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By Steve Dunham, cross-posted from railroad.net
Part 1: VRE Starts Rolling
Part 2: Growing Pains
Part 3: Commuting Changes After
Part 4: A 15-Year-Old Railroad with 30-Year-Old Trains
Part 5: VRE Turns a Corner
A virginia Railway Express train rolls into the Leeland Road station in Stafford, Virginia, on the first day of service,
Virginia Railway Express began service on
Getting the rush-hour service started took a long time. Interest in bringing commuter rail back to Northern Virginia arose even before Metro began running in 1976. The last commuter service in the area had been operated by the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD), which ran from Alexandria, VA, to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its last passenger train had operated in 1951, by which time the railroad had been hanging by a thread; its struggling freight service lasted until 1968.
In 1964, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission was established. The following year, it opposed abandonment of the W&OD. Reconstruction of
Even after I-395 was reconstructed with the Shirley Busway (the present high-occupancy vehicle lanes) in the median, commuter rail service on the RF&P and the Southern continued to be proposed and studied, while the final plans for Metro included service next to the RF&P as far as Franconia and Springfield (served by one station) and paralleling (and sometimes on top of) the W&OD right-of-way [RoW], which became a trail.
Another regional government authority, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC), was created in 1986, and like the Northern Virginia commission it had authority to levy a gas tax to fund transportation projects. This offered a source of operating funds for commuter rail, which would also be funded by participating localities. Throughout these decades, capital funds to acquire trains, build stations, and increase or preserve railroad capacity continued to be lacking, as did a source of insurance.
However, the push for commuter rail was coming not just from local governments but also from the public, notably citizen advocates for better transportation.
Before there was anything formal, there was an ad hoc group led by some local elected officials and civic boosters, calling for a Northern Virginia commuter rail service, recalls Mike Testerman, president of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons (VARP). VARP members in Northern Virginia such as John Czyzewski and George Billmeyer were among the advocates, joined later by Dick Peacock, who wrote letters to the editors of area newspapers advocating commuter rail service.
VRE got off to a good start, equipment-wise, says Testerman; it decided on using new, custom-built, single-level commuter coaches from Mafersa and fully rebuilt
Indeed, as early as 1977, Don Phillips, in Trains magazine, quoted an RF&P official as saying that commuter trains ought to be on their own facilities.
Almost 30 years later, Pete Sklannik, at that time head of Trinity Railway Express in Texas, after a stint as head of VRE, said that commuter trains ought to have their own tracks. Control is key to running a railroad on time, he told me. Lack of dispatching control dogged VRE for decades, and the system of funding by localities caused VRE Fredericksburg line trains to run empty for 6 miles during the first
Funds from the Virginia Department of Transportation, along with bonds issued by the transportation commissions, provided capital for purchasing trains and other startup costs, and self-insurance enabled operation on the host railroads, so by the late 1980s, VRE was heading toward carrying its first passengers a few years later, under the direction of Thomas Waldron.
I didnt move to Virginia until 1991, so I missed all this, but I was living in Virginia when the VRE Fredericksburg line started running, and on the first day of service, I, along with three of my kids, rode VRE to Washington for the day to visit the National Zoo. For the next few years I rode VRE occasionally until the summer of 1996, when I began commuting to work in Northern Virginia.
When I began commuting on VRE, the service was only four years old, three of them under the direction of Steve Roberts, and it was clearly catering to its customers. Besides the four VRE rush-hour trains each way, we could ride some Amtrak trains using multiple-ride VRE tickets; we could transfer without charge to Metrobus, Alexandria Transit, and other local bus services; and on the rare occasions when VRE could not operate, it chartered buses to take us to Northern Virginia and the Metro (later, this would change to VREs notorious directive to its passengers, Seek alternate transportation).
For my first 10 months of commuting on VRE, I didnt record a single late train in my rail travel log. This commuters honeymoon ended in 1997, with my first ride on a delayed VRE train: it was an hour and
August was worse: only three VRE trains I rode in the first three weeks of August were on time.
VRE restored full service, though, and late VRE trains became rare again. Ridership grew, and in 1998 VRE started running some former Budd Rail Diesel Cars (now without engines in them) to expand capacity. I liked these cars; I had ridden them many times when I lived in Massachusetts, and the seats were more comfortable for me than the seats in the Mafersa coaches. In 1998 I got a full-time job in Crystal City a short walk from the VRE station, so except for the
In 1999, delayed VRE trains became more common in my experience, crowned by 2˝ hours spent sitting in Alexandria (but not at the station) after the CSX dispatching center in Florida lost power; the signals and communications went dead. I had an informal competition with my friend Dick Peacock, another board member of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons, who also worked in Crystal City and who rode the Manassas line, for the record of longest delay on a VRE train. My
In 1999, VRE got 13 Kawasaki bilevel coaches, a welcome addition to passenger-carrying capacity. I liked them, though they lasted only a few years; they were sold to Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) and replaced by
VRE also got hold of a few F40s and for a while ran some surplus MARC cars that had come from the Baltimore & Ohio many years before. They had old, comfortable seats but were not always warm. When riding in one of the cars one winter morning, a fellow passenger asked me, Is this all the heat were going to get?
Until the sun comes up, yes, I answered.
Despite occasional breakdowns and delays and failure of the heat or air-conditioning, the commute was tolerable and often enjoyable. The crews were Amtrak personnel, and they were unfailingly friendly, helpful, and polite.
Some of this part appeared in slightly different form in Steve Dunhams Commuter Crossroads column in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free LanceStar in 2001 through 2004 and is reproduced with permission.
The terrorist attacks of
After the plane hit the Pentagon, the railroad tunnel under Capitol Hill was closed because terrorists might have planted bombs in it. Metro stopped operating the yellow line across the Potomac because the bridge might get hit by terrorists in a jetliner. Some people walked eight miles from Washington, DC, to Alexandria hoping to board a VRE train there. VRE used one train that wasnt in Washington during the attack to take passengers home on the Manassas line, and VRE called on Alexandria Transit buses to carry passengers to stations on the Fredericksburg line. Eventually the tunnel was reopened (no bombs), VRE started running out of Washington again, and the yellow line started crossing the Potomac once more.
VRE later urged its passengers to develop at least two alternate plans to get home: One that involves public transportation and one that does not. VRE riders in the suburbs closer to Washington might have had alternative public transportation in an emergency. Those in farther areas had precious little. And getting home from Washington without public transportation? Honey, Washingtons under attack, so come get me? Richard White, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said that Metro, which is already packed during rush hours, wouldnt be able to absorb additional passengers trying to get out of the city in an emergency; many people would have to walk.
Later, CSX, which owns the Fredericksburg line, and Norfolk Southern, which owns the Manassas line, promised track capacity for evacuation in the case of another emergency, said Dave Snyder, who was VREs superintendent of railroad operations, safety, and security.
In the days and weeks that followed the
The terrorists had been able to get drivers licenses and board planes; because they had blended in so well, everyone was now a suspect. A Security Reminder from VRE was supposed to help us spot suspicious persons, who might be keeping one or both hands in pockets [or] close to his or her body and have bulges or padding around the midsection. Standing on the platform in Crystal City one evening, I saw that lots of commuters had their hands in their pockets. And bulges around the midsection? It looked like they were getting ready to board the Terrorist Express.
In 2004, VRE began a program called CAST (Commuter Awareness for Safe Travel), encouraging passengers to be safe, smart, informed, aware, and prepared. Some of it was merely common sense: Learn the location of emergency exits on the train and how to use them. Stay calm in an emergency and listen for instructions. Other portions were not as credible: For example, pay attention to the Homeland Security Departments terrorism alerts. What were we supposed to do differently when the alert level went from yellow to orange?
VRE also asked us to label our bags with CAST tags bearing our name and address so that if we left a bag behind it would be identified. I added tags to all my bags, but if I had been a terrorist with a bomb, I would have put a CAST tag on it to indicate that it was legitimate luggage.
Although cameras are presumed to discourage crime, now anyone carrying a camera near the tracks was often suspected of being a terrorist. New Jersey Transit wanted to forbid anyone to take pictures of its property. This was before every smartphone had a built-in camera. However, I never heard of VRE discouraging responsible railfans. Still, when taking pictures of public transportation, I expected to be challenged, though I never was.
As the new Transportation Security Administration began telling passenger railroads and transit agencies to use bomb-sniffing dogs and screen passengers, it seemed unaware that such antiterrorism measures on
VRE did not attempt the impossible task of screening all passengers who board its trains (as some security people thought it should do), but it did have police with bomb-sniffing dogs walk the aisles of randomly selected trainsa good practice. The security effort with the most apparent and immediate impact for New Jersey Transit at this time was canine bomb-detection teams, according to Mary Rabadeau, the agencys police chief at the time.
Later, VRE invited the Transportation Security Administration to have heavily armed VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams stand on station platforms at rush hours to, in the words of VRE, deter potential issues.
From 2001 onwards, it seemed to be an article of faith among many security practitioners that the threat from terrorism was increasing every year. Bombings of commuter trains in Spain in 2004 and subway trains in London in 2005 showed that the threat continued and was real but not that it was always getting worse. During these years I often researched and wrote about transportation security and attended conferences on rail security; there was a threat, and agencies were responding, but I do not agree that the threat was continually increasing. Yet as late as 2013, VRE was claiming increases in terror threats but did not tell its passengers what the threats were or how much the threats had increased. Maybe passengers could have been watching for the threats if the threats were still real.
The 2001 attacks affected VRE in another way too: the Defense Department decided to remove many of its offices from Crystal City to locations it considered more defensible, usually miles from any VRE station. My commute changed in 2001 too: seeking lower rent, my employer moved from Crystal City to Shirlington (in Arlington). Now my office wasnt near a VRE station, it was a half-hour bus ride away. Driving
By 2002, Virginia Railway Express operations were fairly routine: just what a commuter wants. Delays of more than
By the end of 2003, however, delays of 20, 30, or
That alternate transportationwhat little of it there wascould get pretty expensive: $20 for a round trip on the National Coach bus, $28.50 for a round trip to Springfield on Greyhound, plus Metro fare to get from those buses terminals to my office. The cost was in addition to what I had already paid for a month of unlimited rides on VRE.
I didnt have a spare car to drive to work on the days when VRE failed to run. Even if Id had one, where would I have driven to? Like many other workers, I had a choice between subsidized parking and subsidized mass transit. I had chosen transit, so I didnt have a parking permit for the garage at work.
Sometimes I could do some work at home when VRE didnt run, but much of my work had to be done in the office. When VRE failed to operate, often I ended up using vacation time for the hours I didnt work.
In the last two weeks of December, my usual morning train, the 7:15 out of Fredericksburg, operated only once. Twice, because of engine failures, it couldnt leave the yard in Spotsylvania.
Meanwhile, VREs plain-talking leader, Pete Sklannik, was apparently rubbing some officials fur the wrong way, because in 2003 he resigned after an investigation (the results were not publicly released) that said he misspent $17,000 over the course of three years. Dale Zehner, VREs Chief of Staff, became Chief Operating Officer in 2003 and Chief Executive Officer in 2004.
VRE faced another problem: limited by available storage space in Washington, DC, VRE needed to fit more passengers into trains of the same length, and so it moved toward a fleet of bilevel passenger cars only. In 2004, it sold its original 1992 single-level Mafersa cars and relied entirely on the
The next year, 2005, VREs engines were aging poorly; seven trains I rode broke down or had to push another train that broke down, my normal evening train was canceled at least three times, and failures of electric power from the diesels to the coaches started cropping up more often, depriving passengers of lights, ventilation, and heating or cooling. And VRE raised its fares again.
It got worse in 2006. VRE got off to a bad start with a January derailment at Possum Point, just north of Quantico. Those of us on the trains behind the derailment were taken back to our starting stations and told, Seek alternate transportation.
That year, I experienced 6 broken-down VRE trains; in 2007 it was 13. On one occasion, the train I was riding broke down and the train behind it was supposed to push it the rest of the way to Washington, but that train broke down too. And VRE raised its fares for the third year in a row.
Virginia Railway Express has the ominous distinction of being the only commuter [rail]road that is suffering a decline in ridership during a time of unprecedented gasoline prices when most commuter lines and Amtrak corridors are experiencing record patronage, wrote Lee Gregory in the September 2006 issue of Railpace Newsmagazine in his Allegheny Observer column.
VRE had concentrated on attracting riders who have another choice. Its mission of traffic mitigation meant that the people it wanted on board would have a car and otherwise would drive.
Although I like trains and hate driving, the only thing keeping me on VRE that summer was the high cost of driving. Riding VRE was so frustrating and time consuming (my commuting time was sometimes six hours a day or even more) that driving didnt seem so bad, only more expensive. Then gas prices started to fall. I kept riding VRE, but a lot of people did not.
By 2006, the average age of VREs locomotives was about
In 2006 VRE got the first of its new coaches and returned the Sounders, and in 2008 it sold its nine-year-old Kawasaki bilevels. I wished VRE had been buying new locomotives instead of new coaches. Id rather commute in an old coach pulled by a new locomotive than in a brand-new coach pulled by an old engine. Maybe the engine overhauls helped, because trains broke down less often in 2008 and 2009, but still it happened often enough that if I had an important appointment or had to go to the airport I would leave an hour early in case the VRE train broke down.
Other persistent problems were VREs unreliable ticket machines, train-status displays that often were blank, and other poor communications. Those who chose to ride VRE had ample reason to frequently question their decision.
Some of this part appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg Free LanceStar and is reproduced with permission.
The lowest point of VRE service for me came in February 2010. After a snowstorm pummeled northern Virginia, VRE announced that it would not run trains on the following Monday as a result of power outages and concerns about treacherous road conditions leading to its stations. It also said there might be lengthy delays on the railroad. Difficulty operating trains is one thing, but not all VRE riders drive to the stations, and even those who do can decide for themselves whether its safe rather than let VRE decide that theyre better off not going to work. I couldnt work from home, and I couldnt afford to take three or four days of vacation, so I was in the office that week, never mind the snow and cancellation of train service. VREs concern about the danger of driving rang hollow as I drove to work.
More snow on Tuesday and Wednesday was enough to keep the federal offices closed, but even as the railroad recovered, each evening the federal governments announcement that it would be closed the next day was followed a few minutes later by VREs announcement that it would not be open for business either. If VRE had been unable to run trains, it neednt have waited for the federal announcement. Later VRE said that it cant afford to run trains when the federal government is closed. Yet monthly ticket holders65% of VRE ridershad already paid for VRE service; why could VRE not afford to run even one train for the 32% of its passengers who were not federal employees?
When the federal offices finally reopened that Friday, VRE ran four trains each way instead of the usual six on the Fredericksburg line. With a lot of other VRE passengers that evening, I stood for almost an hour because there werent enough seats. VRE should have been able to provide train service to people who had paid for it and provide seats for them all.
Later, I was present when a passenger complained to VRE CEO Dale Zehner about buying a five-day VRE ticket and then having service canceled for four of the days. Zehner told that passenger that VRE didnt owe him anything.
Sometimes it seemed that VREs basic preference was not to run trains. It certainly was reluctant to commit to providing service. Too many times to count, VRE told us commuters to call VRE after 4 the next morning to find out whether VRE would run any trains. Five years later, on
I submitted a comment to the VRE monthly online chat saying that VRE would not be a reliable form of transportation until it could promise to get us to work and back. VRE omitted my comment because it was inappropriate.
Another problem for passengers started in 2010: a plague of wrong automated announcements by what one conductor called Automated Annie: wrong station announcements, wrong track announcements, wrong train number announcements, all growing more frequent till they happened on almost every trip. We were sometimes, because of alleged delays ahead, advised to transfer to Metro at the next station, even when the next station was in Stafford (Metro has no stations in Stafford). We would often hear that the quiet car was at the rear of the train when it wasnt. We would hear almost every day that step boxes would be available at the conductors locations in Alexandria, but they hardly ever were.
Other bogus automated announcements said to watch out for high-speed trains in Quantico and Manassas (where the railroad speed limits were
But the title of this part of my history is VRE Turns a Corner, not VRE Goes Over a Cliff. For me, VRE did hit bottom in 2010, but one major improvement moved the commuter railroad toward reliability: VRE got its first brand-new engines. The first of these MP36s arrived that year, and once they replaced all the other engines on VREs roster, locomotive failuresa big cause of VRE delaysvirtually disappeared. (Sadly,
VRE made another change in 2010: it took the operating contract away from Amtrak and gave it to Keolis. VRE told its passengers that the only difference we would notice would be an improvement in service. In the first few weeks after Keolis took over VRE train operations and maintenance on
Although not clearly an improvement over having Amtrak running VRE trains, the Keolis operations got better until they were at least tolerable. Once the old locomotives had been retired, riders who were new to VRE seemed pleased with the service. And having gotten a taste of decent, if limited, commuter rail service, they wanted more. More than
Strangely, that same year, VREs Thomas Hickey addressed the Railway Patrons annual meeting, and he said that VRE expected to expand service to run all day and weekends by 2040. Population growth and demand would enable the change. But that would have been
On the plus side, VRE did add a station in 2015. After
In 2017 I moved to Alexandria and stopped commuting on VRE. I kept getting VREs alerts, though, so I could still be a knowledgeable rail advocate. No longer a VRE commuter, I didnt miss the uncertainty of whether VRE would even run when bad weather or another problem came up, nor did I miss the loud, wrong announcements that had become part of every trip. (On my most recent VRE ride, from Alexandria to Washington in May 2020, the computer announced the LEnfant station after we had left it, so apparently nothing had changed in that regard.)
In 2020 VRE got a new CEO, Rich Dalton, and the bottom fell out of the Washington, DC, commuting market. With federal assistance, VRE kept running half its standard service for the benefit of the small minority of people who still had to go to work. Gaps of more than an hour between some trains kept some people from using the service, though, and in June 2021, VRE resumed its previous, mainly rush-hour, schedule. Whether the demand for that service pattern will resume is unknown, and if the market changes, will VRE adapt?
Steve Dunham has been riding VRE since the first day of service on the Fredericksburg line in 1992, and he commuted on VRE from 1996 to 2017. He has been on the board of directors of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons (a volunteer nonprofit group) since 1998 and chairman of the board since 2000.