ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Mexico Rail Runner is still waiting on word from the state as to when passengers can start boarding its commuter trains once again. The now 14-year service, Rail Runner hasn’t carried passengers since March 15.
At a news conference Thursday, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham didn’t give a specific start date as to when the state-owned rail service might resume passenger traffic. The governor also alluded to the idea that carrying passengers in train cars is a higher-risk activity amid the pandemic.
“Rail Runner is in our list of things that we need to think about, remember the dimmer switch, I don’t want to do too fast, but it is an issue particularly for commuters,” Lujan Grisham said. “It is on the agenda, that the better we do, the more risk we can introduce.”
Governor Lujan Grisham also said she likely won’t make a decision on restarting Rail Runner service anytime in the next week. Rail Runner officials say people are calling the service, asking when they’ll restart operations.
“Because we don’t live in an area that’s burdened by heavy congestion, many people choose to ride the Rail Runner for safety and convenience and leisure,” said Augusta Meyers, a spokeswoman for the Rail Runner. “We do hear from our passengers saying, ‘okay, when are you getting the train back on the track? We’re ready.’”
Even without passengers, empty Rail Runner trains are still running up and down the nearly 100-mile corridor between Belen and Santa Fe. The train service says the so-called “ghost trains” are run in an effort to make sure the engines keep working and don’t breakdown due to sitting idle.
Rail Runner says the service submitted a reopening plan to the state back in June. That plan includes more sanitizing and face covering mandates, along with reduced capacity to account for social distancing inside passenger cars. The Rail Runner also anticipates it will run fewer trains per day once it gets the governor’s approval to restart service.
“We usually have eight trips a day up and back to Santa Fe and along our 100-mile corridor, that would be reduced to three,” Meyers said. “We don’t have any weekend service yet.”
Without factoring in COVID-19-related service changes, documents published by Rio Metro, the agency operating Rail Runner, indicate the service is still budgeting for about $56 million in operations and maintenance costs through June 2021.
The federal CARES Act also gave Rio Metro $55 million to help prop up the service. According to recently published budget documents, Rail Runner is only anticipating making about $1.5 million on passenger ticket fares over the next fiscal year. That’s about $500,000 less than the service project for the 2020 fiscal year, stretching from June 2019 to July 2020.
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