The Rail Runner Express you see rolling into Santa Fe’s downtown depot is a ghost train.
The cars are empty.
No passengers have ridden the commuter trains that run between downtown Santa Fe and Belen since mid-March, when the state ordered the service shut down as part of an emergency health order in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Health authorities were concerned about congested trains potentially spreading the virus up and down the corridor, which includes several stops in Albuquerque.
Trains now make several runs a day with no riders, partly to keep the conductors’ and engineer’s skills sharp and also to fine-tune and test a recently installed safety system.
The Rail Runner carried an average of 2,500 passengers daily during the week and 3,000 on weekends to various spots along its 65-mile route.
Still, most of the Rail Runner’s money comes from federal subsidies, not ticket sales, so the suspended passenger service hardly affects its bottom line.
“We’re not looking at any financial hardship because of that,” said Augusta Meyers, spokeswoman for the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which oversees the Rail Runner.
The main concern is whether regular customers will return when the train service resumes after a monthslong hiatus, Meyers said. “We want people to come back when we reopen.”
The transit district received $55 million through the federal CARES Act, a law intended to ease economic impacts from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Under the public health crisis, the district also can use its capital money — normally limited to maintenance, repairs and upgrades — to cover daily operations, Rio Metro Director Terry Doyle said.
Ticket sales only account for $1.5 million to $2 million a year, Doyle said. But losing that revenue might have forced the district to lay off or furlough some of the 144 people on its payroll if not for the federal relief.
The district runs riderless trains five times a day to keep its rail crews sharp and avoid letting trains and equipment sit idle too long.
“Diesel locomotives are made to run,” Doyle said.
The ghost runs also allow crews to test the new $60 million positive train control backup system with no passengers on board.
The federal government requires all passenger trains and larger commercial rail carriers to install these safety systems by January. Doyle said the system’s aim is to avoid collisions, derailments and other accidents by overriding an engineer who reacts too slowly or incorrectly to a hazard, such as an obstruction on the tracks.
For instance, the system could pull the brakes if an engineer didn’t respond immediately to people standing in the train’s path.
It also would take over if an engineer lost control because of a seizure or heart attack, Doyle said.
The Rail Runner has been involved in several fatalities since service began in 2006, with trains striking people and vehicles on the tracks. Officials have determined some of the deaths were suicides.
The death of a cyclist in Santa Fe in 2014 prompted calls for more safety devices and procedures at places where the track intersects with walking and biking paths.
The new system is designed to help prevent such occurrences.
“It’s a nice safety net,” Doyle said. “Our hope is our system never engages.”
Buying and installing the system was a $60 million unfunded mandate, he said.
The district paid for it through $35 million in grant money, an $11 million loan and $14 million diverted from its capital fund.
The goal is to have it fully operational on a train carrying passengers in October.
While at least 60 percent of the train’s riders during the week are government employees commuting to work, Doyle said, leisure riders make up a larger portion on weekends.
Meyers said leisure ridership has increased over the years since Santa Fe’s downtown station opened in 2008. She noted the passenger line has increased the connection between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Of course, ridership is much lower than what you’d see on commuter trains in densely populated Northeast cities, but before the Rail Runner shut down, more people were traveling on it per day than most any New Mexico road, she said.
The basic round-trip fare is around $9 or $10, depending on where a rider boards and their destination, with discounts for those buying a pass for a month or year.
“We’ve tried to keep it relatively inexpensive,” Meyers said.
The district has formed a plan for COVID-19 precautions, such as limiting the number of passengers in each car, regularly sanitizing commonly touched surfaces and having security guards ensure people keep at least 6 feet apart, Doyle said.
When the state allows the train to operate again, it will take a couple of weeks to get all the guidelines in place.
“We’re ready to roll when the governor gives the go-ahead,” Meyers said.