The New Mexico Rail Runner Express plans to resume trips between Santa Fe and Albuquerque on March 8 at 25% capacity after a year of suspended service.
A new federally mandated safety system installed in 2020 might not protect passengers from COVID-19, but it will make the train a safer travel experience over all. The Rio Metro Regional Transit District was under pressure to meet a December deadline for the $60 million project to install an automatic train braking system called positive train control that is designed to prevent high-speed de-railings and major train collisions.
Even though its been closed to passengers, Santa Fe residents may still have seen the Rail Runner making occasional trips to Albuquerque and back last year as operators tested the new safety system and logged required hours to keep their qualifications up to date.
"The system knows where a train is at all times," Rail Runner Operations Manager Robert Gonzales tells SFR, noting the system will automatically slow a train down if the vehicle goes over the speed limit or enters a construction zone and will stop the train if there is a known obstacle on the tracks.
In other parts of the country, operators experienced problems while implementing the new system that caused major delays for passengers. Gonzales says the Rail Runner operators took advantage of COVID-19 shutdowns to avoid similar issues.
"We were really able to eliminate 98% of problems while operating under COVID," he says, explaining that operators and engineers performed troubleshooting and learned how to use the new system while the train remained closed to the public.
By the time the train starts making passenger trips again next Monday, says Gonzales, all training required to make the PTC system run smoothly will be complete.
For the time-being the Rail Runner's pre-COVID schedule of 22 daily trips will be cut down to five to meet statewide restrictions, and the train will only stop at half of the stations along its route. It won't stop at Zia Road, but will allow passengers at the other three Santa Fe County stations: NM 599, South Capitol and the downtown Depot. See the full schedule here.
Rio Metro Regional Transit District spokeswoman Augusta Meyers tells SFR officials planned the current limited schedule based on peak boarding and de-embarking data. She says the current schedule will accommodate workers during the week with two trips in the mornings and evenings and one trip midday, but weekend service remains suspended.
Cash ticket sales are temporarily prohibited; passengers can reserve tickets online or pay on the train with a credit card.
Gonzales says security will regularly patrol the train and crews have been instructed to make sure everyone is wearing a mask and following COVID-19 safety guidelines. Security and staff will have extra masks on hand for passengers, he says. Signage to mark the 160 available seats and encourage social distancing, as well as hand sanitizer will be available in every car.