Today, Tara, The Kid and I headed to Santa Fe, and took advantage of the relatively new extension of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express (a.k.a. The Rail Runner, or NMRX). We had debated taking it, but once we learned that the Sandia Pueblo stop was located just a few yards (OK, a few hundred yards) north of the roundabout that replaced the rather crazy three-way intersection between Roy Road, NM-313/4th Street; so was only a couple of miles from my parents’ house where we are staying.
We headed out to have plenty of time to meet the 9:55 train. We waited at the station for a reasonable amount of time before the train arrived. At the station, I was not too concerned because there were only a few other people waiting. But, when we got on the train it was standing room only.
The run from Sandia Pueblo to the Santa Fe Depot (not to be confused with the Santa Fe Depot in San Diego) is over an hour, Tara was concerned that she would not be able to stand for that long – and I was a bit concerned as my right knee hasn’t liked standing as well as it did before I tore my meniscus. But the conductor (or at least attendant in our car) heard this and said she’d try to find Tara a seat after the next stop. As it turned out, there were a couple of people getting off at the Sandoval County/US-550 stop (two stops after we boarded) so we were able to sit for most of the way.
The passenger cars on the Rail Runner are architecturally similar to the ones on the San Diego Coaster – bi-level cars in the middle with a small area half-way between the levels forward and rearward of the doors (two pairs of doors per car). But the seating layout downstairs is a bit different – mostly groups of 4 seats on each side of the asile.
I had an asile seat, so I didn’t have a great view outside, but I was able to enjoy the ride up. On the way up, I was able to made the educated guess where the Rail Runner leaves the old Santa Fe mainline: Just after the line passes under I-25, near the interchange with NM-22 (here or here). From there the line winds through a lot of cuts as it climbs up La Bajada by a train-usable route – a route that may not have been usable by trains 100+ years ago when the Santa Fe mainline was first built, but is usable by modern passenger lines. Before too long, it rejoined I-25 where it remained in the median the rest of the way up to Santa Fe.
Once in Santa Fe, the train slowed as it was mostly running through back yards, some clearly in fairly nice neighborhoods. I also noticed that there were regularly bike-trails running parallel to the rail, and in at least one case there appeared to be an old bridge. This makes me strongly suspect that either the entire right-of-way between Lamy and Santa Fe, or at least some of the right-of-way for sidings or a dual track, was given up for some time and was taken through a rails-to-trail conversion. But I believe that the route between Lamy and Santa Fe has remained in use for some freight service and for the Santa Fe Southern Railroad (which is a charter and tourist service), so I’m not positive that it was fully abandoned.
At the Santa Fe Depot, we got off and headed straight into the old Santa Fe Railroad station, which is now a visitor’s center, to use the bathrooms. Alas, right after a standing room only train, having only one-person bathrooms leaves a bit of a wait. We then took the Santa Fe Pickup shuttle to the plaza, we got our bearings we found Tia Sophia’s, our usual lunch spot.
After lunch, we took a slow browse around the plaza, ending with a walk down the porch of the Place of the Governors, looking at the jewelry from the various native american artisens. Unlike one of our previous visits, there were no potters there, but Tara found a ring that she bought. Other than that, and lunch, we made no purchases around the plaza.
We caught a shuttle back to the depot and the rail-yard development – a growing shopping and entertainment area being developed in coordination with the expansion of The Rail Runner to the Santa Fe Depot area – giving us about an hour and a half before our 4:15 departure. After browsing in REI, picking up a water proof case that The Kid can put his phone in when he is in higher risk situations, such as going swimming at points when his parents are otherwise busy helping run a con.
We then stopped at The Flying Star for some snacks, and ended up getting too much – mostly because The Kid insisted that he wanted a particular desert to split with Tara and then decided he didn’t like it. We finished just about the time that our train pulled into the station, so we crossed the track and made our way to the train, only to find it wasn’t open to board yet. There was a decent line behind all of the doors except for the south-most passenger car (right behind the engines).
The 3 passenger car train (I know the term, but I cannot find a spelling that matches that definition) only has a single engine, but the 5 car train has two. I’m guessing that the two extra cars (and their passengers) are enough extra weight that a single engine cannot push them up the hill into Santa Fe. As the rest of the run between Belen and Santa Fe is along the Rio Grande valley, which has a fairly gentle slope, the only stretch that I can imagine would need the second engine’s power would be the climb between Waldo (or a bit west of Waldo) to Santa Fe.
Despite the long lines, there were plenty of seats on the train, and we were able to find four together on the lower level – saving Tara having to walk up the stairs. We were in the second car back from the engines, which turned out to be a minor problem.
As we headed back south, I was on the proper side (and possibly direction) to spot the wye (or is it just y) where the new Rail Runner line meets back up with the spur from Lamy to Santa Fe (here). The rest of the run was fairly nice – only slightly marred by the two families totaling 5 or 6 kids under 6 who were being pretty good for kids that age who are tired and on the way home. I had a window seat on the other side of the train so was able to observe other things, but missed a few as well.
At the third stop (Santa Fe County/NM-599) we got the first hint that we might not be in the best place on the train, when the person making the announcements mentioned that the doors would not open in the southern-most car (the quiet car next to the engine). At the next stop (Kewa Pueblo), the two southern-most cars – including the car we were in – couldn’t open the doors. Apparently, the design of several of the stations between Albuquerque and Santa Fe didn’t take into account that the trains would ever have more then three cars. Overhearing the conversation between the two mothers and the attendent in our car, I realized that the Sandia Pueblo station was also only built for three cars, so we would have to move back one car at or before our stop.
It was getting dark as we drew near Bernalillo, so there was much less to see out the window. And after we left the Downtown Bernalillo station, we headed back one car – with The Kid being unsure he could make the crossing even when I was telling him it was no harder than on the Amtrak train (Surfliner between Oceanside and Anaheim one time when we went up to Disneyland), except the doors had to be opened by hand. But he made it across with no issues. I spent much of the rest of the way staying out of the way as best I could but looking out the window on the doors. Once we got to our station and I was getting off, I told the attendent in that car (who was, at least, responsible for opening the doors) about how I rode the Coaster and often would be at the door that the conductor had to open before it reached my stop so he could observe something – so that the doors were open when the train was still moving 15 or 20 miles per hour.
We got home, tired and a bit sugared out by our mid-afternoon snack. We mostly had a good time (I won’t go into why we didn’t have as good a time as we could, except to say that both Tara and I decided we’d have been better off to leave The Kid to be bored at his grandparents’ house). I think that the next time we manage to make it here, hopefully sooner than the three year gap this time (actually about 2.5 year gap, but the trip in for my parent’s 50th anniversary was very family focused and the only time we spent doing stuff outside of spending time with my extended family was before we surprised my parents by showing up without their knowledge), we’ll probably use the train to get to Santa Fe. I suspect that between gas and parking we probably came out about even with the $27.00 total fare (two $10.00 5-zone day passes and one $7.00 reduced-fare day pass). But the stress of not having to drive (and Santa Fe mid-day traffic can be as stressful as rush hour in the Chicago suburbs our the suburban parts of San Diego – if not more so) makes up the difference.
For good reasons – The Rail Runner is still running with a not-insignificant deficit – there aren’t as many runs between Albuquerque and Santa Fe as would make it as flexible as driving. But there are a couple of good options to head up in the morning (more if you are further south in the Albuquerque area and can take advantage of some of the express runs), and to head down in the afternoon and evening. Honestly, the schedule has similar gaps to the schedule on The Coaster, and is largely scheduled for the convenience of commuters.
My other conclusion, were I to somehow end up with a job in Santa Fe (it would have to be a pretty good job to make it worth moving, even back to my home town where I still have family) it would be tempting to get a house somewhere close to one of the Rail Runner stations and use it daily – even with the over an hour ride. The difference in housing prices, as well as family and more opportunities for Tara to find work (Santa Fe, as far as I know, still has only one hospital) would make the commute worth it, I think.
One ponderable that I am left with, is how does the Rail Runner fit its operations in with the other trains on the route. (The same can be said about The Coaster). Even though the BNSF sold the trackage at least from the Colorado border to Belen to the State of New Mexico, much of the route is still part of the old Santa Fe mainline and is, or at least was fairly recently, still used for a significant amount of cross-country freight.
Additionally, The Southwest Chief uses the route from Belen to where The Rail Runner leaves the old Santa Fe mainline near Waldo. I checked the current schedule for The Southwest Chief, and it looks like both the Westbound and Eastbound trains are scheduled in a gap in The Rail Runner’s schedule. But, I know from experience, that Amtrak trains can get quite a bit behind schedule. Since most of the shared trackage north of the Sandia Pueblo station is single-track, including at at least the Sandia Pueblo station, a slow running Westbound Chief could end up being delayed by a Rail Runner, or the Rail Runner could be forced to hold either before the wye where the two lines rejoin or at another siding to let the Chief pass. The situation would be worse with an eastbound Chief since one train would absolutely have to hold at a siding to let the other pass. Of course the choice of who would wait would probably be dictated by who had priority – and I’m not sure if priority automatically falls to the track’s owner or not. (I’m sure if I was a bigger rail fan, I’d know the answer – or at least where to look).