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Rail Runner gets safety-upgrade funds

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A southbound Rail Runner pulls into Zia Station in Santa Fe to pick up passengers last month. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s commuter rail system has pieced together enough funding to complete a $60 million safety upgrade required by the federal government.

The state’s congressional delegation announced Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $29.4 million grant to the Rail Runner Express, the last piece of financing needed for the project.

The upgrades are expected to be completed by the end of 2020, well after this year’s federal deadline for installation.

But Terry Doyle, transportation director for the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which runs the rail service, said the Rail Runner is seeking federal approval to keep operating under its current schedule until the work is completed.

“We’re already probably the safest mode of surface transportation in New Mexico,” Doyle said, “but this will make us safer.”

The project, known as Positive Train Control, involves the installation of equipment designed to automatically slow trains when they reach unsafe speeds and prevent them from crashing into each other.

It’s expected to cost about $55 million to $60 million altogether, Doyle said. About 80 percent of the money comes from federal sources, he said, and the rest will come from revenue generated by a gross receipts tax that supports operation of the train.

Tuesday’s grant was announced jointly by U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Steve Pearce and Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“While Positive Train Control represents a critical safety upgrade,” Udall said in a written statement, “it also carries with it a high price tag that threatened to limit the essential service the Rail Runner provides to Central New Mexico. I’m proud to have fought for this major investment, which keeps the Rail Runner running while ensuring the safety of those who ride it.”

The Rail Runner connects Belen, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Its ridership has been decreasing.

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