Melissa Mackel is a woman who loves watching wildlife, especially along the New Mexico Rail Runner Express tracks between Santo Domingo Pueblo and the Santa Fe Co./NM599 Station outside Santa Fe. Mackel is an Engineer on the Rail Runner, so she gets to see this part of the rail corridor often.
“I am a wildlife and nature lover,” she says. “I have seen eagles and peregrine falcons and a bobcat along those tracks. My father is an avid hunter and farmer, so I grew up with that pretty much in my nature.”
Mackel’s father, Ernest, is also a chess player, she says. While raising Melissa at Zuni he taught her to think four and five moves in advance, good training for a 38-year-old engineer who commands Rail Runner trains from Belen to Santa Fe.
Herzog Transit Services, Inc., the contractor hired to operate the Rail Runner, is Melissa’s employer.
“When running the train, you always have to be vigilant and looking ahead at the whole landscape,” she says. “But I like the challenges that arise when we are delayed; making sure I deliver a smooth but speedy arrival at our destination.”
Mackel started working on the Rail Runner in 2006, the year the service started. Her first job “right off the street” was as a conductor assisting passengers, during which she met some pretty interesting riders and colleagues. The elderly riders and the military veterans are among her favorites, including a Navy veteran named Phil who worked around planes during his years of service to the country. She finds inspiration in his stories of deployment around the world.
“I would love to get my aviators license,” she says. “I would love to be a pilot.”
As long as she is grounded and held in the engineer’s cab, however, dealing with the people she shuttles along the tracks is rewarding. “I like to think the long-haul commuters are the ones who benefit the most from the Rail Runner. Maybe they stayed up late the night before, and they can rest during the trip.”
“But I also think that taking people off the interstate helps to reduce the incidence of road rage. I used to work banker’s hours and I would see people totally lose their composure. It is as if patience, common sense and courtesy are not taught anymore,” Mackel says. She worked retail before being hired by Herzog.
Her father instilled those qualities in her and her siblings. “If we wanted something, or needed attention, he taught us we had to wait our turn,” she says. “He was old school; children are seen but not heard, and treat others the way you want to be treated.”
LOBO LEAGUE, TOO
Melissa has deep respect for her father. “He likes to call himself a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, but he is talented artistically and mechanically. He has civil engineering skills. He has built things from the ground up that would stump most people, but he breezes right through.”
Mackel loved growing up at Zuni, watching her father farm, watching the wildlife and enjoying the success of his hunting. Most of her high school years were spent at Zuni, but she transferred to Gallup for her senior year. “I was also taking classes at UNM,” she says.
She is a competitor and played basketball, softball and volleyball when she was in school. She even competed in debate, and continues to compete in volleyball through the Lobo League.
Despite the competitive spirit, Melissa Mackle appreciates her colleagues at Herzog, and their willingness to help each other through low periods. “The camaraderie with my co-workers is what boosts your moral and helps you get through.”
That, and the lessons she learned from a farming father who thinks four or five moves ahead.
Story and Photo by: Martin Frentzel