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The road to Santa Fe, New Mexico and the New Mexico Railrunner Express 9/27/2022

by Chris Guenzler

Elizabeth and I woke up the Best Western and following our Internet duties, we checked out and went to The Grill where I had French Toast and bacon and Elizabeth enjoyed her Denver Omelette. I then drove us to Clayton to a depot.

Santa Fe Clayton station built in 1931 which is now a residence. We continued to Maxwell where Elizabeth took over driving, taking us the rest of the way to Santa Fe.

Wagon Mound, a Santa Fe Trail landmark. When we arrived in Santa Fe, we parked in the parking structure before walking to the station.

Santa Fe Southern GP9U 93 in the paint scheme of the new Sky Railway.

The line up of engines in Santa Fe. Elizabeth decided that she did not want to ride because she did not relish sitting for four more hours on top of the hours of driving we had already done. So she got some much-needed exercise, checked into the Sage Inn and caught up on e-mail and the Internet while I rode the Rail Runner.

New Mexico Railrunner Express information

The New Mexico Rail Runner Express is a commuter rail system serving the metropolitan areas of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is administered by the New Mexico Department of Transportation and the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, a regional transportation agency, while Herzog Transit Services currently holds the contract for the operation and maintenance of the line & equipment. Phase I of the system, operating on an existing right-of-way from Belen to Bernalillo that NMDOT purchased from BNSF Railway, opened in July 2006. Phase II, the extension of the line to Santa Fe, opened in December 2008. Daily ridership, as of February 2019, was 2,200 trips per day. In 2021, the system had a ridership of 256,500, or about 1,800 per weekday as of the second quarter of 2022.

The concept of passenger rail serving the Central New Mexico corridor had been discussed for decades, but it was not until August 2003, when New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that his administration was going to pursue the implementation of commuter rail service, that a serious effort got underway. Later that same year, grants were given to NMDOT and MRCOG to begin the effort, and the New Mexico State Legislature passed Governor Richardson's Investment Partnership, a transportation improvement package with the Rail Runner included as one of the bill's projects.

Over the next few years, NMDOT and the Mid-Region Council of Governments developed a strategy for implementing the rail service. In 2005, a name and a branding scheme was chosen. The name "Rail Runner" is a play on the name of New Mexico's state bird, the roadrunner. The cars and locomotives were received throughout the year of 2005 and groundbreaking for the first Rail Runner station took place on October 31, 2005. During this time the state also conducted negotiations with BNSF over the use of the railroad track. After assessing the needs of the track, the state of New Mexico committed to purchasing the railroad corridor from Belen to the New Mexico-Colorado border from BNSF although, thus far only the portion between Belen and Lamy, NM has been purchased, to ensure that commuter trains would always get the right-of-way and have priority over freight trains in the corridor. While the engines are capable of 110 miles per hour, the track limits the maximum speed to 79 miles per hour.

The Rail Runner officially went into service on July 14, 2006, serving the Downtown Albuquerque, Los Ranchos and Sandoval County stations. On December 11, 2006, the Los Lunas station opened, and on February 2, 2007, the Belen station opened, extending the line to its southern end. In April 2007, two more stations opened: Bernalillo County/International Sunport on the 20th and Downtown Bernalillo on the 27th. On December 17, 2008, the Isleta Pueblo station opened.

Phase II, the extension of the line to Santa Fe, opened for service on December 17, 2008. Using the existing Santa Fe Southern Railway track from Lamy to Santa Fe, which is filled with sharp curves, would have required the train to slow to 15 miles per hour in some places, so new tracks were laid to allow travel times comparable to the automobile. The route uses previously existing track from Bernalillo to the base of La Bajada, a hill south of Santa Fe. It then runs on newly built track on a new right-of-way from CP Madrid, for five miles and then in the I-25 median into Santa Fe, at CP Hondo, where it uses an improved Santa Fe Southern Railway track from I-25 to the terminal at the Santa Fe Railyard. Two of the planned stations for the Phase II extension opened on December 17: the South Capitol and the Santa Fe Depot stations. A third station at the NM 599/I-25 interchange in Santa Fe County opened on August 1, 2009.

After the opening of the Phase II stations, several more stations opened. Sandia Pueblo station, serving Sandia Pueblo, opened on August 29, 2011. The last planned station in Bernalillo County, the MontaƱo station, officially opened on April 7, 2014. Kewa Pueblo station, serving Santo Domingo Pueblo, opened on March 22, 2010. It is the first station beyond the original 13 planned stations to reach the construction stage and was built using stimulus funds. On September 12, 2009, a special events platform opened for Lobo games service only.

At the end of March 2014, the Rail Runner added security officers to the system. Officers are charged with protecting the trains, inspecting fares, and addressing issues at the stations and parking lots. They are required to wear and use lapel cameras during incidents.

Construction of the platform at the Zia Road station, the last of the four planned stations for Phase II, was completed several years in advance of the station's opening in April 2017.

COVID-19 pandemic

Rail Runner service was suspended from March 2020 until March 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the suspension, Rio Metro continued to run empty trains along the route in order to maintain readiness of the vehicles and crew. Weekday service resumed March 8, 2021, and full service resumed May 24, 2021.

By April 2022, daily ridership had returned to 60% of pre-pandemic levels. To attract new riders, Rio Metro announced it would slash fares by 75%-daily passes priced at $2.50 and monthly passes at $27.50-from April 18 through July 31. During this period, average ridership increased about 88% to over 1,500 boardings per day. Citing the high cost of gas, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced in July that the reduced fares would be extended until the end of 2022. In addition, two round trips will be added on August 1st as part of a revised schedule focused on all-day frequency rather than traditional commuter service.

My Trip

New Mexico Railrunner 511 ready to take me to Belen at 1:02 PM. The doors opened about five minutes before the on-time departure and we stopped at South Capitol station.

An out-of-service New Mexico Railrunner Express train in a siding in Santa Fe.

We then curved into the middle of Interstate 25. We stopped at Zia Road, Santa Fe County/NM559 and Kewa stations in the middle of I-25.

Three views of the Sandia Mountains.

We reached the BNSF mainline used by Amtrak.

The cumulonimbus clouds were growing as we approached the next stop was at Sandoval County/US 550 station.

The clouds were really increasing in size on the way to Downtown Bernalillo.

These clouds were truly fantastic as we stopped at Sandia Pueblo.

We then stopped at Mantano station.

On the way to Downtown Albuquerque.

A wooden caboose and a Santa Fe caboose.

Denver and Rio Grande Western caboose 01423 built by the railroad in 1942.

Clouds as seen from the Downtown Albuquerque station.

An Albuquerque bus for Roy Wojahn.

Two out-of-sevice Railrunner locomotives.

Two New Mexico Railrunner Express passenger cars.

The former Santa Fe shops in Albuquerque.

The old Santa Fe turntable and the roundhouse tracks still there.

The train next stopped at the Bernalillo County Sunsport.

More of those impressive clouds

The train stopped at Isleta Pueblo.

Our crossing of the Rio Grande River.

The route of the Southwest Chief west to the BNSF mainline at Dalies.

On the way to Los Lunas.

The train stopped in Los Lunas.

On the way to Belen. We arrived there and there was nothing to do during the twenty-minute layover.

New Mexico Railrunner Express 513

On this return journey, I wrote the story of the trip and finished just before Downtown Bernalillo then relaxed all the way back to Santa Fe before Elizabeth met me. We went to Jersey Mike's for dinner before I worked on stories.