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Rail Runner Express Gets Rollin' for the First Time on Trial Trip

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    The New Mexico Rail Runner Express pulled out of the Alvarado station in Downtown Albuquerque a little after 9 a.m. Tuesday with a chug and a whistle.
    Bound for Bernalillo and filled with journalists and the cast and crew of a Rail Runner promotional spot, the train ran north for 22 minutes, switched from its push mode— engine behind— to the pull mode— engine in front— and ran back south.
    It was time enough to settle in on a comfortable seat on the upper deck and envision a commuter's future.
    "Please enjoy the ride," the conductor said, "and welcome aboard."
    The trains won't begin to run for real until sometime in early July and then service will be limited to between Albuquerque and Bernalillo with service from Belen to Albuquerque to follow a month later. By 2008, the train route should extend to Santa Fe. Total price tag: $390 million.
    Tuesday's run was to drum up interest in commuter rail and show off the sleek cars and cushy ride.
    The cars, roomy with wide windows, have seating arranged knee to knee. Most of the seating clusters are outfitted with a laptop-friendly table and electrical outlet. With a WiFi card, you'll be able to get Internet access on the ride.
    There will be no food or beverage service on board, but riders are invited to bring their own.
    Lawrence Rael, executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments, which is heading up the Belen-to-Bernalillo stretch, settled in with his supersized cup of coffee and gazed out the window as the train glided north through Downtown and eased past the back sides of businesses and homes.
    The view? A fast-forward slide show of chain-link fences, shop yards, back porches, flapping laundry, uncountable dog houses, discarded mattresses, old tires, green fields, random pairs of men's pants, homeless shopping carts and a heretofore hidden palette of graffiti.
    "If you haven't seen this side of Albuquerque before, you will now," Rael said, "whether you want to or not."
How it rolls
    The train was being piloted by a cheery bearded man who confessed under light pressure that he is only 28 years old. Not to worry, though. Patrick Preusser has been operating trains for years, with experience under his belt on Amtrak and on commuter lines in California.
    He's operating a locomotive with a 3,600-horsepower engine that runs on biodiesel fuel. On a flat stretch, the Council of Government's Chris Blewett said, that engine could pull as many as 20 cars. Rail Runner trains will be only two cars each— each holding 200 passengers.
    That engine can also reach a top speed of 110 mph, but the Rail Runner's track can handle only 79 mph, so that is the train's top speed.
    The train pulled into the Los Ranchos/Journal Center station, still under construction at El Pueblo Road, for a 70-second stop— enough time on a real run for passengers to stream on and off.
    Only Los Ranchos/Journal Center and the northernmost Bernalillo station at U.S. 550 will be completed before regular train service begins. Stations in Belen and Los Lunas should be completed in August.
    The train moved on through the North Valley on Tuesday morning, past flooded orchards and new calves and into Sandia Pueblo where greening fields spread out on either side of the rail.
    The train, clipping along at about 70 mph by now, passed a United Parcel Service truck and then a station wagon.
    "Isn't it cool to be able to look at this open space and not worry about your car?" Rael said.
Off the road
    The train's purpose, of course, is to keep people out of their cars as highways become more congested.
    Rush-hour travel time between Belen and Albuquerque is about 45 minutes today by car— the same as by the new train. But it's estimated to take 82 minutes by car in 2025.
    When the train starts running to Santa Fe, it potentially could take thousands of drivers off the roads.
    Train cars, the same ones used on commuter rail systems in Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto and Dallas, come equipped with bike storage space. By the time service is under way, the Council of Governments hopes to have bus shuttles to take commuters to downtowns and employment centers, although those services have not yet been finalized, spokeswoman Augusta Meyers said.
    Rael said reliable service, convenient stations, handy connections with other public transportation and reasonable fares should draw some motorists onto the rail.
    "The goal here is to make it as comfortable as your car," he said.
    Tuesday's ride was free, like all the train trips will be for the first three months of service. After that, the train will cost $2 one way through the end of the year. In 2007, a permanent fare structure will be in place.
    The Rail Runner Express uniform will be Casey Jones-meets-Wal-Mart-greeter: red vest over white shirt, dark blue jeans and black boots.
    Janice Convery was wearing stiff Wranglers on Tuesday as she walked through the cars on a faux ticket-taking mission. On a real ride with real, paying passengers, Convery would sell tickets and inspect weekly or monthly pass cards.
    Eventually, tickets will be sold on the Internet and at kiosks at train stations.
    A veteran of the Santa Fe Southern Railway's Lamy line, Convery is happy to be on board the Rail Runner.
    "It's beautiful equipment," she said. "It's beautiful terrain."