New Mexico #4: All Aboard the Rail Runner

by Zora O'Neill on March 26, 2010

The wild West of yore is all about trains and cows and gunslingers and dudes in hats. Today, cattle still roam the range in New Mexico, and folks wear pistols on their hips and hats indoors. But the trains have, for the most part, gone.

Sure, there’s the venerable Super Chief, Amtrak’s service that plods across the desert, often running eight hours late by the time it hits Los Angeles (I know from personal experience), and there’s the scenic Cumbres & Toltec steam train up in Chama.

But for real getting around? People use cars, just like everywhere else in the American West.

This makes me sad, because I am a bit of a train geek. Not a mouth-breathing, clipboard-toting railfan, but someone who really enjoys a good train ride. No bickering with the navigator, no squinting at traffic signs—just pure relaxation as the scenery whisks by. I’ve ridden trains (often with my more-railfannier-than-I-but-still-not-foaming-he-would-like-me-to-assure-you husband) everywhere possible—even in Australia, which made Australians laugh.

This is all leading up to the Rail Runner, Albuquerque’s commuter train. It started service in the ABQ area in 2007, and there was talk of extending to Santa Fe. Miraculously, before I even had time to get cynical about it, the service was running, as of December 2008.

I admit, I got a little teary-eyed watching this video:

So I finally got around to riding the thing on this trip. You’d think it might not be all that exciting—it’s just an hour and a half, and it makes the same trip I’ve made at least a thousand times in my life.

But it was even better! First, just saying the words, “Let’s get the 4:13 train,” while sitting at my mom’s kitchen table outside Albuquerque, was such an amazing novelty.

Then, also, the idea of anyone in New Mexico following a real schedule—also delightfully novel.

On the train, for the first time in my life in Albuquerque, I got to peer into people’s backyards. I saw real, live hobos hunkered down by the freight tracks. (I guessed they were pros, because they didn’t wave at the train, unlike the various regular guys just sitting and drinking by the tracks.) We zipped past bizarre arrangements of industrial scrap in giant junkyards.

So Albuquerque isn’t sounding so scenic.

But after just a little bit, we were out in the back of beyond—not even a road to be seen. At this point, the train conductor advised us not to take photos, at the request of residents in the pueblo lands we were passing through. I wonder where else train passengers are banned from taking photos, and not for security reasons?

This photo was taken before the ban, I swear (and features my dad off to the right):

RailRunner View

The whole area around the last stop in Santa Fe has been swankily redone—what used to be a vast scrubby open space by the tracks is now parkland, and there are galleries and train-station-themed coffee bars. It’s a whole new side of Santa Fe, one not cloaked in faux adobe finish, and if I’d come by car, it would seem insignificant. Getting off at the station, it seemed like the center of the world.

Railyard

We walked back down the tracks to dinner, stuffed ourselves with enchiladas (at La Choza), and walked over to the plaza for dessert (at the Haagen-Dazs place, because everywhere else was closed). Just like in a regular city! (Except for the places being closed.)

On the trip up, we chatted with some great people—a younger guy who managed a band and worked on a Tennessee shortline, along with his friend, who’d never been on a train (like most New Mexicans probably, he asked, “Why does it have to follow a schedule? Why can’t it just go?”).

RailRunner Mountains

There was also a couple who were reading my guidebook!

The landscape of New Mexico is forever changed. Thanks, Rail Runner!

RailRunner at Night

Today’s the last day for a chance to win free copies of my Santa Fe guidebook–enter here.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christina March 26, 2010 at 5:41 pm

“Then, also, the idea of anyone in New Mexico following a real schedule—also delightfully novel.” This cracked me up.

Ah, I wish it would go all the way to Taos.

2 Brandon May 12, 2010 at 4:05 pm

If they run the thing all the way to Taos it will probably be held up daily by armed bandits. Remember “If there is ever trouble in New Mexico it started in Taos.”

I wandered over from your twitter page via the blogsherpa group. Great site. I love your use of Thesis.

PS I’m not talkin’ smack about Taos. It’s the only place in the world I call home and I love it.

3 Zora May 17, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Ha, Brandon! I can totally see that happening. Just on principle. And good to know another New Mexican!

And thanks re: Thesis. It’s very trial-and-error…

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