to absorb the material. “Sometimes we do need to look up stuff; we are not encyclopedias,” she says.
Because public transit is new to many riders, and it is also gaining popularity with veterans and seniors, building confidence in riders’ own abilities to figure schedules and fares is a large part of what customer service does.
For example: “Not too long ago I got a call from an elderly lady who wanted to ride to Santa Fe to visit her sister,” Paulson says. She usually drove to Santa Fe with another family member, but on that day no one could help her. “The caller wanted to make this a weekly trip, and eventually I learned she lived close to the Los Ranchos Station. I figured out that the sister’s house was not too far from the South Capitol Station, and toward the end of the call she said, ‘I thought it would be a lot more difficult to figure this out.’
“That was very rewarding for me,” Paulson says. “I was able to give her the independence she needed to go visit her sister without involving other family members. And senior citizens are a big part of our ridership.”
For Lisa Sedillo, a three-year veteran of the Rail Runner’s customer service family, helping a mother whose daughter became uncomfortable during a ride provided a lot of job satisfaction.
“The mother called down here to report that someone was bothering her daughter,” Sedillo says. “I was able to notify the staff onboard, and they resolved the problem. That mother was so happy she sent cookies and brownies to the office.”
Kelly Benavidez and Eric Murphy were working one day when a rider in a wheelchair rolled off the ramp onto the tracks at the Sandia Station. “We watched him struggling,” Benavidez says. They called police, the Rail Runner staff, and the Sandia Casino shuttle operators to summon help, and ultimately the endangered passenger was pulled to safety. “We help a lot of people,” Benavidez says.
Before Paulson took the Customer Service Manager job, she rode the train to Santa Fe occasionally.
“I am not a fan of the drive up there,” she says, “and parking in downtown Santa Fe is tricky. But I really enjoy the plaza. I like to get off the train and just meander through town visiting the art galleries and museums.”
Eric Murphy, however, loves trains – a lot. “I used to live near the train tracks and I would always get excited when the train came through,” he says. “Our house would shake and I could hear the whistle.” His mom bought him model trains and his dad helped him build a track in a small shed on their property.
While enrolled in the South Valley Academy, Murphy had the chance to do service learning, and due to this interest in trains he asked to do an internship with the Rail Runner. After his six-month internship, he was hired on and has been with the customer service family for five years now.
“I am here to maintain the first-class service we have always provided,” he says.
A graduate of the University of New Mexico, Paulson realizes providing positive impressions of public transit plays a role in making her job a good fit.
“People here are hesitant to use public transit,” she says, “they are just so set in using their own vehicles. But when they take the trains and buses, they don’t have to worry about traffic, about gas, about their safety.”
In addition to taking calls at the office, monitoring the cameras, and communicating to train staff and other transit agencies, the customer service staff attend public outreach events throughout the year. Working face-to-face events is more about creating awareness of the transit system. “There are people who don’t know we have a train station in Belen, and that we have buses that will take you to Taos,” Paulson says.
“We get the word out,” says Paulson. “We wear so many hats.”
If you don’t believe that, call 866-795-7245 and ask a question about riding the New Mexico Rail Runner Express and its associated bus routes. Chances are, your question has been asked a few thousand times before, and this talented group of individuals will give you the answer in seconds.
And next time you are waiting on a station platform for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, don’t forget to wave at the cameras. There are some very caring customer service representatives watching, and your safety and satisfaction are their main concern.
Story by: Martin Frentzel