The Rail Runner is still closed. That's really unusual.

All other public commuter trains in the country and all other public transit agencies in New Mexico appear to be running.

As one advocate laments the closure, a prominent critic says it strengthens his case.

The governor, who decides whether it runs or not, isn't saying much.
The Rail Runner has continued to conduct test runs, like this one from last summer.
The week that began with March 15, 2020 - a Sunday - saw scores of closures. The BioPark, Explora, and the natural history museum all shut down. So did the Sawmill Market, having opened only the week before. APS, which had already closed schools, scrambled to set up an array of grab-and-go meal sites across the metro area.

The only thing opening that week seemed to be the city's first drive-thru COVID-19 testing outfit, off of Martin Luther King just east of the Downtown core.

Against the chaos that dominated the month, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham's decision to close the state-owned New Mexico Rail Runner Express, which went into effect March 16, didn't attract much notice. Like everything else, those early days were a frantic rush to prevent the spread of the then-new virus.

"The state acted quickly at the outset of the pandemic to protect New Mexicans and reduce the potential for virus transmission, quick action that has inarguably saved lives across the state," said Nora Meyers Sackett, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham's press secretary, in a brief statement sent to DAN yesterday in response to questions. "Scientific knowledge on how this virus spreads has continued to evolve, and reducing any potential areas where individuals would be in close contact with one another for extended periods of time was critical."

But if the closure seemed par-for-the-course last March, it soon became clear that in the context of the rest of the country, the move put the Rail Runner, set to celebrate its 15th anniversary in July, in a rare if not completely unique situation. Most of the nation's other publicly-funded commuter trains, for example, appear to have kept right on running even during the initial lockdown. Fast forward to the summer of 2020, and the Rail Runner's closure stands out even more: A canvas conducted by DAN of 32 of the train's peer systems across the country - most larger by ridership but some smaller - found that if they had ever closed at all, they had returned to service by August.

Last summer, Rio Metro, the agency that operates the train for the state, presented the Lujan Grisham Administration with a reopening plan involving reduced service and various virus safety precautions including nightly disinfection, blocking off seats to promote social distancing, and a mask mandate.

"They're looking through our plan and the schedule," Rail Runner Operations Manager Robert Gonzales told DAN at the time. "We're just waiting to hear from the governor's office when we can start operations."

The protracted closure is also highly unusual in the context of public transit agencies that only operate buses. Though ridership has, as a general rule, drastically receded in the last year, it appears that every bus system in New Mexico is currently online, including ABQ Ride. The Albuquerque system never stopped operations, even though at one point it had to draft some of its craftier employees into service sewing masks for drivers as it also issued a desperate plea to the public for more supplies (DAN, 4/13/20). 

Greyhound and Amtrak, meanwhile, never stopped operating and continue to this day on a reduced schedule.

Even other state-controlled transit systems have continued, largely uninterrupted. While it is not possible to take a train from Downtown Albuquerque to Belen, it is possible to get there on a bus also operated by Rio Metro. The agency also runs bus service between Bernalillo, Cochiti Pueblo, and Cuba. The New Mexico Park and Ride bus service, a project of the state's department of transportation, continues to connect riders in Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, and Expañola, among other cities.

Why the Rail Runner should be any different than its peer systems across the country, other bus systems across the state, or indeed other transit outfits also controlled by state government is a question that Meyers Sackett did not answer when we posed it this week. She also did not comment on the reopening plan that Rio Metro presented last summer or any specific metrics the administration would follow in deciding when to reopen, though she did hint that "my understanding is that an update on the train's service is coming soon."

One possible reason for treating the Rail Runner differently than other systems is the people who typically ride it. It is popular with state workers, many of whom have been able to telecommute instead, and tourists, who have mostly been staying home anyway. Local buses, on the other hand, seem more likely to serve those who have no other choice.

"I think the bus provides that more short-distance essential transportation to get to some critical services," said Augusta Meyers, the spokeswoman for Rio Metro. 

But while that may be largely true, it does not describe every rider, some of whom depend on the train.

"We know there are those people," Meyers said. "It is an important service."

One advocate agrees: "I think our transit systems don't understand the people that are using the system," said Christopher Ramirez, the chair of the city's Transit Advisory Board, which advises ABQ Ride. "There are still people that need to do this commute ... that's happening in Albuquerque so of course it's happening in the region."

It's not clear if there has been any movement in the last year toward plugging the Albuquerque-to-Santa Fe gap with temporary bus service. Meyers, the Rio Metro spokeswoman, said she wasn't aware of any discussion, and Meyers Sackett, the governor's spokeswoman, didn't answer the question.

Tough logistics
Pandemics bring a new complexity to the task of operating public transit systems. Agencies that must, in a normal day, take into account wildcards like traffic, weather, staffing, mechanical failure, and construction suddenly must also contend with disinfection, new rules to enforce, and the possibility of covering for staffers who might have been exposed to the virus.

It is a tough job, but it is basically possible, said Melissa Drake, the administrative coordinator of the New Mexico Transit Association. Some agencies across the state have seen temporary shutdowns after exposures, but those were resolved in a matter of days.

"We really haven't had any statewide closures," she said. "Our agencies have worked extremely hard to accommodate the health order and keep everyone safe."

The Rail Runner's closure has itself been another wildcard, since "some of our connections have been impacted by not having the train," Drake said. And while she said she was not privy to the administration's analysis of the situation, she did add that "absolutely, I think it should be running."

Starting over
When the train ultimately resumes service, Rio Metro will find itself in a position that is both secure and very much unenviable.

The good news for the train is that its primary source of operating revenue - a gross receipts tax levied in the general area it serves - has been in place during the entire closure. All employees are still on the payroll, and between test runs to keep the trains operational, maintenance upgrades, and the recent installation of a federally-mandated safety upgrade, there have at least been some things to do in the interim.

"We have them working when there's work," Meyers said.

When it's all said and done, she added, the train will come out of its closure breaking even or perhaps with some savings.

The bad news is that a system that had enough trouble attracting riders before the pandemic will suddenly have to rebuild from zero. Total ridership peaked in the 2010 fiscal year at 1.2 million, riding a wave of novelty and high gas prices, but it has since slipped every year and was down to 800,000 in 2018. (Nationally, this general trend is common.)

"It's going to take another big reopening effort to get people to get on the train," Meyers said. "We're going to have to hit the reset button pretty hard ... we're going to have to remind people of what this asset brings to the table."

That looks to be a heavy lift. General reliability is one of the hallmarks of popular public transit, and it will be hard to make that sell after taking a year off, reckons Paul Gessing, the president of the Rio Grande Foundation, who has long argued that the train is a boondoggle that never should have been built in the first place.

"It shows you can't rely on it," he said. "If Amtrak could deal with COVID you would think the Rail Runner could ... more evidence has been added to my side of the argument."
Downtown Albuquerque News covers greater Downtown, which we generally define as the area created by I-40, the Rio Grande, and the railroad tracks. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.
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