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By Jack M. Turner

After checking in at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Albuquerque, it was time to make the short walk to the  Alvarado Transportation Center to catch a Rail Runner commuter train to Santa Fe.  On our 2007 stay in Albuquerque my son and I rode Rail Runner, which then was less than one year old, west to Belen.  At the time the line to Santa Fe was in the planning stage as new track had to be built between the former BNSF line and Santa Fe.  Service to New Mexico’s capital city commenced in December 2008 following the completion of 18 miles of new track between Madrid (the junction with the Raton Pass line used by the Southwest Chief) and the capital city of Santa Fe.


Alvarado Transportation Center serves Rail Runner Express, Amtrak, and Greyhound


The view from the author’s room at the Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque


The New Mexico flag waves in a steady desert breeze

Rail Runner train # 514 departed Albuquerque at 5:34pm and ridership was relatively strong on a Tuesday afternoon.  This train originated in Albuquerque sandwiched between a pair of Santa Fe bound trains that started their runs in Belen.  In all there are eight weekday trains in each direction between Albuquerque and Santa Fe with half of those originating or terminating at Belen.  A reduced number of trains operate on Saturday and Sunday in either direction.


Rail Runner train # 514 boards in Albuquerque on September 15, 2015


Inside Rail Runner coach 1005

Five minutes into its journey # 514 took a siding and two minutes later train # 515 rolled past en route from Santa Fe to Belen.  Shortly after the meet we stopped at the first stop, Montoņo, then proceeded to the stop at Los Ranchos.  As proved to be the case at all stops, the train paused just long enough for detraining and boarding passengers then departed to keep on schedule.  The late afternoon sun and accompanying shadows gave the landscape an interesting appearance all the while illuminating landmark Sandia Mountain to the east.  After passing through Sandia Pueblo and making stops at Bernalillo and Sandoval, we passed Rail Runner train # 517, the day’s last train to Belen. 


The late afternoon view of Sandia Mountain is spectacular north of Albuquerque

Just before the stop at Kewa we ducked onto a short siding built to serve the platform without fouling the main track.  This stop was adjacent to the Santo Domingo Trading Post but otherwise appeared fairly isolated.  Seven minutes after departing Kewa we entered the new Rail Runner right-of-way at Madrid by branching off from the ex-ATSF line used by the Southwest Chief.  Shortly before that junction another rail line serving gypsum mines at Rosario branched off to the right.  That line was once the ATSF main line before being relocated to its current alignment in 1970.  The Rail Runner line is noticeably steep through this area with a ruling grade of 3 1/2 %.  Soon the rails entered the I-25 median and automobiles could be seen on both sides of the train, usually traveling not as fast as the train.


Overtaking automobiles as the train glides along the I-25 median


The desert sky seen from the train sailing along the middle of I-25

The stop at SF County/NM 599 revealed shuttle busses waiting to transport passengers to surrounding areas as was the norm at many Rail Runner stops.  A few minutes later we again took the siding to allow the passage of train # 519 at 7:03pm.  Just beyond this point the Rail Runner line left the interstate median and worked its way along a high elevation shelf where the last vestiges of sunset left the sky a dazzling array of colors, mostly pink, orange, and yellow, framed by purple-hued mountains.  Populated areas replaced desert scenery as the fringes of Santa Fe were upon us and at 7:16pm we called at South Capitol before finally reaching Santa Fe at 7:20pm after navigating around sharp curves leading to the end of the line.


A beautiful desert sunset approaching the outskirts of Santa Fe


The horizon explodes in color as train # 514 nears the South Capitol station

I then watched the now empty train move to a pocket track at the Santa Fe station to free up the platform track for the arrival of train # 516 from Belen approximately an hour later.  That train equipment would make up the final train of the night back to Albuquerque.  Directly across the parking lot from the railroad platform I found Tomasita’s, a popular Mexican restaurant which had been recommended by a friend who works for the department that oversees Rail Runner.  The ambiance of the restaurant was excellent and the food was even better.  A brief number played by a Mariachi band entertained diners and made the evening memorable.


Train # 514 beside the Santa Fe station


NMRX engine # 104 displays its unique Rail Runner logo


Rail Runner coach # 1005 at Santa Fe


Santa Fe Southern equipment at Santa Fe


Coaches from the Santa Fe Southern excursion train which was not operating at the time of the author’s visit


The station at Santa Fe


Cab control car # 1103 at the end of the line at Santa Fe


Train # 514 moves from the Santa Fe platform track to a pocket track for the night


A Mariachi band entertains at Tomasita’s, a popular restaurant next to the Santa Fe depot


The logo for Tomasita’s plays off the adjacent railway

After a leisurely meal it was time to step outside and watch the arrival of # 516 from Belen at 8:37pm.  Like all northbound trains, the engine was on the rear pushing two cars to Santa Fe. Departure back to Albuquerque was punctual at 9:00pm and NMRX engine # 102 was in charge of the day’s final run.  The lights of Santa Fe’s suburbs twinkled in the clean desert air as the train negotiated the plateau-like region on the edge of the city.  Soon we worked our way back into the median of I-25 with my GPS indicating we were at an elevation of 5500 feet.  The nocturnal ride and mostly remote routing provided little to see out the window except for an old blue and yellow Santa Fe freight engine switching an industrial track just outside of Albuquerque.  As we pulled back into Albuquerque it occurred to me that this was the latest at night that I had ever ridden a commuter train.  Our 10:31pm arrival in Albuquerque was 1 minute early and represented the end of the day’s operations for Rail Runner.  After the short walk back to the Hyatt, it was time for a restful night in a bed that was not moving for the first time after three nights aboard Amtrak sleeping cars.


Train # 516 has arrived in Santa Fe and will turn to # 521 for the nocturnal run back to Albuquerque

Rail Runner serves 14 stations on its 97 mile route between Santa Fe and Belen and there are over 60 connecting bus routes.  Herzog Transit, Inc. is contracted to perform operations and maintenance as well as providing engineers, conductors, and ticket agents.  The Rail Runner fleet is comprised of 9 MPI locomotives, 13 Bombardier bi-level coaches, and 9 Bombardier cab control cars which also contain passenger seating.  There are no plans for expansion of the route though track improvements are an ongoing priority.  Over 9 million passengers and 300,000 bicycles have been carried by Rail Runner during its existence.

Visitors to Albuquerque will find Rail Runner to be an excellent means of making a day trip to Santa Fe.  The Santa Fe stop is within easy walking distance of the center of Santa Fe and there are free shuttle busses during normal business hours.  With a variety of scheduled departures, it is possible to make a quick round trip or spend an entire day in Santa Fe.  Not to be missed is the Santa Fe town square where Native Americans sell handicrafts outdoors and a variety of indoor shops and restaurants are worthy of a visit.  Adjacent to the station is the Santa Fe Railyard, which offers a variety of restaurants, shops, art galleries, and other things to see and do.  Additionally there are fast food restaurants just a couple blocks west of the depot and the previously mentioned Tomasita’s is right beside the station.  One-way fares between Albuquerque and Santa Fe are $10 at the time of this story’s publication while a day pass is only $11.  A number of special events such as the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Festival warrant special Rail Runner services. 


New Mexico Rail Runner Express

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