Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – No one boarded a Rail Runner train car for about a year after the pandemic reached New Mexico.
But ridership jumped sharply this spring and has kept climbing this summer, reaching its highest level since the first coronavirus infections surfaced 2½ years ago.
Now executives overseeing the Rio Metro rail system stretching from Belen to Santa Fe are examining how to better serve passengers – especially people traveling for recreation or commuting during less-traditional hours – as high gas prices make the train more attractive.
The transit agency is evaluating whether to boost mid-day service and continue reduced fares. It’s also refurbishing train cars, repainting trains and making improvements intended to trim three to five minutes from some travel times.
“I think the Rio Metro system is in a position to really improve service,” Albuquerque City Council President Isaac Benton, chairman of the Rio Metro board, said in an interview Monday. “We want people back on that train.”
The Rail Runner, of course, still faces substantial obstacles. Ridership hasn’t bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, and – even before then – the number of passengers was in steady decline.
The train’s limited schedule, frequency of service and long travel times are commonly cited as reasons people don’t ride, according to analysis presented to the Legislative Finance Committee.
But the transit agency is looking to capitalize on high gas prices and an influx of federal funding to boost ridership.
Transit officials said customer surveys suggest the ridership bump this year was fueled by recreational riders, perhaps tourists or people looking to spend a day in Santa Fe.
An abrupt increase came in March, when ridership jumped 48% over the total from February. The uptick coincided with sharp growth in gas prices that month, but it was well before fares were slashed.
“I think people were tired of COVID and were tired of being at home,” said Robert Gonzales, operations manager for Rio Metro, the agency that operates the Rail Runner. “I think a lot of the ridership was recreational, not commuters.”
Whatever the reason, the growth represents momentum that transit officials want to capitalize on.
The improvements they say are underway or under consideration include:
• Increased frequency of trips. There’s now a gap of almost seven hours in northbound service from Downtown Albuquerque during the middle of the day, a schedule focused on getting commuters to and from Santa Fe to coincide with normal office hours.
Gonzales said Rio Metro has the funding necessary to offer more frequent mid-morning and -afternoon trips for the next year, in addition to increased Saturday service.
The new schedule, if granted final approval, would be intended to address the results of customer surveys showing people want more options that don’t require spending a full day in Santa Fe.
“People aren’t going back to that 9-to-5 commuter schedule,” Rio Metro spokeswoman Augusta Meyers said. “We’re looking at making things more accessible and adjusting our schedule.”
• Faster travel. Gonzales said signaling changes near Downtown Albuquerque and more “double-tracking” – which allows trains to pass each other – should save travelers three to five minutes in some areas.
It now takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes to get from Downtown Albuquerque to the South Capitol stop in Santa Fe on the express train.
• Cheaper fares. A 75% fare reduction went into effect in mid-April and is set to expire July 31. It now costs, for example, just $2.50 for a day pass between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Rio Metro is in talks with state officials about whether to continue the fare reduction. Meyers said the agency is also evaluating other changes to the fare structure, partly to respond to commuters who want to travel only on certain days, not all week.
• $60 million in new safety technology, called positive train control, has been installed.
The Rail Runner was launched in 2006 under the administration of then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat. It connects Belen, Albuquerque and Santa Fe over a roughly 100-mile line.
The train’s popularity peaked in 2010 with ridership of about 1.2 million trips.
It had fallen to about 763,000 by the 2019 fiscal year, the last full year before the pandemic. Annual ridership bottomed out at roughly 41,000 trips in fiscal year 2021 – a year that included some months in which the train was completely shut down.
Ridership has climbed every month in 2022 so far, reaching 319,635 riders for the 2022 fiscal year that ended June 30.
“I think the trend is in the right direction,” Meyers said, “all things considered.”
Lawmakers have sometimes expressed frustration at the long-term decline in ridership, and some have suggested shutting down the train altogether. A 2015 study said that selling the Rail Runner wasn’t feasible.
Despite the challenges, supporters of the train are optimistic.
“This is an appropriate time to get back on,” said Benton, the Rio Metro board chairman.