New Mexico’s Rail Runner Express regional/commuter rail service will resume operations, starting March 8.
The colorful train named after the Road Runner*, the official “state bird” and sporting the bird’s head on the locomotive and its tail on the Bombardier BiLevel coaches and cab cars, has not operated since March 15 of 2020. There will be no weekend trains, at least for now. On weekdays, there will be two trains making a “commuter” schedule into Santa Fe from Albuquerque and Belen further south, and two midday trains for trips to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. There are also two other round trips between Belen and Albuquerque, which appear to be primarily equipment positioning moves.
The new schedule will include about half the number of weekday trains that ran on the pre-COVID schedule, and trains will be limited to 25% capacity. Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which operates the Rail Runner trains and local buses in the region around Albuquerque, said that commuters who held monthly tickets last year can reactivate them and use them for 30 days, and previously-purchased annual passes will be prorated.
The 97-mile Rail Runner trip is scheduled to take slightly more than two hours each way. The line runs along a New Mexico DOT-owned branch of the historic ATSF (Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe) from Belen (a point on the BNSF’s Southern Transcon route), north through downtown Albuquerque to Bernalillo (NMDOT purchased the right-of-way, the former BNSF Glorieta Subdivision, from BNSF). From there, it goes to Santa Fe, and ends on a short segment of the Santa Fe Southern Railway in the Railyard neighborhood near downtown. The Santa Fe Southern was historically a branch of the Santa Fe between that city and Lamy (which is still a stop on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief), and the railroad once ran tourist excursions between the two.
According to the March 1 announcement from Rio Metro, service will remain suspended at five stations: Bernalillo County, Montaño, Downtown Bernalillo, Kewa and Zia Road. There will also be no cash payments accepted for fares.While the trains did not allow passengers to ride during the past year, some trains still operated “partly to keep rail crews sharp and to avoid having trains and equipment sit idle” and to complete the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC).
Albuquerque resident J.W. Madison, who is also president of the advocacy group New Mexico Rails, Inc., is glad to hear that some trains are coming back, but he was not enthusiastic about the level of service that will be offered. “It’s better than nothing” he told Railway Age. According to Rio Metro, the schedule that will take effect March 8 is billed as a “temporary reduced schedule.” That would give riders reason to believe that service will expand in the future.
Rio Metro issued a statement that quoted transit managers. “The Rail Runner is such an integral part of our transportation network in the region,” said Diane Gibson, Chair of Rio Metro Regional Transit District Board of Directors. “We look forward to continuing to serve those who rely on the service to get to critical destinations such as work, medical appointments, and other places.”
“We are very excited to start running passenger service again,” said Dewey V. Cave, Executive Director of Rio Metro. “We are happy to be resuming operations of this much-valued transportation option for many in central New Mexico, and above all, we want people to feel safe while traveling on the Rail Runner.”
After nearly a year without the trains, Madison’s response did not have such a celebratory tone, considering it to be more of a mixed bag. He told Railway Age: “This beats the hell out of no revenue service, or killing the train altogether, which would have made some elements in our state pretty happy. Although New Mexico Rails, Inc. would have liked to see this glad event occur sooner, it must be said that Rio Metro has used its down time wisely; getting PTC up and running, and refitting the cars for greater medical safety. We’re looking forward like kids before Christmas to the resumption of full service.”
*Editor’s Note: The Rail Runner is not named after the Plymouth Road Runner, the iconic late-1960s/early-1970s muscle car, which in its rarest form was a NASCAR-homologated Road Runner Superbird equipped with the brutish 426 Hemi V-8. Beep! Beep! – William C. Vantuono