In the early days of March 2020, the staff assigned to the New Mexico Rail Runner Express were asking themselves the same thing every transit agency was asking: “How do we respond to this new virus that is rapidly spreading worldwide? How can we clean the equipment effectively? How can we reassure the public that the trains are safe and clean?”
While these plans were being formulated and put into effect, the Governor of New Mexico made a startling announcement. All New Mexico public schools would be closed beginning March 16. This closure was initially instated for a period of three weeks and was intended to be a swift and severe response toward slowing the spread of COVID-19. By the evening of March 15, the Rail Runner was shut down as well, with the same initial timeline of three weeks.
Almost a year to the day since the service was shut down, the Rail Runner opened its doors to a small but enthusiastic group of passengers on Monday, March 8, 2021. The service was reduced to half of its normal schedule, and weekend service is currently unavailable, but the trains are finally back in service.
So…what have the Rail Runner staff been up to during this nearly yearlong shutdown?
The most notable accomplishment was the installation and certification of a Positive Train Control (PTC) system on its 18 cab cars, locomotives, and on the 100-mile rail line between Belen and Santa Fe. The entire PTC project was completed in about a year and a half - a remarkable achievement for any railroad- and ahead of the December 31, 2020 deadline mandated by Congress.
For the Track and Signal departments, managed by Jake Van Malden and Scott Reif of Herzog Enterprises (Herzog is the contractor that manages Rail Runner operations), the past year has been even busier than usual. Because the Albuquerque subdivision is shared by tenant railroads, all normal track and signal maintenance was still necessary. Not content to settle for “regular” maintenance, the Track and Signal groups took advantage of longer work windows and completed many capital projects.
The Mechanical department, under the leadership of manager Larry Anaya, continued with its locomotive overhaul program, continued with an HVAC overhaul program, began a complete refurbishment of the coach interior seating, and made many shop and yard improvements.
For Shane McGregor and the Transportation department it was training, training, and more training. PTC training via multi-day Zoom meetings allowed our employees to stay safely at home during the initial weeks of the pandemic and still complete required training. With careful scheduling and social distancing, PTC test trains, training trains, and braking test trains were run throughout the past year to ensure our crews were staying on their toes, learning the ins and outs of the new PTC system, and maintaining their territory familiarization.
Ticket agents were trained as Conductors. Conductors were trained as engineers. Engineers acted as instructors. The new Docebo Learning Management System (LMS) was rolled out to all employees, while the training content continues to grow within the LMS.
What’s next for the Rail Runner and its staff?
The track and signal employees will do what they always do: maintain a safe and trouble-free rail corridor, in addition to managing a large Capital workload. Mechanical employees will do what they always do: keep the equipment running no matter what, and ensure that no passenger ever worries if they’ll get to where they’re going. Transportation employees will do what they always do: they’ll be out there every day, getting people where they want to go, greeting and welcoming the passengers, thanking them for coming back. The passengers seem to be returning the greetings. They’re happy to see those train doors finally opening and to see those familiar faces they used to see every day. They have thanked us for coming back. Except the Rail Runner and its staff never really left…they just got better!
General Manager, New Mexico Rail Runner Express