People and Places

Mike Powers travels from Belen to Santa Fe on the Rail Runner Express.

Taking a ride on the New Mexico Rail Runner Express seemed like a natural subject for an article earmarked for a section titled, “People & Places.”

After all, it does take people to places, right? However, the proposal seemed to raise an eyebrow or two, maybe even an eye roll, in the office.  Is the new guy already looking for a junket, a cush assignment?

Not exactly. I have wanted to check out the Rail Runner since it first started to roll in 2006, wondering if it’s worth the trip, too big of a hassle or too intimidating? To my delight, the assignment was approved with the understanding I would also write an article on how Valencia County residents feel about the train — a story published on these pages last week.

So, upon arrival at the train station in Belen, 20 minutes before the scheduled 6:35 a.m. departure to Santa Fe, I tried to channel my inner-railroad vibe. After all, my grandfather, uncle and cousin all worked variations of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad in eastern Montana. Grandma once suggested I forget about a career in journalism to get into the family business.

“You can make good money,” she said.

True, but my career path had already left the station, so to speak.

The day before, I scoped out the Belen station to make sure there were no surprises. There was plenty of parking and lighting. Several information kiosks. No bathrooms though, which is often the first thing I look for.

Whenever a Rail Runner zips by, do you try to look into the windows, wondering how many people are onboard? Do you recognize anyone?  Stepping into the passenger coach, my curiosity was about to be answered.

For sure, it was not like my first train ride, as a 4 or 5 year old, packed with hundreds of other screaming kids waiting for Saint Nick to arrive on the “Santa Train.”

The start of this ride was more subdued. Only a handful of passengers, all adults, scouting out a seat. No Santa Claus in sight.

As a wily, veteran journalist, I had a plan: Find a seat with a central location, with easy access to passengers who might be targets for an interview. Check. A desk with a charger would be nice. Check. A big window to look outside. Check. Time to rock and roll.

Soon after the train pulled away, the ticket agent came by to collect fares. It was quick and easy, answering one of my most pressing questions.

Another question: Will anyone agree to be interviewed? That concern quickly went away. Passengers were more than willing to share their opinions about the Rail Runner.

While the train headed to Los Lunas and Isleta, the hustling for interviews and photographs began. Not the easy assignment some were expecting. I was glad the air conditioning worked. The search for a soda machine to quench my thirst was in vain, later learning that fewer amenities mean less expense, less cleanup and fewer things to monitor. That includes the various train stations, which are generally operated by local government entities.

The view of the countryside was often impressive with rolling hills, a green bosque and high-reaching mountain peaks, blanketed by rays from the just-risen sun. Several hot air balloons dotted the bright-blue sky. One of the unexpected pleasures was viewing parts of five pueblos, including the Pueblo of Isleta, that the public might not witness while traveling on a major roadway.

Not everything was tinged with beauty, although almost everything was interesting. It is certainly not unusual to have a train routed through industrial areas of major cities, like Albuquerque.

There were junk yards, lots of graffiti, businesses, including one with hundreds of porta potties ready to be rented. A detention facility with security officers going through their morning calisthenics. Frankly, I found it all really fascinating, at least on this maiden voyage.

The downtown Albuquerque station brought on the most passengers. Soon, the coaches were about half full. Most of the other stops had a smattering of pickups on this particular Thursday. One rider said it is a different story midweek, when ridership goes up on Ride-Free Wednesday’s for seniors 60 and older. I’ll keep that in mind.

This particular train stopped at all 15 stations on the way from Belen to Santa Fe, usually taking just minutes to start moving again. The total rail time one way was a bit shy of two hours and 30 minutes. The layover for the next leg back to Belen was almost exactly four hours, not ideal. But it did give me time to visit the Santa Fe Plaza, nearby landmarks and a hot dog cart before heading back to the train station.

While waiting for the trip home, it was surprising to find just one bench at the station, so I wandered through several nearby stores. One manager said the Rail Runner didn’t bring in many customers, just people asking how to get to the plaza.

We do know that it did bring one paying customer to the nearby Beastly Books, owned by George R.R. Martin. I couldn’t resist buying an autographed copy by the “Game of Thrones” author.

With interviews and photographs in hand, it was time to settle in on the upper-level of the double-decker car to catch a different view on the way home.

Later, a move to the “quiet” car to relax, the silence only interrupted by the train announcements, which were sometimes difficult to understand. But no mistaking my final destination as the Rail Runner eased into the Hub City.

No cush assignment, but fun nonetheless. Would I ride it again?  For sure. Patty and I are due for a date night. Dinner and a movie, with the Rail Runner our chauffeur.

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Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.