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Chuggin’ along

Just two people wait to board the northbound Rail Runner train at the South Capitol Station in Santa Fe on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The reopening of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express is picking up speed – albeit slowly – after the commuter rail system began transporting passengers again in March.

The return of passengers came nearly a year after the Rail Runner was forced to halt service after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which oversees the Rail Runner, has introduced a reduced schedule, which no longer includes rides on weekends.

Rio Metro spokeswoman Augusta Meyers said there is a hope to bring back weekend rides as warm weather encourages more day trips between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

“It’s like starting over in some regards,” Meyers said of the reopening. “Just to get the word out … that it’s running again.”

The Rail Runner Express runs along nearly 100 miles of track between Belen and Santa Fe.

Trains are currently operating at 25% capacity, although ridership so far has fallen well short of that limit.

Operations Manager Robert Gonzales said the train had a total of 176 riders the day it reopened and ridership has risen as high as 380 in subsequent weeks.

By comparison, February 2020, the month before the shutdown, the Rail Runner averaged 3,000-3,500 riders per day. Ridership also typically increases in the summer.

“I think we’re not going to get the riders back until we probably go the full service,” Gonzales said, adding the pandemic has had serious impacts on the entire transportation industry.

Rail Runner has also discontinued stops at five stations: Zia Road in Santa Fe, Kewa (Santo Domingo) Pueblo, Downtown Bernalillo and Bernalillo County, and Montaño Street station in Albuquerque.

Gonzales said these stations typically see fewer passengers, which is why they were selected.

Despite months of no riders, Gonzales and Meyers said the rail service’s financial situation is stable, thanks to millions in federal aid last year.

Rio Metro’s fiscal year 2021 budget shows a slight dip in revenues, but also a windfall of state and federal funds – nearly $93 million – thanks to allotments from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

The agency avoided any layoffs or cutting employees’ pay, Gonzales said.

And with tourism increasing in such areas as Santa Fe as virus numbers stay low, ridership is expected to continue inching towards normal.

Gonzales said he doesn’t expect much hesitation from riders when it comes to the train, despite the ongoing pandemic.

“They’re looking for an avenue to get out of town,” he said.

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