It's almost pathetic, really, how excited I was about riding the Rail Runner. I called my mom to tell her the good news, as if I had just won the lottery or was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. No, it was nothing as lucky as that. The invitation came in the form of a press release, advertising a photo op/public relations event—and my chance to get on the train.
Getting something for free isn't to be taken lightly in the news business. A free ride on the rail doesn't equal sparkling, positive coverage, and the folks at the Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG) know this. They were there to show us, the watchdogs of government, how New Mexican tax dollars are being spent. No fireworks. No gimmicks. Just us and the train. Plus, it wasn’t really like they were giving us any special treatment other then a sneak peek—the Rail Runner will be free to ride for the first three months of its operation, so you can discover the perks yourself.
The billboards along I-25 have been taunting commuters for months now—featuring pictures of the road runner-detailed train and a promise of a 2006 launch time that will be “rail” soon. The latest start date is set for this July, which means free service through September, followed by a flat rate of $2 until 2007.
Upon my complimentary ride, I discovered that the commuter rail really is designed for commuters. The double-decker cars are colorful, roomy and much more comfortable than sitting behind the wheel of a car in gridlock traffic while headed to work at 7:30 in the morning (or going home after a long day of work). Each car also has electric outlets for laptops, a few seats with table space and, according to MRCOG Executive Director Lawrence Rael, they're hoping to add wireless Internet to at least one car per train. If taking more public transport isn’t something that appeals to you once you reach your destination, there are plenty of bike racks inside the train to aid in your car-free travel, or give bikers wanting to get outside the city another way out.
Luckily, the Rail Runner also looks as good on the inside as it does on the outside. There’s plenty of room for briefcases and backpacks, including a small overhead storage area, but there isn’t much room for luggage outside of the day-pack realm. Once the train makes it to Santa Fe in 2008, the demand for more space may come from visitors flying into Albuquerque and riding the Rail Runner to Santa Fe, or, as Alibi Music and Food Editor Laura Marrich pointed out, if you're a musician headed to Santa Fe for a gig it might be hard to bring along your amps and drum head.
Décor-wise, the best feature of the train is probably its huge windows. My eyes were glued to the views beside the tracks. One amazing thing about the railroad is that it has been a part of our city’s history and heart since the late 1800s and will be a significant part of our future. On the train, rail riders will see the best and worst aspects of the Albuquerque metro area: the booming downtown Albuquerque, the backyard rusted car lots off Second Street, remnants of the homeless who sleep within the cracks of old buildings on the tracks and the new Rail Runner train stations being constructed for the future of our city.
When the train stopped at the Sandoval County/US 550 station, I got a look at a nearly completed parking lot for rail commuters. If every one of those spots are filled, that’ll be 225 less cars on south I-25 for the commute. If people carpool to catch the rail, it could be as many as 450 or 675—and that’s just from one stop.
The relief of commuter traffic and stress is just one goal of the Rail Runner. Rael also pointed out that both trains are Tier 2 EPA compliant for emissions standards—and MRCOG is looking into converting the diesel-electric engines into biodiesel. Just one small thing, Rael says, to aid in the betterment of our air quality and the slowing of global warming.
The total trip, from Downtown to Sandoval County and back, took less than an hour, even with a slight delay in start time. The ride was smooth and calming, almost tranquil, and I can’t foresee any road rage being prompted here—though a little rage did pass through my mind when I stood up and bashed my head on the briefcase racks above my seat. If I could avoid them on a school bus, I can avoid them on the Rail Runner.