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Rail Runner expected to make inaugural run to City Different on Dec. 12

By Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writer
          Other than that Christmas Eve flight hauling gifts around the globe, perhaps there's no run more anticipated these days than the one set to start about two weeks from today. "This is the hottest ticket in town for the holidays, buddy," Lawrence Rael of the Mid-Region Council of Governments said. "Even Santa wants a ride."
        Mark your calendars: The Rail Runner Express commuter train's inaugural public run into Santa Fe is tentatively set to take place Friday, Dec. 12, with Wednesday, Dec. 17, expected to be the actual start of scheduled commuter service to and from the capital city.
        Thus opens the second-phase corridor of the state's $400 million rail project, with service already in place between Belen and Bernalillo and stops in Los Lunas and in the Albuquerque area in between. In addition, the train's first station on American Indian land, at Isleta Pueblo, is scheduled to open this week.
        But it's the northern leg of the two-year-old service that's been the most anticipated.
        "It's historical in the sense that it is absolutely going to be a system that is going to serve New Mexico well into the future," said Rael, whose agency oversees Rail Runner operations and has managed implementation of the mass transit project. "We really have created a huge new mode of transportation for this state that really, I think, puts us well ahead of our neighboring states.
        "Now people have a choice: You can either drive to Santa Fe, or you can take the train."
        Based on 2005 statistics, some 38,000 vehicles a day traveled on Interstate 25 between the Duke City to The City Different — a number that was projected to climb to about 72,000 by 2025, according to numbers cited by the council of governments.
        Testing, testing
        Many of those commuters have likely seen Rail Runner engines and coach cars inching closer to Santa Fe.
        Since September, train crews have been training on long existing track between Bernalillo and Lamy. In recent days, crews started testing on the 23 miles of newly built track that cuts through the juniper- and brush-dotted slopes and ridges of Waldo Canyon at La Bajada Hill and continues on in the I-25 median into Santa Fe.
        "You have to learn the physical characteristics of the railroad — that's the terrain, you learn where the signals are, where your (track) sidings are, what the speeds are," Robert Gonzales, Rail Runner operations manager, said about the ongoing training. "It's learning the lay of the land."
        That land offers distinct views, from the Rio Grande Valley north of Bernalillo into the steep grade through Waldo Canyon, where there are several-stories-tall elevated sections of track, like that over Waldo Canyon Road. There's a long, bending curve through what old-timers call "Happy Valley," and banking turns that will help the trains manage speeds.
        "On a clear day you can even see farther south to Madrid and some of the mountains down in that Galisteo basin," Rael said. "It really does give you a sense of how high the state capital is in relative comparison to the Rio Grande basin."
        Aside from the train engineers being "qualified" to operate on the new track, the track itself also must be tested to meet Federal Railroad Administration requirements.
        "When we talk about certifying the track, we're really talking about running some trains through it to make sure that the track itself, and the track bed and the rail, are all working appropriately and there is not any kind of settling of the dirt or we're not stressing the rail in any way," Rael said.
        2 stations to open
        While all of the new mainline track for the train has been laid into Santa Fe, work continues with installation or testing in other areas, such as the track siding — where the trains can pass one another — track signals and train-to-dispatch telecommunications.
        Ongoing work also is evident at stations in Santa Fe, where the Santa Fe Southern alignment is being used to reach the line's northern end at the rail yards.
        Initially, only two of the four stations planned for the city will open: the so-called Santa Fe Depot, which is an existing station at the rail yards north of Paseo de Peralta, and the station by the South Capital Complex near Alta Vista Street.
        A Zia Road at St. Francis Drive station also is in the works, while a future station is planned at I-25 and N.M. 599.
        Rail Runner to Santa Fe Service
        Although Dec. 12 will mark the start of Rail Runner service to Santa Fe, that initial train trip will be ceremonial in nature, with dignitaries like Gov. Bill Richardson, people who've had a hand in the project, and members of the public taking part in the dedication.
        "We're going to use a couple days thereafter to just run trains so that people can just ride and not do our regular commuter service schedule" immediately, said Lawrence Rael, executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments.
        Introductory train runs for the public are being planned for Saturday, Dec. 13, and Sunday, Dec. 14, before true commuter service is scheduled to start Wednesday, Dec. 17.
        Admission
        Riders who originate from the Santa Fe stations will have their fares waived for the first three months — the same was done for passengers in the southern corridor during the first phase.
        Full fares from Downtown Albuquerque to Santa Fe will be $6 one way and $8 round trip. The ride from Downtown Albuquerque to the Santa Fe rail yards stop will take about one hour and 20 minutes.
        For more information about train fares, schedules and bus connections, go to nmrailrunner.com.