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VRE gallery cars in Washington

“Commuter Crossroads”—Commuting by Train

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Fredericksburg Station Turns 100 (Oct. 10, 2010)  
Keolis Has a Rough Start Running VRE Trains (Aug. 15, 2010)  
What Makes VRE Late? (April 25, 2010)  
VRE Kids’ Tickets Are Hard to Buy (March 28, 2010)  
VRE Abandons Riders After Snowstorm (Feb. 28, 2010)  
Robots Do the Talking (Nov. 8, 2009)  
VRE Fredericksburg Line Gets More Triple Track (August 16, 2009)  
Time for VRE to Step Up (May 24, 2009) 
How Many Spotsylvanians Ride VRE? (March 29, 2009) 
TriRail: VRE’s Florida Cousin (Aug. 17, 2008) 
Blank Looks From VRE (Dec. 9, 2007) 
VRE Pushes Engine Repairs (July 22, 2007) 
What Station Is This Anyway? (June 24, 2007) 
CSX Wants a ‘Corridor of the Future’ (Apr. 29, 2007) 
VRE’s New Gallery Cars (Feb. 4 and March 4, 2007) 
Quantico Café Makes a Friendly Station (Nov. 12, 2006) 
VRE Communications Fall Short (Oct. 15, 2006) 
VRE’s 2006 Ridership Drop (Sep. 17, 2006) 
Picture 100 Miles of Good Railroad (Aug. 20, 2006) 
Ticket Validation Problems Dog VRE Riders (July 23, 2006) 
VRE Should Serve the Weekend Market Too (June 25, 2006) 
VRE’s Uncooperative Ticket Machines (April 30, 2006) 
VRE’s Third Annual Fare Increase (Apr. 2, 2006) 
CSX Says It Can Handle Freight and Passengers (Feb. 19, 2006) 
Rail Lines for the Future (Feb. 5, 2006) 
Next Stop, Crystal City—or the Twilight Zone? (Oct. 16, 2005) 
Slow, Safe Trains (Aug. 21, 2005) 
13 Years of VRE at Fredericksburg (July 24, 2005) 
Who Rides VRE? (June 12, 2005) 
Controversial Cab Cars Up Front (Mar. 6, 2005) 
Could a Grade-Crossing Suicide Cause a VRE Wreck? (Feb. 6, 2005) 
CSX Track Capacity Will Expand (Jan. 23, 2005) 
Quiet! It’s Santa (Dec. 26, 2004) 
VRE Fares Are About Average (Oct. 17, 2004) 
Delays Waste Rail Commuters’ Time Too (Sep. 19, 2004) 
VRE’s Core Business (July 11, 2004) 
VRE Communications Disappoint (May 16, 2004) 
Getting to Work Without VRE (March 21, 2004) 
Left Behind, Parts I and II (Feb. 8 and March 7, 2004) 
VRE Holiday Service Cuts Hurt Riders (Jan. 25, 2004) 
VRE Service Sliding Downhill (Dec. 28, 2003) 
Quiet Cars: Some People Are Unclear on the Concept (Nov. 30, 2003) 
VRE Compared With New Jersey Transit (Nov. 2, 2003) 
Fredericksburg Station Needs Better Signs (Oct. 5, 2003) 
Will We Learn From Winter Woes? (Mar. 23, 2003) 
VRE Reaches Higher to Accommodate Passengers (Mar. 9, 2003) 
VRE’s Strategy to Accommodate Growth (Aug. 18, 2002) 
It’s High Time for Spotsylvania to Get on Board VRE (July 21, 2002) 
Evening on the Train With George (Dec. 9, 2001) 
Winter Weather Reveals Transport Troubles (Mar. 4, 2001) 
Watch Out for Bowling Balls on VRE (April 2, 2000) 
2,300 HP Takes You to Work (March 5, 2000) 
How Fast Is VRE? (Feb. 6, 2000) 
Christmas Spirit Rides the Rails (Dec. 12, 1999) 
Union Works to Give VRE Riders a Better Trip (Aug. 22, 1999) 
Local Railroad Control Needed in Emergencies (June 27, 1999) 
The Crew Makes or Breaks a Train Trip (March 28, 1999) 

Fredericksburg Station Turns 100

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on Oct. 10, 2010, and is reproduced with permission.

The Fredericksburg railroad station turns 100 this year. Isn’t a birthday party in order?

It’s not the best train station. It’s listed on the Great American Stations website, which promptly belies the “great” label with a terse description of the station’s lack of amenities: “Platform with Shelter … No station hours. No ticket office hours. No Quik-Trak [Amtrak ticket machine] hours. No checked baggage hours. No help with baggage.” Fredericksburg could have a nicer gateway for arriving and departing rail passengers.

Yet in fiscal year 2009, 54,053 Amtrak passengers used the station. That’s more than a thousand a week. Added to that were about 462,000 Virginia Railway Express passengers (maybe a thousand or so individuals, since may of the same people ride VRE ten times a week). Half a million passengers a year and no bathroom. That might not matter too much unless the train you’re waiting for is an hour late, which happens. I’ve sadly advised waiting Amtrak passengers that they could choose between the visitor center two blocks away (between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.) or the portable toilet at City Dock Park, open 24 hours (bring a flashlight).

The brick building itself is handsome, if not open to rail passengers in general unless they are also patronizing the restaurant. It’s that brick station building facing Lafayette Boulevard that is a hundred years old and currently houses the Bavarian Chef restaurant. The notorious crumbling viaduct with, as the Great American Stations website notes, “an elaborate system of stairs and ramps,” where passengers get on and off trains, was built in 1927. It is marked with stern “No Trespassing” signs. Other signs warn passengers that they will be fined if they board a train without a valid ticket, but the signs fail to mention that this applies only to VRE passengers and that the VRE ticket machines do not sell Amtrak tickets.

Aside from the dismal atmosphere of the platforms, ramps and stairs, at least the falling concrete is being repaired. Once visitors get beyond that, if they exit towards downtown, they are welcomed with Bavarian oom-pah music.

So we have a station that, if not really great, is at least old. The railroad itself has a lot of history, and we have local experts at the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Historical Society. I’m sure there would be volunteers who could help bring that history to life for one weekend. The Amtrak train schedule easily accommodates same-day round trips to Fredericksburg from northern Virginia or the Richmond area, where a little publicity from the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce could get the word out and bring some visitors to the city for a day or two. We now have a downtown hotel that makes it more convenient to travel to Fredericksburg by train. There are plenty of places to eat, the weekend Fred shuttle bus costs only 50 cents, and walking Segway, carriage and bus (that looks like a trolley) tours. It would be a good opportunity for visitors to experience some railroad, Civil War and colonial history.

There are still a few months left in 2010 during which to celebrate the railroad station’s 100th birthday. So, Fredericksburg, how about a party?

Postscript: On November 27, 2010, the owners of the Bavarian Chef restaurant held a birthday party for the station, with a cake in the shape of the station and a speaker from the city talking about the station’s history. The public was invited to the free event.

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Keolis Has a Rough Start Running VRE Trains

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on Aug. 15, 2010, and is reproduced with permission.

Since Keolis took over Virginia Railway Express train operations and maintenance on July 12, I’ve ridden 14 VRE trains that were on time. The other 24 were anywhere from 5 to 58 minutes late. This was somewhat worse than my experience in the previous three weeks, when Amtrak was still operating VRE trains: exactly half of the 26 trains I rode were on time.

VRE told its passengers that the only difference we would notice with a new contractor operating its trains would be an improvement in service. Some of the dismal on-time performance is outside the control of VRE or Keolis: CSX signal problems and heat restrictions, for example, and an incident that VRE described as a “track fire.” Other delays were clearly the operator’s responsibility: I was on three broken-down trains in three weeks, and I witnessed several incidents of trains either overshooting a station or having to stop twice because the train was not properly positioned at the platform. The Keolis crews seem to be trying, and experience should cure the latter problem, but a handful of new locomotives (delivery has begun) won’t end the ubiquitous “equipment problems.” It may be next year before the new engines are handling a majority of VRE trains.

Other things remain the same. Bogus announcements are common. I counted 11 times in three weeks when the onboard computer announced the wrong station, and I probably slept through some other wrong announcements.

Platform announcements, handled from VRE headquarters and not by Keolis, sometimes say nothing about overdue trains, and at other times they are just plain intelligible. After one mouthful-of-marbles announcement at the Fredericksburg station, I heard a waiting passenger say, “What?” I was wondering the same thing. I had to find the electronic sign to discover what had been said.

And as long-time VRE riders know, when things get rough, you’re on your own. When a coal train derailment on August 5 blocked the line in Quantico, VRE ran trains as far south as Rippon (near Dale City) in the evening, but the next morning, instead of at least serving those passengers on the northern part of the line, VRE ran no trains at all on the Fredericksburg line. Buses weren’t available to handle all the commuters, but what about a bus bridge around the wreck? VRE had a train stuck south of Quantico—why not use it to shuttle people as far as possible and ask the Marines to lend a few buses to transport people within Quantico to waiting trains farther north? For that matter, roads parallel the tracks in Quantico. How about letting people walk past the wreck if they were willing? It appears that when things get tough, VRE won’t even try.

Better service? You’ve got a big job ahead of you, Keolis. Put on your hip boots and wade in.

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What Makes VRE Late?

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on April 25, 2010, and is reproduced with permission.

What causes delays to Virginia Railway Express trains? In 2009, for the Fredericksburg line, the reason cited most often by VRE was speed restrictions, followed closely by failure of VRE locomotives and equipment (such as doors and wheelchair lifts on the coaches). To its credit, VRE posts delays and their causes on its website, so I analyzed the reasons cited and the length of delays they caused.

Speed restrictions, as I know from experience, are imposed by the railroad over which the VRE Fredericksburg line runs: CSX. If the weather is extraordinarily hot or if it’s wet enough to possibly cause flash floods, CSX restricts the speed at which trains may operate. Also, following trackwork, trains must travel slower until a certain tonnage has passed over the track and it is fully settled into place. Some delays had more than one reason, so in counting them up, if a delay was blamed on a freight train and problems with doors on a VRE train, I counted each as responsible for half a delay. Using this method, I tallied 56 delays on the Fredericksburg line for 2009 attributed to speed restrictions and 53 blamed on VRE equipment problems. Next on the list were passengers requiring assistance, CSX freight trains, and Amtrak trains or problems at Amtrak’s Union Station in Washington. Cited far less often were things such as switch problems, signal problems, non-railroad emergencies, trackwork and even, in one case, amazingly, highway congestion.

What caused the longest delays is another question. If a train was 40 minutes late because of switch problems and assistance to passengers, I guessed that assisting passengers probably didn’t take 20 minutes, so I counted 30 minutes’ delay caused by switch problems and 10 minutes spent assisting passengers. It’s a guess, but it’s based on 18 years of riding VRE.

Counting delays where one VRE train had to push another, delaying both, VRE equipment failure was far and away the biggest cause of delays last year: about 31 hours on the Fredericksburg line alone. Next were delays caused by CSX freight trains: about 17 hours. Speed restrictions and switch problems were far behind, causing about 11 hours of delays each. Signal problems and Amtrak were responsible for about 9 hours each, passenger assistance and railroad congestion for about 7 hours each, and other causes less than 5 hours each over the course of the year.

In March, June and November, passengers on the Fredericksburg line suffered the longest delays: more than 18 hours of cumulative delays in March and more than 15 hours each in June and November. September and February had the least delays: between 3 and 5 hours each month.

Last year, VRE also counted canceled trains in its on-time performance. A train that didn’t run at all was counted the same as one that was 10 minutes late, but at least it was counted. (I totaled these delays according to the reason they were canceled: VRE equipment failure or problems at Union Station, for example.) In February of this year, when it canceled at least 139 trains (on the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines combined), VRE seems to have stopped counting canceled trains as late. I did not see them mentioned in the on-time performance for that month. So for a few days after any snowstorm, I would take VRE’s on-time numbers with a few pounds of rock salt.

Maybe things will get better next year, when VRE should have a few new locomotives in service. All its current engines are at least 30 years old. They have been through one or more rebuilds, but they are still prone to failure. Usually they work OK, but sometimes they limp to their destination, sometimes they have to be helped, and sometimes they never make it out of bed in the morning. The new engines might be more reliable, reducing the hours of delays caused by VRE equipment failure.

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VRE Kids’ Tickets Are Hard to Buy

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on March 28, 2010, and is reproduced with permission.

Buying kids’ tickets for Virginia Railway Express is much more hassle than it used to be. At the beginning of this month, “to enhance revenue,” VRE changed its youth fare policy. Kids age 10 and under ride free with a fare-paying adult. That’s the good news. The bad news is that kids age 11 through 18, while qualifying for a 50% discount, will have to jump through hoops to get discounted tickets.

First, in order to buy tickets, they must have photo identification issued by Virginia Railway Express. No other form of identification will be accepted—not a birth certificate, not a school ID, both of which used to be accepted by ticket vendors. This is so that VRE “can keep better track of the individuals using the program and ensure that it is not being abused.” If only Virginia had been so strict about issuing driver’s licenses to terrorists.

To get the VRE photo ID, you have to fill out forms that are available on the VRE website, and you have to provide photos. VRE says it will provide the ID within 10 business days. If you want to take preteens or teenagers on the train to Washington without paying adult fares for them, you should get started early. (I emailed the applications and photos and received photo IDs for my teenage daughters the same week.)

Once they have their VRE photo ID, students may purchase tickets. The tickets cannot be purchased from VRE ticket-vending machines. They are available only through certain vendors. And parents are not allowed to buy student tickets unless the student is present with the photo ID. This means traveling with the student to a ticket outlet such as the Commuter Stores in Arlington. Yes, these are 50 miles away from Fredericksburg.

An alternative that is less difficult is to order tickets by mail from Commuter Direct. It’s not convenient. You need to set up an account by visiting the website at or calling (703) 228-RIDE. And you need to provide a copy of the VRE student ID. Then you can order tickets by mail. A teenager who commutes to school on VRE can set up a recurring order for a monthly ticket, but even this is not terribly helpful, because the order must be started and stopped several times a year: presumably the student won’t need monthly tickets for July and August, and it may not be worth buying monthly tickets for December, June and January either.

Finally, after obtaining their tickets, students must have their VRE photo ID with them while riding the train.

Families may decide that it is not worth the trouble to get student tickets for occasional trips up north. Will this “enhance revenue” for VRE? Maybe people will just buy ten-trip adult tickets, which they can buy from VRE vending machines at a 10% discount, rather than the 50% available for students. Or maybe they will decide that VRE isn’t worth the trouble at all and will just drive to the Metro.

In “A Future for Rail Passenger Service in the Virginias,” the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons says that passenger train service should be affordable for families and easy to use, with easily obtained tickets. VRE’s student ticket policy is a move in the opposite direction.

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VRE Abandons Riders After Snowstorm

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on Feb. 28, 2010, and is reproduced with permission.

After a heavy snowstorm pummeled northern Virginia on February 5 and 6, Virginia Railway Express 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 it’s safe rather than let VRE decide that they’re better off not going to work. Also, there are parking garages in Fredericksburg, Woodbridge, Springfield and Manassas that are sheltered from the snow, so unplowed VRE parking lots make getting to a station impractical for some drivers but are not a reason to provide no service at all.

VRE’s passenger survey last year indicated that 68% of the riders are federal employees or in the military. When the federal government closes its offices, as it did February 8 through 10, those employees can generally expect paid snow days. The other 32% of us generally cannot. I couldn’t work from home, and I couldn’t 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. VRE’s concern about the danger of driving rang hollow as I drove to work.

Another six inches or more of snow on Tuesday and Wednesday was enough to keep the federal offices closed, but even as the railroad recovered, each evening the federal government’s announcement that it would be closed the next day was followed a few minutes later by VRE’s announcement that it would not be open for business either.

By Wednesday evening the VRE announcements were no longer citing the possibility of railroad disruptions, only the road conditions and the federal offices’ closure. If VRE had been unable to run trains, it needn’t have waited for the federal announcement. Later VRE said that it can’t afford to run trains when the federal government is closed: “Operating service when the federal government closes would severely cut into the funds needed to pay operating costs, which may eventually affect ticket prices,” said Greg Deibler, passenger operations specialist. Eventually? My cost to ride VRE went up 27% this month. I bought a monthly ticket expecting 38 rides and got only 30 instead. VRE got its money from all the other monthly ticket holders too—65% of its riders, according to the survey. It gets expensive for passengers when we’re driving to work and paying for non-existent commuter rail service at the same time, and I don’t believe that VRE could not afford to run even one train for the 32% of its passengers who are not federal employees.

When the federal offices finally reopened that Friday, VRE ran reduced service: four trains each way instead of six. With a lot of other VRE passengers that evening, I stood for almost an hour because there weren’t enough seats. I heard one passenger say that it was still better than driving. Perhaps, but those shouldn’t be the only two choices. It should have been possible to provide train service to people who paid for it and provide seats for them all.

VRE wasn’t the only agency to let people down. Metro barely ran, operating its trains only in tunnels and canceling all bus service on some days. Metro’s failure was probably the biggest factor in the federal shutdown: the bulk of federal employees use Metro to get to work, and there aren’t enough parking places in Washington to accommodate all the people who might drive otherwise. Alexandria Transit stopped running its buses because the bus stops were covered with snow—a condition it said was unsafe. So instead, people had to drive or walk in the street. How is that safer?

Public transportation in Virginia has a long way to go in becoming an attractive, reliable choice, especially when traveling gets difficult—and that’s when we need it most.

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Robots Do the Talking

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in slightly different the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on Nov. 8, 2009, and is reproduced with permission.

Machines are always talking to me on the train and on the bus. Sometimes they know what they’re talking about, and sometimes it’s nonsense. Sometimes I talk back.

The Virginia Railway Express onboard talking computer advises me twice a day that a high-speed train may be approaching the station at Quantico. “Rubbish,” I sometimes mutter, because the speed limit for trains going through the Quantico station is 55 mph.

The computer also announces the stations, which is helpful in the dark—if the computer gets the information right. But one morning it said, “Now at Fredericksburg. Now at Fredericksburg.…” Six times in all, and we were sitting in the Leeland Road station in Stafford. Then the computer announced that there was a delay ahead, extent unknown, and said we should think about switching to Metro at the next station, which was Brooke, also in Stafford, and a long way from the nearest Metro stop.

Metro has a similar announcement system on its buses, and it seems more reliable. I ride the Metrobus a lot, and it makes a lot of stops, but I’ve heard a wrong stop announced only once.

The Next Bus system, which I wrote about two months ago, is pretty accurate at informing you when the next Metrobus will actually arrive. But I trusted it too much. When it told me that the next bus would not arrive for an hour, I supposed that a bus had broken down. More likely, I’ve discovered, such an announcement means that Next Bus isn’t getting a GPS signal from the bus, or else Next Bus is just wrong. I’ve learned to disregard any predictions that there won’t be another bus for an hour, and I just go down to the bus stop, where I’m usually rewarded with a bus about when one is scheduled.

Over the years, Metro has implemented two other automatic communication features that I really like: In the rail stations, a display tells you how long before the next train arrives, which line it’s for (if more than one Metrorail line serves that platform), its destination (some trains don’t go all the way to the end of the line) and how many cars long the train will be (which tells you how far down the platform you can go and still be near the train when it pulls in). Typically the system will display information about the next two or three trains.

The other innovation is electronic signs showing the route number on the back of the bus. Countless times I have seen people running for a bus, and and very often it turns out that the person was chasing the wrong bus. When more than one bus line serves a stop, that number on the back tells you whether you’ve just missed your bus. If the bus is at the stop and you’re coming up from behind, you know whether it’s worth running for.

Both of these systems seem to display information reliably, but there is one incident I still wonder about. Years ago, I was crossing I-395 via the footbridge at Shirlington one morning. A Metrobus came down the highway, and instead of the destination or the “Out of service” message, the electronic sign up front said there was an emergency on board, please call the police. It went up an exit ramp and disappeared around a corner. It could have gone south, north or west, and I didn’t have a cell phone, so I didn’t call 911 after I got to work: by then, five minutes had gone by, and the bus was probably a mile away in an unknown direction. I still hope that the message was displayed by mistake or that someone else saw it and called the police.

On the whole, these robotic messages are helpful, but the robots aren’t all that smart, and many days I wait to hear the straight facts from a human being.

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Time for VRE to Step Up

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on May 24, 2009, and is reproduced with permission.

Passengers on Virginia Railway Express who want to travel beyond the zone printed on their ticket have three choices: buy a one-way ticket for the additional zone, use a free-ride certificate if they have one or buy a one-way ticket for the entire trip.

I already had a monthly ticket that would get me as far as Arlington, so when taking one of my daughters to Washington, I bought a student ticket for her all the way to Washington and a one-way ticket for me from zone 2 (Arlington and Alexandria) to zone 1 (Washington). It was pricey: $5 for 4 miles. I put our tickets into the validating slot on the VRE ticket vending machine at the Fredericksburg station, and we got onto the train.

When the train left Crystal City in Arlington, I got out my one-way ticket to Washington, and I saw that it had not been validated by the machine. Later, when I saw VRE’s chief executive officer, Dale Zehner, I asked him about that. He said that the machines will not validate a ticket that does not include the zone where the machine is. My one-way ticket was for zones 1 and 2, but the machine was in zone 9. When the train got to Crystal City, I was supposed to get off, validate my one-way ticket to Washington, and get back on. This is highly inconvenient, and if you’re traveling with children, it’s nuts.

It’s long past time for VRE to start selling step-up tickets for its own trains. Long before I was born, most commuter railroads were selling step-up tickets. A passenger with a commutation ticket to, say, Newark, NJ, would occasionally want to go into New York City. All the rider had to do was purchase a step-up ticket covering the difference between the one-way fares—typically a small amount.

About ten years ago, the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons discussed this with VRE, and we were told repeatedly that the next generation of VRE ticket-vending machines would offer this. Now, years have gone by, and the new generation of machines cannot sell you a step-up ticket and cannot even validate some of the tickets they do sell.

I propose a simple solution: VRE can sell paper step-up tickets that you hand to the conductor, like the paper step-up tickets you can buy for $10 apiece in order to use your multiple-ride VRE ticket on an Amtrak train. You don’t need a machine to validate it. You buy it, and when you want to ride, you hand it to the conductor.

Make the pricing simple: a dollar per zone, not $1.25 per mile like the one-way ticket I bought. For occasional trips to Washington, I could use them to supplement my monthly ticket. Between Arlington and Washington is the one place where VRE has a few extra seats it could sell to short-distance riders. Stafford riders who occasionally want to ride all the way to Fredericksburg (to meet friends for dinner, for example, or see a program at the library) could also use step-up tickets to ride beyond their usual zone.

VRE does not have machines to sell these simple step-up tickets. But in selling all its Inauguration Day tickets by mail, VRE showed that it could handle a much smaller volume of paper step-up tickets by mail. They could also be sold at vendors such as the Commuter Stores in Arlington.

As summer begins and more commuters make trips to Washington with their families, now is the time for VRE to make it easy and economical for its regular riders to use its trains for those trips. VRE, please start selling step-up tickets right away. I’ll buy a book of ten. My check will be in the mail.

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How Many Spotsylvanians Ride VRE?

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on March 29, 2009, and is reproduced with permission.

How many Spotsylvanians ride Virginia Railway Express? I would like to know how many people use it. VRE’s annual ridership survey indicates that on a typical day, 943 of its passengers are Spotsylvania residents. But that doesn’t tell us how many individuals use the service.

In our household, for example, we have one commuter and four occasional riders. Some Spotsylvania households must have no commuters but have family members who occasionally ride the train. So my guess is that the people who occasionally ride—to an airport, to the museums in Washington, to travel home from college on winter break, and so on—far outnumber the people who commute on the train.

Put a different way, how many voters use VRE at least once a year? I would like to see a survey that counts people rather than one day’s trips.

Another question: who benefits from VRE? It isn’t operated to provide transportation choices or reduce pollution, though it does those things. Its purpose is traffic mitigation or, to put it another way, to make driving easier. To the extent that VRE takes drivers off I-95, I-66, and other roads, it is meeting its objective. I don’t think that making it easier to drive is the best use of transportation dollars, but that’s been the main focus of our national transportation policy for more than 50 years. But VRE does give us transportation choices and reduce pollution, so, as a taxpayer, I’ll take what I can get.

As a VRE commuter who lives in Spotsylvania, am I costing Stafford money? For years I have purchased gas in Fredericksburg (and sometimes even in Stafford) in order to pay the tax that supports VRE. That’s the gas used by our family commuter (me) plus the four occasional riders. I figure that the transportation tax costs me about 50 cents a week. I hope that Stafford’s estimate of how much I am costing that county takes my taxpaying into account.

I admit to using the Stafford stations on a few occasions when I have had business in Stafford after work. If the cost of riding the train from Stafford doubles because I am from out of the county, I can find another place to do business. I usually park in Fredericksburg, and I spend a lot of money shopping there after work—mainly on groceries, but I also have patronized downtown restaurants and other businesses.

Should Spotsylvania join VRE? I think so, because we need to start creating transportation choices and reducing pollution, and Spotsylvania needs to be part of the solution, and VRE is one solution. Joining VRE is the right choice under the current system.

But the current system is broken. Consider this: for almost 17 years, VRE has been running trains to Spotsylvania, but it has been running them empty because the trains cross a political boundary. This is not the best use of transportation tax dollars. Route 3 would not end at the county line if King George decided not to participate. Transportation makes commerce and travel possible. Roads and trains that serve numerous cities and counties are not a local matter. That’s why we have a commonwealth. When I buy gas, most of the taxes I pay go to fund highways whether I want more of them or not (and I don’t). They help pay for maintaining I-81, which I travel only a few times a year, and for I-64, which I travel less often, and for many roads that I never use at all.

But fluid travel and transportation are good for business and good for Virginians, so we share the cost. It’s time to shift public transportation funding off the backs of cities and counties and make it part of the rest of the statewide transportation network.

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TriRail: VRE’s Florida Cousin

By Steve Dunham

This appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star on August 17, 2008, and is reproduced with permission.

TriRail at Hollywood

Like Virginia Railway Express, Florida’s TriRail commuter rail system was created as an alternative to Interstate 95. Like VRE, TriRail shares its route with Amtrak trains and CSX freights, has been building more track capacity and still has trouble running on time. On a visit to Miami earlier this month I was eager to check out TriRail and see how it compares.

The Florida Department of Transportation purchased the CSX line and established TriRail in 1989 (three years before VRE started running) as a transportation alternative to I-95 during a five-year construction project. TriRail was operated by the Tri-County Commuter Rail Authority. By the time construction work was complete on I-95, TriRail was so popular that it was made a permanent part of the south Florida transportation network.

Congestion on the railroad was a problem, however. The CSX line purchased for TriRail was a single track with passing sidings, and in 1995 Florida began a 12-year project to double-track the entire 72-mile railroad between West Palm Beach and Miami Airport to better accommodate passenger trains. During that time (in 2003), the three-county authority became the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

TriRail is unusual in that its main terminal is not in a city. It’s in an industrial area about a mile from the Miami International Airport terminal, reached by a free shuttle bus. (A future project may extend TriRail to a new intermodal transportation center at the airport itself.) A lot of TriRail’s passengers are going to or from the airport, and the lower level of the TriRail passenger cars has large luggage racks in place of some seats. The airport traffic is encouraged by the frequent TriRail service: 50 weekday and 16 weekend trains.

Passengers traveling to or from downtown Miami (about 10 miles away) make a free transfer to the Miami metro.

Elsewhere, TriRail does go downtown, serving Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach and other cities along the coast. This probably helps account for the high off-peak ridership. I rode a late-morning weekday train heading from Miami airport toward West Palm Beach, and a good number of riders seemed to be getting on and off at each stop. The luggage racks were stuffed with the baggage of air and rail passengers (TriRail shares five stations with Amtrak).

Compared to VRE, TriRail has better service. It runs more trains on Sundays than the VRE Fredericksburg line has on weekdays. The fares are much cheaper: the highest one-way fare is $5.50, and a monthly pass for the whole line is only $80. (As on VRE, seniors and students pay half price.) The cars are a variant of the Sounders that ran on VRE in recent years; the straight-back seats are a bit Spartan for a ride over the entire line, but every car has a restroom, and many of the stations do too. The stations are handsome, mostly decorated in the pastels so common on southern Florida architecture.

TriRail shares some of VRE’s problems too. Even with the double-tracking complete, TriRail often runs late, and its communications have room for improvement. While I waited at the Miami Airport station, I saw no information about the 10:45 arrival from West Palm Beach, which would become my 11 a.m. train going north. A “Next train” arrow pointed to one track, but the train finally pulled in on the other track 20 minutes late. The platform was between the tracks, though, so there was no mad scramble to reach the other track as sometimes happens with Amtrak trains at Fredericksburg. Up the line, at other stations, I did see announcements posted on the electronic signs above the platforms.

What TriRail could really use, though, is an extension to downtown. If it served the airport directly (the Miami metro doesn’t) and went downtown too, then TriRail could end up with a recurring VRE problem: not enough capacity for everyone who wants to ride.

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Blank Looks from VRE

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Dec. 9, 2007, and is reproduced with permission.

“Train 306 on time,” proclaimed the information screen at the Fredericksburg railroad station, until 6:35 a.m., when Virginia Railway Express train 306 was due to depart for Washington. Then the screen went blank, as it usually does, whether or not the train has appeared. The public-address system seemed to be working poorly, because some of us on the platform could only hear a distant-sounding voice that we could not make out.

Half an hour went by with no word of the train and no sign of it either. When the 7:15 train was almost due, a VRE train pulled into the station, but I had no idea whether it was the 7:15 or the long-lost 6:35 until the crew announced that it would run express to Quantico and that the 7:15 would be along presently and make all stops.

A week later I was up in Quantico waiting for train 308, due at 7:39. The VRE sign said the train was on time. When 7:39 arrived but the train did not, the screen went blank. This time I had better information, from VRE itself. The Whistle Stop Café in the station has a computer monitor displaying the Rail Time page of the VRE website. Using Global Positioning System signals from the trains, it shows the position of every VRE train on the line. Rail Time showed that 308 was still at Brooke, 11 miles away.

Some passengers approached the café counter to ask proprietor Steve Junkersfeld where train 308 was. Was it late? Had it already left? He had the answer, plus some inside information: he expected the crew to call with a coffee order when the train was a few miles away. Presently the phone rang, and a few minutes after that, we heard 308 whistling as it neared the station.

For years, VRE passengers had to put up with information screens that were almost always blank. The new system has information, but not enough, and sometimes not at all when riders need it most.

But in Philadelphia, if you board Amtrak at 30th Street Station, you can watch the information board continually change with information about the many Amtrak trains arriving or departing. It will show that a train is on time, a number of minutes (or sometimes hours) late, vaguely “delayed,” or “departed.” That last item would be a welcome addition to the VRE information screens. The information board in Philadelphia is operated by a person, but I suspect that if VRE’s Rail Time can take GPS signals and show a train’s position on a map, then the right computer program could use that data to figure out whether a train has physically left the station or not yet arrived.

Another welcome addition would be extension of the Rail Time map to show the line south of Fredericksburg, where VRE trains run empty because of the political structure of public transportation in Virginia. Passengers waiting for a delayed VRE train in Fredericksburg could see whether the train was still south of the city, and passengers arriving a few minutes late could see whether the train had left. Scrolling text at the bottom could give details for each train.

The Rail Time map would be a whole lot better than the sometimes blank, sometimes erroneous information screens VRE is displaying at its stations now. It’s being done in Quantico, and I believe it could be done in Fredericksburg.

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VRE Pushes Engine Repairs

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on July 22, 2007, and is reproduced with permission.

A VRE engine pushes a deadhead train north through Fredericksburg.

Virginia Railway Express is pushing its aging locomotive fleet through heavy overhauls, sending one at a time to be worked on in the Norfolk Southern repair shops in Altoona, Pa., according to VRE spokesman Mark Roeber. The work on the diesel engine or prime mover in each locomotive includes replacing the pistons and turbochargers. Of the 19 locomotives VRE owns, 17 have been sent for heavy overhaul. One is in Altoona now, and the other 16 are back in service. VRE also has three leased locomotives.

In addition, VRE has been sending the HEP (for “head-end power”) generators to Altoona for overhauls. The HEP unit is a separate generator on the locomotive; it supplies electrical power to the rest of the train for lighting, heating, air conditioning and other electrical systems. Each fall, VRE does a “universal check” on the HEP generators to make sure they are ready for winter. The most recent universal check found more things wrong than expected, especially in the older locomotives. As of mid-July, one locomotive was sidelined awaiting a new HEP generator, but after that, VRE expected to get “ahead of the curve,” said Roeber, and have a spare HEP generator available.

VRE also tries to have one “protect” engine available for the Fredericksburg line and another for the Manassas line available during rush hour. When you see a train of only five coaches with a locomotive at the front of the train and another at the rear, one of them is probably the protect engine. However, with locomotives suffering mechanical failure, VRE hasn’t always had protect engines available to back up the others, and mechanical failures have been making up a significant portion of VRE delays. In June, six VRE trains were delayed and another three were canceled owing to mechanical problems, according to the VRE website.

The engines haven’t been the only problem. The new Nippon-Sharyo cab cars experienced some problems with the wheelchair lifts not completely retracting after use—at least that’s what the computer said, and the computer would not let the train move. That problem has been ironed out, said Roeber.

VRE’s older coaches have been experiencing problems too, particularly with the air conditioning. Given their age (40 years or more), I thought that they might be out of service permanently, at least in the summer, but Roeber said that mechanical crews are repairing the air conditioning so that the cars can be restored to service.

More new gallery cars are already on order, with delivery expected beginning next winter.

As for the locomotive fleet, VRE is trying to fix and patch things up so that they will work until new engines arrive, said Roeber, but that is more than two years away. However, VRE now has money in hand to purchase new locomotives: money from the state and from local matching funds. This month the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority voted to levy taxes for new transportation projects, one of which is new VRE locomotives. VRE expects to issue a request for proposals in October, said Roeber, with delivery about two years later.

The new locomotives will have higher horsepower and greater HEP capacity so that they can handle longer trains, VRE chief executive officer Dale Zehner told the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons on March 3.

In the meantime, VRE’s operations board has authorized the leasing of three more locomotives. This will not only give VRE more than enough protect engines, said Roeber, it will let VRE put two locomotives rather than one on some more of the longer trains.

Getting reliable locomotives on all its trains is crucial to rebuilding VRE ridership, and that’s going to take constant work by VRE for the next two years and beyond.

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What Station Is This Anyway?

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on June 24, 2007, and is reproduced with permission.

“Now at Union Station,” said the Virginia Railway Express automated voice. “This is Fredericksburg line train three-eleven. This is Fredericksburg line train three-eleven. Next station: Fredericksburg.”

This really would be an express if we were leaving Union Station and Fredericksburg were the next stop. But, no, this was not Union Station in Washington, DC. We had just left Leeland Road station in Stafford. VRE’s announcement robots often get mixed up. But cut them some slack: they’re flying blind. Unlike the Hal 9000 robot in 2001: A Space Odyssey with his red eye peering out at the universe, they cannot look out and see where they are. I guess they’re not too good with latitude and longitude, either.

One evening the robot recited the whole list of stations in a few minutes. “Next station: L’Enfant. Next station: Crystal City. Next station: Alexandria.…” Maybe the robots have to practice, but they should do this at night when no passengers are on board.

I miss the days when the crew would walk through the train calling out the station stops. Long ago, when I commuted on the New York & Long Branch, the conductor and trainmen would make the announcements in every coach of a 13-car train, be on the platform at all the stations (which sometimes were only a mile or two apart) and find time to sell tickets too. And I don’t remember ever hearing one of them call out the wrong station, and they had a lot of the fares memorized as well.

Not that the system was perfect. Conductor William Moedinger, writing in the June 1976 Trains magazine, recalled boarding a train in Leesville, La., where the crew called out, “Oboeshreepoe!” He wasn’t sure he had gotten onto the right train, but after he arrived in Shreveport, La., he figured he had heard the local version of “All aboard for Shreveport.”

VRE’s robots at least enunciate well, but when they call out the wrong stations, that is not an advantage, and sometimes the robots just make beeping noises instead of saying words. When the robots start babbling, I wish the crews would quickly unplug them, although maybe, like Hal 9000, they don’t want to be unplugged.

I think the crews could find time to make the announcements, upstairs and downstairs. Unlike the days of yore on the New York & Long Branch, the stations are 5 to 10 minutes apart, and the crew doesn’t have to sell tickets.

But there may be hope for the announcement robots. Back when clocks in automobiles were notorious for losing time, people used to ask, “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a car clock that works?” We can no longer send anybody to the moon, but somewhere along the line somebody did invent a car clock that works.

Maybe some morning I will wake up to find that somebody has invented a robot that can make accurate station announcements. Maybe it will sell tickets too. Until then, VRE could resurrect the old, human way of announcing stations.

VRE sets baloney record—At least I hope it doesn’t get any worse than this: On Sep. 8, 2010, train 308 was sitting in Fredericksburg. Before it departed for Washington, the computer started spouting nonsense: “Next station: Woodbridge. Now approaching Lorton. Next station: Franconia-Springfield.” Then it warned us about delays ahead, extent unknown, and recommended that we switch to Metro at the next station, which would be Leeland Road in Stafford. Before we got to Leeland Road, however, the computer told us, “Now approaching Alexandria. Next station: Crystal City. Now approaching Crystal City. Next station: Crystal City. Now approaching L’Enfant Plaza.” This continued for a long time. I counted more than 30 false announcements. Eventually, I guess, one of the crew shut it off in the middle of announcing Union Station (we were nowhere near Union Station). When I left the train at Crystal City, though, the computer was talking again: “Next station: Rippon. Now approaching Woodbridge. Next station: Woodbridge.…”

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CSX Wants a ‘Corridor of the Future’

By Steve Dunham

This content appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on April 29, 2007, and is reproduced with permission.

CSX, the railroad over which Virginia Railway Express and Amtrak trains run between Washington, DC, and Fredericksburg, wants its Washington-Miami line to be a “corridor of the future”: 1,200 miles of railway on which passenger trains can “travel unimpeded at 110 m.p.h.” and freight trains can “operate at speeds of 50 m.p.h. to 70 m.p.h.” It would be “sealed to prevent motor vehicle intrusion”—1,700 “at-grade highway rail crossings” would be closed and, where necessary, replaced with bridges. There would be three tracks between Richmond and Miami and four tracks between Richmond and Washington.

This would require a huge investment, and that’s where the Corridors of the Future Program comes in. Last year the U.S. Department of Transportation solicited applications from “interested parties” to “accelerate the development of multi-State transportation Corridors of the Future for one or more transportation modes.” The Transportation Department will select “up to 5 major transportation corridors in need of investment for the purpose of reducing congestion.”

“Reducing congestion” sounds like VRE’s mission of “traffic mitigation,” which in plain English seems to say that the purpose of VRE and the Corridors of the Future Program is to make driving easier, and I believe that’s what federal transportation policy focuses on. However, if CSX and the Commonwealth of Virginia can get a slice of that pie and expand transportation choices, making train travel and freight movement easier and more efficient too, let’s go for it. The application deadline for the program was April 2, so right now the Transportation Department should be selecting up to five finalists.

If CSX is one of them, it has a plan for turning its Washington-Miami line into a corridor of the future:

First, complete the third track between Washington and Richmond, except where major, expensive projects are needed—Ashland, where two tracks run down the middle of the main street; Fredericksburg, with its crossing of the Rappahannock River and elevated trackage above four streets; and the bridges over Aquia Creek and the Potomac River.

The second step would be to tackle those bigger, more expensive projects.

The third step would be to build the additional track between Washington and Miami and to close or create alternatives for those 1,700 grade crossings.

“The DC to Richmond Third Track Feasibility Study provides the path for completion” of the project north of Richmond, said Jay Westbrook, CSX Assistant Vice President for Public-Private Partnerships. It calls for completing the capacity-expanding projects funded in 2000; the last piece of that group of improvements is to construct about 7 more miles of third track north of Springfield and just south of the Potomac River. The study also listed the steps needed to plan further construction: alternatives analysis, environmental review, agreements between CSX and the governments involved and a dedicated source of funding for capital and operating costs.

“Federal support is the key,” said Westbrook. If Washington-Miami becomes a federally funded corridor of the future, then the next steps, he said, are to “set realistic expectations during current construction, align stakeholders around a common plan, seek consensus and action on” the most beneficial projects to be tackled first, “perform preliminary engineering,” “refine cost estimates, and organize and energize all stakeholders to” be advocates for the creating the corridor.

In highway terms, that route is the I-95 corridor. The federal Transportation Department is showing some progressive thinking to consider alternatives to highway construction as solutions to congestion. Everyone traveling north or south anywhere between Washington and Miami, on I-95 or off it, could benefit from a rail corridor of the future between those cities.

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VRE’s New Gallery Cars

By Steve Dunham

This content appeared in two columns in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Feb. 4 and March 4, 2007, and is reproduced with permission.

New VRE gallery car exterior

The first of the new Virginia Railway Express gallery cars are in service, and they provide a better ride than some of the coaches now in use. They have built-in wheelchair lifts, rest rooms, bicycle storage (bring your own bungee straps to tie down your bike), cup holders at every seat, and automatic doors, so that normally all doors will open at every station, enabling faster loading and unloading of passengers. They also have a rack for bigger pieces of luggage; those of us who have taken VRE to the airport or to board an Amtrak train in Washington will be glad to have a place to stow our baggage.

The new cars have a much smoother, quieter ride than the old gallery cars, the worst of which are loud and rough riding, with thinly cushioned seats.

The new cars, like the other gallery cars, have doors and an entrance vestibule in the center of the car; on either side are two sections for passenger seating. Stairways next to the central vestibule lead up to the galleries. (Gallery cars have seating on two levels, but they are not double-deck cars: the upper level is like a balcony running down each side of the car.)

Inside a new VRE gallery car

Each car seats 123 passengers, and the seating arrangement is better than in the used gallery cars that VRE purchased from Illinois. Upstairs, the older cars have a lot of folding single seats without armrests, facing the aisle. They have no place to rest your head or your arms and no room to stretch out. Your back is toward the window. Getting out of them at your station requires you to squeeze past other riders.

The upper-level seats on the new cars all face the stairway; your feet aren’t in the aisle, the window is on your left or right, and you have a little room to stretch out. I didn’t like two things about the upper-level seats, however: There are no arm rests, and when the car swayed (when the train changed from one track to another, for example), I had to brace myself against the seat ahead, reach out and hold the railing, or lean against the window. Also, there are no ticket holders on the upper level. I put my ticket in the cup holder, but I’m not sure the conductor downstairs could see it. If not, this means that anyone asleep upstairs will have to wake up and display a ticket when the conductor comes through, unless the conductor comes upstairs to check tickets, and most conductors don’t.

At least one teething problem has cropped up: when the wheelchair lift at the middle doors is retracted, the car’s computer does not always believe it. On Feb. 12, train 306 en route to Washington was delayed about half an hour at Leeland Road, waiting for a mechanic because the gallery car’s electronic brain said that the lift was not retracted and would not permit the train to move. Attempts to move the train resulted in a shuddering stop within a few feet. This problem has cropped up at other times.

The 11 new cars built by Nippon Sharyo are all cab cars: at one end they have a compartment for the engineer to drive the train when the locomotive is pushing (usually northbound). The new cars are replacing the single-level cab cars that, with the rest of VRE’s single-deck fleet, have been sold to Connecticut.

Besides the 11 new cab cars, VRE has exercised an option to purchase 50 more gallery coaches, to be delivered beginning in December: 20 coaches without restrooms, each with 144 seats; 20 coaches with handicapped-accessible restrooms, each car having 132 seats; and 10 more cab cars. They will be a welcome addition to the VRE fleet.

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Quantico Café Makes a Friendly Station

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Nov. 12, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.
The Whistle Stop Cafe crew
Steve Junkersfeld, Liz Boyles, and Susana Allik

Steve Junkersfeld has created the friendliest railroad station this side of Washington, DC, and possibly the friendliest anywhere. Each weekday morning, railroad passengers stream through the door of the Whistle Stop Café in the Quantico station and line up to buy Caribou coffee, juice, pastries and tickets. Steve, the owner, is usually there to greet them, and he knows many of them by name. “To me, this is a social event,” he said.

He has six coffee pots, but only one ticket machine, he notes, although there are VRE machines out on the platform. Unlike those machines, however, the café accepts Metrocheks and offers the full range of VRE tickets: the standard one-way, five-day, ten-trip and monthly fares as well as senior and student discounted tickets and monthly Transit Link Cards good on the Washington Metro rail system.

Steve’s manager, Susana Allik, is there too, along with assistant Liz Boyles. Business is brisk as riders make their purchases and then fill up the tables, chairs and original station benches to await a Virginia Railway Express or Amtrak train heading north. A monitor at the counter displays the map on the VRE website showing the position of each train. As one arrives, people stream out to the platform, and then things are quiet for about 15 minutes until passengers begin arriving for the next train.

Steve assists passengers continually, answering questions about Amtrak, Metro, and VRE. He was a VRE commuter himself from 1994 to 2000.

This scene happens seven times each weekday morning, and as rush hour winds down, Steve heads off to his day job in Dumfries, but the café and the station are open all day, from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. He’s had the café open for more than a year now, since September 2005. For decades, what is now a handsome brick station was a boarded-up eyesore. VRE had a difficult time finding a vendor to operate the station. Steve submitted the only proposal and got a one-year renewable contract and the last available VRE ticket machine. “I think we’re going to be here for the long haul,” he said.

After two months of work, he had the Whistle Stop Café ready for business. “I wanted the operation to look very professional,” he said, and it does. It has clean restrooms and broadband wi-fi Internet service, as well as historical exhibits about the railroad, the Town of Quantico, and the U.S. Marines. (An unrelated but neighborly tenant in one end of the building is the Prince William Model Railroad Club, which has an open house the first Saturday of each month from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.) Steve planned the café service to appeal to commuters, local residents and Marines from the base that surrounds the town. The café “opened with no reputation,” said Steve, and he’s “never done a tremendous amount of advertising,” relying instead on word of mouth. And there’s that blinking coffee sign in the window seen by hundreds of rail riders.

The station was surrounded by television crews on Jan. 4, 2006, when a VRE train derailed about a mile north of the station. All the major networks were there, and one crew interviewed Steve, though he doesn’t know whether he ended up on TV.

Business has grown steadily, and Steve has added menu items such as espresso and, in warm weather, “the best soft-serve ice cream in northern Virginia.”

People ask whether the café is a franchise; it’s not, but Steve takes it as a compliment. “They like us, like our service.” The Virginia Association of Railway Patrons held its annual meeting there on Saturday, March 3, 2007.

To Steve Junkersfeld, the Whistle Stop Café in the Quantico station is an accomplishment, a hobby, something he loves. “If I pay the salaries, pay the bills, but don’t make a nickel, I’m happy,” he said. And as he greets the passengers, answers questions, and chats with people, he looks happy.

Postscript: In January 2007, VRE told its passengers that water in the Town of Quantico had unsafe levels of haloacetic acid and that residents had been cautioned against drinking it. However, Steve Junkersfeld, owner of the Whistle Stop Café in the Quantico station, says that all the water used in the café goes through a commercial filtration system. He talked to the local company that provided the system and they assured him that the water is totally safe to drink.

The Quantico waiting room
The Quantico waiting room

The Quantico station, exterior view
Quantico station

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VRE Communications Fall Short

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Oct. 15, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

The silence was ominous. As we waited for the 7:15 Virginia Railway Express train to Washington nine days ago, the passengers at Fredericksburg huddled toward the side of the platform that had some shelter from the blowing rain. Five minutes went by, then 10, with no announcements from VRE about the 7:15 train. Was it late? How late? Canceled? Eventually it showed up and we all got on, and the train left the station 17 minutes late, with nary an announcement from VRE.

It could have been worse. It has been worse. I’ve waited at the station for a train that was half an hour overdue, only to finally hear an announcement that the train wasn’t running at all or that VRE did not know when it would run. An announcement like that is bad enough, but if we have to hear it, I would rather know promptly. But the information needs to be correct.

One night this summer, as I was waiting for the overdue 6:15 train in Crystal City, VRE announced that the next train would be a Manassas line train, with no. 311 to Fredericksburg (my train) following that. After the Manassas train had departed, the announcement was repeated. It might have been poorly timed, with VRE unaware that the Manassas train had already arrived and departed. But the announcement kept coming, five more times. As time went by, I realized that the announcement just might be true. It wasn’t.

One Friday morning, VRE was belatedly announcing delays of an hour, but my train (again I was riding the hard-luck 7:15 out of Fredericksburg) was over two hours late into Alexandria. The crew had little information, but they managed to obtain more from passengers who were getting VRE email announcements on their computers.

Speaking of VRE email, some of it provides harmless entertainment. In June, VRE commuters got a “Security Reminder” that would help us “spot suspicious persons.” I would certainly report a person “having visible wires or an explosive belt protruding from under his or her clothing.” Two “other clothing related indicators are … Keeping one or both hands in pockets [or] close to his or her body” and “Having bulges or padding around the midsection.”

Standing on the platform in Crystal City one evening, I realized I was standing with both hands in my pockets in full view of a security camera. Then I looked around and saw that lots of commuters had their hands in their pockets. I felt like I was getting ready to board the Terrorist Express. And bulges around the midsection? Not I (well, a little). The other passengers looked like a bomb squad, and not a police bomb squad.

Then there’s the matter of blaming CSX. After the heavy rains that swamped the Washington area and left Fredericksburg soggy, VRE announced that CSX had imposed flood restrictions, limiting evening trains to 40 mph. While I was at Crystal City (again waiting for 311, the 6:15 to Fredericksburg), VRE announced that the train was 10 minutes late owing to flood restrictions. Since the speed limit between Union Station and Crystal City seems to be 25 miles per hour most of the way, it hardly seems possible for a train to lose 10 minutes from a 40 mph slow order. Nonetheless, this announcement was followed presently by statements that the train was 20, then 30, minutes late because of CSX flood restrictions. If the train is limited to 25 miles per hour anyway, how could a 40 mph slow order cause it to lose 30 minutes in 3 miles? I suspect that VRE is too ready to blame all delays on CSX.

Many of the VRE delays in the past couple of years can be laid at CSX’s door, but communicating them to passengers and crews is VRE’s job, one it hasn’t been doing well.

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VRE’s 2006 Ridership Drop

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Sep. 17, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

“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 issue of Railpace Newsmagazine in his “Allegheny Observer” column. Falling numbers of riders, he wrote, “may lead to a fare increase—which will further depress ridership.”

Late trains, broken-down trains, canceled trains, and generally unreliable service have been driving passengers away. Many of us cringe when we hear the VRE loudspeakers crackle to life with the words “May I have your attention please.”

Sometimes the message is sort of neutral: VRE will celebrate Labor Day by not running any trains. Whoopee.

Often the message is bad news: A train is short one car, and “some crowding may occur.” Or a train is late, or a train is canceled.

Too often the message concludes with a recommendation that passengers “seek alternate transportation.” A lot of them have been doing exactly that.

It’s not surprising, not only because the quality of VRE service has dropped, but because VRE has concentrated on attracting riders who do have another choice. It has defined its mission as “traffic mitigation,” meaning that the people it wants on board its trains are people who have a car and otherwise would drive.

Although I like trains and hate driving, the only thing keeping me on VRE this 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 didn’t seem so bad, only more expensive. It seems that a lot of passengers have decided that the cost savings isn’t worth the frustration (or the late arrivals at work) and have indeed sought alternate transportation.

Now gas prices appear to be falling. Having recruited mostly passengers who have another way to get to work, VRE will be hard put not to lose even more riders, because some of VRE’s problems aren’t going away anytime soon.

VRE is purchasing brand-new coaches, which is nice, but most of VRE’s canceled trains aren’t caused by broken-down coaches. A far more serious problem is locomotive failures. VRE’s diesel locomotives were generally built circa the 1970s, and most of them have been remanufactured since then: taken apart, worn parts replaced, new components installed, systems upgraded. These rebuilt locomotives can last a long time, but the rebuilding was done 10 to 15 years ago, and now it’s all too common for them to fail en route or not even make it out of the terminal. Word is that VRE’s engines are getting heavy overhauls, but new locomotives seem to be years away.

I wish VRE were buying new locomotives instead of new coaches. I’d rather commute in an old coach pulled by a new locomotive than in a brand-new coach pulled by an old engine.

Other persistent problems are VRE’s unreliable ticket machines, train-status displays that often are blank, and other poor communications.

I would like to see VRE succeed, not just in its narrowly defined mission of traffic mitigation, but as part of an integrated transportation system that gives people attractive, affordable transportation choices throughout Virginia. But VRE service right now is not attractive. It is merely cheaper than driving, and often less trouble, yet if VRE keeps telling its riders to seek alternate transportation, they surely will.

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Picture 100 Miles of Good Railroad

By Steve Dunham

This content appeared in two columns in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Aug. 20, 2006, and March 4, 2007, and is reproduced with permission.

Construction is under way to allow electric trains to travel at 110 mph between the state capital and the urban corner of the state about 100 miles away. Express trains will make the trip in 90 minutes, counting some intermediate stops. It’s happening in Pennsylvania, on the Keystone Corridor, where Amtrak is working with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to upgrade the 104-mile line between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

The route has some striking similarities to the 110-mile route between Richmond and Washington: At one end is the state capital, at the other a major city, where the route joins Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Stations in between serve small cities and colleges. One end of the line has commuter train service besides Amtrak operations, and the urban stations have connections to rapid transit. It’s served by long-distance trains as well as regional trains. It’s a federally designated high-speed corridor, although that’s more of a wish than a project, but it does make the route eligible for funding to eliminate road crossings.

In Pennsylvania, as in Virginia, rail passenger service in much of the state is sparse. Pittsburgh, like Newport News, has four trains a day. Erie, like Charlottesville, has two. Scranton, like Roanoke, has none.

There are some significant differences, too: Amtrak owns the railroad between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, whereas a private railroad, CSX, owns the Richmond-Washington line. The apparatus for electrically powered trains is in place between Harrisburg and Philadelphia (although it dates to the 1930s, and it had fallen into disuse on the western two-thirds of the line, outside commuter train territory). And the route in Pennsylvania was built with four tracks, partly to separate freight and passenger trains, whereas the line in Virginia has only two tracks over most of its length. Another big difference is the commuter train service. Between Paoli, Pa., and Philadelphia, commuter trains run all day long, seven days a week, and on weekdays there’s a train every half hour, and in rush hour about every ten minutes. Virginia Railway Express operates a handful of weekday rush-hour trains between Fredericksburg and Washington.

Yet even these differences may fade. On the Richmond-Washington line, the Commonwealth of Virginia is adding tracks it will own, and future scarcity of oil may well prompt the electrification of the CSX mainline. And public demand for transportation alternatives should lead to frequent commuter trains running on improved infrastructure between Fredericksburg and Washington.

But one big difference remains: Pennsylvania has a serious budget for public transportation and a determination to create better service. Virginia is not that serious about it. That is why right now Virginia is improving the mainline between its capital and the nation’s capital by building a bridge over Quantico Creek (a few other small projects are done or funded), while Pennsylvania is improving the mainline between its capital and its largest city by restoring the electrical system for 70 miles, installing new concrete crossties and welded rail on 80 miles of track, putting in a new signal system for 37 miles, installing 40 new switches, upgrading 16 bridges, eliminating three grade crossings, planning a station at the Harrisburg airport, and improving three other stations. Last month, I rode this line twice, and the trains lost only about 10 minutes as they threaded their way through the midst of this construction.

One state’s serious budget and determination are why next year you could board an electric train in Lancaster, Pa., and ride at 110 mph to Philadelphia and expect to arrive on time, or, just as you can do today, you could board a train at Fredericksburg for a trip to Washington at a top speed of 70 mph, with a good chance that it will be delayed or break down and that you will arrive late. But if Virginia had a serious budget for public transportation and had the determination, things could be different.

Postscript: in November (the first full month of operating under the new, faster schedules), Amtrak had trouble running on time. In the February issue of Railpace magazine, Andy Kirk wrote that the 90-minute express schedules (which do include a few stops) had included no recovery time, so if a train was delayed somewhere en route, it stayed late. In December, he said, the expresses had 5 minutes added to their schedule, and on-time performance for that month was around 77%—better, but still not good. Part of the problem seems to be that the faster schedules were implemented before all the trackwork was finished. The Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers noted that the schedules had time added in the 20 miles west of Philadelphia—the busiest stretch, where most of the commuter trains are and where some trackwork was still under way.

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Ticket Validation Problems Dog VRE Riders

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on July 23, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

“Many fellow VRE riders have fallen victim of the distorted discretion of a conductor who will write a summons before you can say ‘all aboard,’” wrote one reader. “While many at VRE may feel that their are no excuses for not validating a ticket, we all know that mitigating circumstances are real and valid” sometimes. “The current law gives the conductor too much authority … It would be better to use a lower fine for the first offense or a mandatory warning” rather than $150 plus court costs right off the bat.

The law ordains a minimum $150 fine for anyone who has “failed or refused to pay the posted fare.” And Virginia Railway Express has a fare evasion problem. Unfortunately, the commuter rail operation has difficulty telling who is evading a fare and who has actually paid the fare by buying a ticket but has forgotten to validate it or has left a monthly ticket home. “To some, it’s purposeful fare evasion. To others, it’s a simple mistake,” says VRE. Unable to win at what it calls a “guessing game,” VRE has asked its conductors to “simply issue a summons whenever they come across someone who is without a valid ticket.”

VRE’s interpretation of the law, in practice, seems to be that if you purchase a ticket but don’t have it stamped in the validating machine, you haven’t paid the posted fare. VRE’s free ride certificates are also considered payment, but twice in the past ten months, VRE has reversed its policy as to whether the free ride certificates must be validated by machine, owing to the machines’ frequent breakdowns and sometime inability to read the information on the free ride certificates. That’s twice in ten months. In the ten years I’ve been commuting on its trains, VRE has gone back and forth on this policy so many times that I’ve lost count.

Two people told me that the policy changed while they were out of the country. If they return in the middle of a month, they are especially likely to use free ride certificates, and they are less likely to know the current policy.

Other victims of the policy are infrequent riders or passengers using a different station from their usual one. Michael Testerman, president of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons and veteran train rider, was about to board a VRE train at Washington Union Station one day—a trip he doesn’t make often, because he lives in Richmond—when he realized that there are no longer any validating machines on the platforms. He didn’t have time to go back up to the concourse where the machines are located. He boarded the train hoping for clemency, but he had paid the fare.

With shifting validation policies and unreliable validating machines, “we all know that mitigating circumstances are real and valid” sometimes, as my correspondent put it. But failure to pay, as defined by VRE, means a $150 fine.

What about issuing a written warning the first time? With so many passengers, it’s hard for conductors to tell whether it’s someone’s first time without a validated ticket. But the court should be able to tell whether a person has been there before charged with the same offense. One answer would seem to be lowering the minimum fine to something discouraging but not draconian, say $15. That would be enough to make me kick myself for forgetting to validate a ticket but not enough to make me picket VRE headquarters. (I’ve never gotten a summons from VRE, though I have sometimes forgotten to validate a ticket or been unable to find a working machine.) The law’s maximum of $250 could stand for repeat offenders. A $15 fine would be lenient for a fare evader, but up to $250 for the second time should deter anyone looking to steal a ride.

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VRE Should Serve the Weekend Market Too

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on June 25, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

It’s time to bring affordable weekend train service back to Fredericksburg. Right now your only choices for traveling to northern Virginia or Washington, DC, on a weekend are to drive all the way (assuming you have a license and a car), drive about 40 miles to the Metro or buy an overpriced Amtrak ticket for about $25 one way—about 50 cents a mile for service that is unreliable and just moderately fast. The fare discourages anyone on a budget, and it prices families out of the market.

Two years ago this week, Virginia Railway Express stopped letting its passengers use 10-trip and monthly tickets to ride Amtrak trains on weekends. It was a budget-cutting move, but it couldn’t have saved a lot of money because VRE said that not a lot of passengers were using the weekend service anyway.

Those who were using it stated (at public hearings) that they worked on weekends, traveled on weekends, or wanted to go to the Washington area for recreation, family visits, or other personal reasons. Some were willing to pay more (but not $50 for a round trip on Amtrak) to take the train on weekends. A lot of them used VRE during the week but could not use the monthly or five-day tickets with their work schedules that included weekends; they would have had to use more expensive single-ride and 10-trip tickets for their weekday trips but said they might just stop riding the train altogether.

This is the opposite result from what VRE’s fare policy should be achieving. With poor air quality and high gas prices in northern Virginia, anyone who would rather take the train than drive should be encouraged. Even within VRE’s narrowly defined mission of traffic mitigation, there is plenty of work to be done on weekends. Almost every Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening, I-95 and U.S. 1 are seriously congested north of Fredericksburg.

Furthermore, our public investment in VRE trains and stations and in track improvements is mostly idle on the weekends. To save some operating expense, the capital sits idle, and this policy pushes more vehicles onto the roads and more pollution into the air while reducing mobility for the public.

At a Meet the Management session, VRE’s CEO, Dale Zehner, said that fares were paying for about 70% of operations. With ridership slumping somewhat, that number may have gone down a bit. When VRE passengers ride Amtrak trains, the number is in the same ballpark, said Zehner, because VRE gets something like $5 one way from each multiple-ride ticket holder on average, pays $10 a head for VRE riders using Amtrak trains and collects a $2 surcharge from each VRE rider’s trip on Amtrak.

Allowing VRE passengers to pay the surcharge and ride Amtrak on weekends would not only benefit the public, it could help boost VRE weekday ridership, because some of those people whose days off from work fall on weekdays rather than weekends could take the train to work all the time. People who travel to or from the airport on weekends could take the train both ways, whereas now they are likely to drive both ways because VRE isn’t available on weekends.

If VRE with its corset-tight budget can’t afford this, then make the weekend surcharge $5 (or $4: two step-up tickets). VRE surely can afford to break even on its weekend passengers. With today’s gas prices, a $10 ride from Fredericksburg to Washington wouldn’t be so bad, and not much higher than a VRE one-way weekday ticket costs already.

Actual VRE trains on weekends are years in the future, because like all other government-funded transportation needs (such as highways and air traffic control) they cost money. Unfortunately, the need for weekend service arrived years ahead of the trains.

VRE’s sponsoring jurisdictions aren’t spending all of their gas-tax revenue on VRE. It’s time they spent more and provided, at a minimum, one Saturday round trip on the Fredericksburg line and one on the Manassas line. Again, with traffic and air quality so bad, anyone who wants to take the train should find it an attractive choice. This would be one step in the right direction.

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VRE’s Uncooperative Ticket Machines

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on May 28, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

When I tried to validate my Virginia Railway Express five-day pass, the machine spat it out so fast that the ticket went past my hand and landed on the floor, unvalidated. Once again I tried, and again the machine took my softball pitch and smacked it out of the park. Clearly I was out of my league with this ticket-batting machine that must have been on steroids, so I moved to another one and tried my luck there. This time I was successful, so I decided to wind up the game while my earned ride average was not too bad.

Later, at work, I went to the VRE website. There’s a link for reporting problems with ticket machines. I will have to add it to my favorite places on the Internet.

Another trick one of the machines pulled on me was to say it had subtracted a ride from a ten-ride pass and then print nothing on the ticket. Besides telling me there were two rides remaining, it should have printed an 8 (for the eighth ride out of ten) and the date and time. As I stepped away from the ticket machine, a man on the platform asked whether the machine had printed anything on my ticket. No, I answered, and I learned that the machine had just done the same thing with him. I walked down the platform and found the woman I’d seen step to the machine after me. I suggested that she check her ticket to see whether the machine had printed anything on it. Yes, she said, she had already checked it; she always checks her tickets. Smart lady.

Before boarding the train, I told my story to the conductor, who let me board without trying again and possibly having another ride subtracted from my ticket.

The next time I rode VRE, a different ticket machine validated my ticket all right and said there were still two rides remaining. Being an honest passenger, I didn’t use the ticket again after I’d gotten ten rides out of it.

Double-printed ticket

Now I’d mentally crossed two ticket machines off my list because they were uncooperative: the one all the way on the right at Fredericksburg and the one all the way on the left at Crystal City. But the rebellion of the machines was spreading at Fredericksburg. The next trickster validated my ten-ride ticket but left a blank line between rides two and three. I didn’t visit my favorite place to report this, thinking that the next machine I used would just pick up where the other one left off. Wrong. That evening another machine validated my ticket for ride four but printed on top of ride three. Do you see what the ticket machine did, Mister Conductor? This ticket has been validated twice today, but in the same place. You believe me, don’t you, Mister Conductor?

I’m guessing that the conductors have seen almost everything. Not that you should try to get away with any tricks, such as not signing your monthly ticket. I discovered this requirement by accident.

I rode a very late VRE train (an hour late), but the crew did not give out free ride certificates, as is the custom when a train is a half hour or more late. In such cases, you can print out a form from the VRE website and use it to request a free ride certificate. (I was doing this often enough that I filled one in with my name, address, phone numbers, and so on, and made photocopies. Now all I have to do is fill in the train numbers and date of the delay.)

The form says that monthly ticket holders (I usually buy a monthly) must provide a copy of the front and back of the monthly ticket, which must be signed. “Must be signed”? Sure enough, in letters as high as this comma, it said, “Monthly tickets must be signed by the passenger.” And there’s a space an inch and three-quarters long and almost a quarter-inch high in which you are supposed to sign your name and write your phone number, with the area code.

That’s a tight fit, but maybe I could change my name to I Luv VRE.

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Rail Lines for the Future

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Feb. 5, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

You can board a commuter train almost any time of day, and there are hourly intercity expresses in both directions. Freight trains run mostly at night, and if they run during the day, they yield to passenger trains. This is not a rail passenger’s fantasy; it’s the current reality in much of the Northeast. It could be the future for much of the country.

In some areas, particularly around Chicago, freight and passenger train operations mesh reasonably well; there, the commuter authority, Metra, operates intensive passenger service (mostly hourly during the day, and minutes apart during rush hour) on tracks mostly owned by freight railroads. Metra’s new, partly single-track North Central Line extension, which opened in Illinois this year, has less service because of competition from freight trains; riders complained because the initial schedule has only 20 commuter trains instead of the 22 that were planned. Virginia Railway Express can squeeze only 13 commuter trains amid all the freights and the 18 Amtrak trains on the mainly double-track Fredericksburg line. Years of political maneuvering have brought a small increase in commuter service here, and we can expect another small increase in a few years. Yet even with the leverage of some state-funded improvements, VRE seems unable to unlock the freight train congestion. What is the key?

“Control, not politics is this key to running a railroad on time,” says Pete Sklannik, former head of VRE and now running the Trinity Railway Express commuter rail operation between Dallas and Fort Worth, Tex. Passenger train operators across the nation agree. While passengers and freight get along pretty well in Illinois, elsewhere commuter authorities prefer to own the tracks on which they run. Generally they have purchased lines from freight railroads. The Trinity Railway Express line was essentially surplus: there’s a parallel main line owned by Union Pacific.

But Virginia and many other states don’t have surplus parallel mainlines that could be devoted to passenger trains. To accommodate the transportation needs of the present and the future, we should look at new electric railroads—updated versions of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Double-track mainlines would provide for intercity trains traveling up to 150 mph. In suburban areas, there would be two more tracks for commuter trains.

The new railroads would be environmentally friendly: fairly quiet, with almost no emissions, and a double-track right of way perhaps 50 feet wide.

We would save on construction by following the French practice of using existing lines in dense urban areas, where trains would be going slower anyway as they approach and depart stations. In Europe or Japan, a new high-speed electric railroad typically costs about $80 million per mile. A new four-lane highway outside dense urban areas typically costs around $30 million per mile.

The Richmond-Washington line is one of the high-speed corridors designated for development by the Federal Railroad Administration. Connecting with Amtrak’s Northeast corridor in Washington, it would extend to Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, and Florida. So far, however, federal investment has mainly consisted of grade-crossing elimination—a necessary prerequisite for high-speed service but only a baby step in the right direction.

We spent $114 billion to build a 43,000-mile Interstate Highway System. The Federal Railroad Administration designated less than 10,000 miles of railroad routes for possible high-speed corridors but proposed no new lines, only upgrades to existing ones. Indeed, significant mileage is already owned by passenger-train operators: the 450 miles between Boston and Washington, the 100 or so miles from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, the 40-some miles between San Francisco and San Jose, to name a few. And on some routes, passenger trains might continue to coexist comfortably with freight trains, so we aren’t talking about 10,000 miles of new railroad.

But here in Virginia, we could greatly benefit from passenger rails that are free of freight interference, and the Federal Railroad Administration identified the Southeast routes as those with the most potential and most likely to pay their operating costs from ticket sales. Richmond to Washington would be a good place to begin the nation’s new interstate system: one with little pollution, independent of foreign oil, that frees people from the financial, social, and environmental costs of overdependence on highways.

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VRE’s Third Annual Fare Increase

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on April 2, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

For the third year in a row, Virginia Railway Express plans to raise fares this summer. The increase this time will be 6%, which is more than the typical passenger’s annual raise. For three years, VRE’s fare have been going up faster than its riders’ income.

For those with good incomes, it is not a hardship to pay an extra ten dollars or so a month. For people who are struggling to make ends meet, it hurts. When all I had was a temporary job in Ballston (Arlington), I would often get off the Metro one stop early to save ten cents. When your family is on food stamps, you don’t look down your nose at a dime.

This is one reason why VRE’s annual fare increases are bad public policy. The working poor, students, and people without transportation choices are not what VRE calls its “core business,” but they depend on public transportation just the same. The fare increases are aimed at average riders, who presumably can afford it. Below-average riders don’t seem to be part of the equation, unless VRE’s math assumes that more-affluent riders will take their places if the poor ones can’t afford to ride.

The average riders may be able to afford ten dollars more per month, but that’s only part of the story. A lot of them also can afford to drive, and with ridership on the Fredericksburg line dropping, VRE isn’t fulfilling the mission imposed on it by its sponsoring jurisdictions: traffic mitigation. The average passengers may not be upset about paying more for a train ticket, but they are tired of paying more for poor service, and in the past year a lot of them have given up on riding the train and started driving instead.

Those who continue to ride VRE are not happy about the unreliable service. VRE’s on-time performance has improved since the low point of the Jan. 5 derailment, when VRE decided to cancel all remaining service that day. Since then, breakdowns and delays have been frequent but not as bad as last year. Still, service is not what you could call reliable. If you have to catch a flight, attend an important meeting, or get to a job interview, leave an hour early.

Besides highway traffic, which is hard to mitigate without an attractive alternative, local governments face the problem of air quality, which is poor and is tied to traffic. Fewer train riders means more cars on the road and more pollution. Higher fares aren’t going to help with this.

VRE is stuck in the middle, though: it is required to cover half its operating expenses from fares, so when those expenses—notably diesel fuel, railroad operations, and insurance—go up, riders legally must pick up half the bill. And the additional money won’t pay for more or better operations; like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, VRE has to run just to stay in one place.

All the short-term issues with fare increases fail to address the bigger problem of transportation funding, however. Paying locally for regional transportation means that resources such as VRE are not providing all the public benefits they could. One example: for almost 14 years, VRE trains have been running empty to Spotsylvania.

Under the current funding structure, it would benefit the county and the region if Spotsylvania were part of a regional transportation commission, supporting VRE but also raising money for other transportation projects. Yet the funding structure is part of the overall problem. For example, VRE has an option to purchase 50 new bilevel coaches, but can’t exercise the option, which expires next month, unless all eight of its member jurisdictions consent.

To expand, VRE needs more trains and more operating money. Spotsylvania and Fauquier counties are interested in becoming VRE member jurisdictions. Charlottesville is interested in VRE service, and more passengers are coming from places farther out, such as Orange and Caroline counties and even Richmond. But political boundaries are limiting the service that can and ought to be provided.

VRE gets some operating money from the state and hopes to get more, but unless we change the way we fund transportation in Virginia, we will be applying piecemeal remedies to a big problem.

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CSX Says It Can Handle Freight and Passengers

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Feb. 19, 2006, and is reproduced with permission.

The map by Scott Carmine accompanied this column in the Free Lance–Star and is reproduced by permission.

CSX can handle both freight and passenger trains and do it well, says Jay Westbrook, CSX Assistant Vice President for Public-Private Partnerships. However, to do that, CSX—the railroad over which Virginia Railway Express Fredericksburg trains run—needs a third track between Washington and Richmond, he said. At its operations board meeting last month, VRE agreed to pay for engineering work for a third track between Powell’s Creek in Prince William County and Arkendale Road in Stafford County—about 11 miles.

A third track already exists between Crystal City in Arlington and a junction in Alexandria known as AF interlocking—about 5 miles. Construction of another 7 miles from AF to Ravensworth interlocking near Springfield was funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2000, but construction has not yet begun.

In the 1990s, the Commonwealth recognized that a third track to increase railroad capacity was needed if Richmond-Washington rail passenger service is ever to be frequent, fast, and reliable. In 2000 the state funded several projects to increase capacity: the third track from AF to Ravensworth over Franconia Hill, rebuilding of the AF interlocking, a crossover at Arkendale, about a mile of third track on either side of the Potomac River bridge, and a new bridge over Quantico Creek; the present Quantico Creek bridge is the only single-track stretch on the line, and the new double-track bridge will allow a three-track crossing of the creek.

Triple track from Powell’s Creek to Arkendale is ideal for the next step, said Westbrook, because that segment has only one major water crossing: Quantico Creek, where the new bridge is already under construction, expected to open in 2007. Getting started on the third track soon would be more efficient than a double-track crossing of the creek (leaving part of the new bridge unused, which is the current plan) and later reconfiguring it to three tracks.

Combined with the other projects, it would make about 24 miles into triple track, out of 54 miles between Washington Union Station and Fredericksburg.

Laying a third track over other the rest of the line would be more difficult because of water crossings—the Rappahannock River, Potomac Creek, Aquia Creek, Powell’s Creek, Neabsco Creek, the Occoquan River, and the Potomac River. But Westbrook said that triple track between the bridges, with the line narrowing to double track over the existing bridges, would still yield a big capacity improvement, and the short double-track stretches would not create the kind of bottleneck presented by the current single-track crossing of Quantico Creek.

It has been the railroad’s position for decades that commuter trains need their own tracks. The Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac “says it will listen to proposals for commuter service,” wrote newsman Don Philips in a 1977 article in Trains, but a railroad official said that commuter trains “ought to be on their own facilities.” Back in 1977, there were only 32 daily trains on the line, counting 14 Amtrak trains, and Philips could write, “Almost never does one RF&P train interfere with another.” VRE commuters know how much that has changed. VRE alone operates 13 passenger trains and one deadhead (empty) trip on weekdays, Amtrak runs 18 trains on a typical day, and CSX runs dozens of freights, and the trains seem to continually be in each other’s way, partly because they operate at various speeds.

The current operating pattern, with so many more Amtrak and VRE trains, has pushed more freight trains into nighttime slots, with no room for things to go wrong, said Westbrook. And sometimes things do go wrong. To accommodate the currently scheduled passenger trains and more in the future, the state is willing to buy more track, with strings attached, guaranteeing more slots for passenger trains.

For years, CSX was afraid to touch public money, said Westbrook, which is why the Arkendale, Quantico and Franconia Hill projects languished for years, the state’s appropriation unspent. Now CSX has a construction contract with the state, he said, and CSX is ready to keep moving ahead. While he works to get funding for a third track all the way to Richmond, he is confident that, with the current projects, passengers will see significant improvements within a few years.

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Next Stop, Crystal City—or the Twilight Zone?

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in shorter form in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Oct. 16, 2005, and is reproduced with permission.

Virginia Railway Express train 311 was overdue. Train 335 was trapped. The electronic information sign on the platform displayed the same thing it had been showing for weeks: a blinking 1 or I (the winking eye of VRE?). Were the commuters at the Crystal City station in Arlington on September 27 still in the realm of sight and sound, or had we entered another world—the world of the imagination?

It began, as these adventures often do, normally: waiting at the station at 6 p.m. for the 6:10 train to Fredericksburg. But then the loudspeakers announced that the train was 10 minutes late; 10 minutes became 20, and 20 became 30.

Then we learned that the Fredericksburg train was broken down at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C., and that it would be at least 45 minutes late. So would the Manassas train. Then an announcement that the Fredericksburg train was 30 minutes late. We were bombarded with these contradictory announcements, sometimes as many as three per minute. Over and over, “May I have your attention please …”

“Please shut up,” I said. But as you probably know, Twilight Zone voices do not stop on request. They stop only when you decide you really want to hear from them after all.

Surprisingly, the voices next admitted that, like the waiting passengers, they had no idea when train the Fredericksburg train would arrive, though a repair crew was en route, and later on site. And the train to Manassas would use the other track to get past the broken-down Fredericksburg train and would be the next train to arrive in Crystal City. I decided to take the Manassas train down to Alexandria and wait for the last Amtrak train to Fredericksburg.

But when the Manassas train arrived, to my surprise, crowds of people got off. I recognized one woman as a Fredericksburg passenger. “Why are you getting off here?” I asked her. She explained that the conductor told all the Fredericksburg line riders to get off at Crystal City. The Amtrak train would pick us all up and make all the VRE stops on its way to Fredericksburg.

That train departed for Manassas, and the voices abruptly ceased. I’d now been waiting at the station for more than an hour. Aside from information gotten from a fellow passenger, there was no more word about the Fredericksburg line. The I was still winking. But we did get an astonishing announcement: the next train to arrive in the station would be train 335 to Manassas—the one that had just left. A few minutes later, we heard it again. Train 335 had become a ghost train, doomed to endlessly arrive at Crystal City. Good thing I didn’t get on board, and no wonder crowds of people were fleeing it when it stopped there the first time.

Finally Amtrak came along, made an unscheduled stop at Crystal City to pick us all up, and stopped at all the VRE stations on the way to Fredericksburg. As far as I could tell, Fredericksburg train 311 was still in Washington, and Manassas train 335 was arriving over and over again at Crystal City.

Yet the next morning, everything seemed normal, and when I heard “Our next stop is Crystal City,” I believed it. But wait! There’s a signpost up ahead. Your next stop: the Twilight Zone.

Return to the Twilight Zone

On November 17, I was back on the Crystal City platform, listening to announcements that switch problems north of L’Enfant Plaze in Washington were delaying trains up to 20 minutes. These announcements alternated with statements that train 311 to Fredericksburg was 30 minutes late. Much later, when we arrived at Leeland Road station in Stafford, SAL, the computer, announced, “This stop is Fredericksburg.” And the stop after that would be … you guessed it, the Twilight Zone.

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Slow, Safe Trains

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Aug. 21, 2005, and is reproduced with permission.

More than two hours late, the Amtrak Federal pulled into Fredericksburg on a Saturday evening earlier this month. At the time it was due (just before 7 p.m.), Amtrak’s computer had reported the train as 4 minutes late out of Williamsburg, where I’d gotten on. So my wife was waiting for me at 7, and after an hour and a half she gave up and went home. At 7, the train was an hour and a half overdue at Richmond, but somehow the significance of this seems to have eluded Amtrak’s computer.

The train’s crew had been battling foul weather all the way up the peninsula from Newport News. We encountered violent thunderstorms one after another, and the rain and lightning disrupted the signals and crossing gates on the railroad, CSX. In one place, a fallen tree had to be removed from the track. In stretches where the signals were out, the train had to proceed at 15 miles per hour, since the crew did not know what was ahead of them on the line. Repeatedly the conductor had to get down off the train into the rain to flag the train across road crossings where the gates weren’t working and to align track switches by hand because the switch motors lacked electric power.

Last month, I wrote about Virginia Railway Express delays caused by problems on host railroad CSX Transportation—heat restrictions, slow orders where the track needs maintenance and freight trains tying up the line when their crews had to halt because they had reached the legal limit of 12 hours of service.

Wray Abbott, an Amtrak employee in the on-board service division, working on Auto Train, wrote to respond: “I can relate first hand on dealing with the frustration getting to your destination late. Your article touched on a lot problems with the railroad. However, you missed one important point: Safety. Anytime a train encounters a problem, the first thing it must do is slow down, find out what the problem is, and respond. When passengers ask me why the train is late, my response is ‘All the safety precautions that were put in place worked perfectly.’ Your article should have mentioned, yes, the trains do run late some of the time. But the train did arrive safely. Amtrak’s goal is to always run a safe train,” even more than an on-time train.

It is true that Amtrak has a good safety record, considering that it carries 25 million passengers a year. VRE has an even better safety record (carrying about 4 million passengers a year for much shorter distances), and its train crews are Amtrak employees.

It’s also true that heat restrictions, slow orders, and hours-of-service laws are safety measures. However, they often are measures to cope with situations that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. “CSX requires heat-restricted slow running because” it has not maintained its track to higher standards, according to Michael Testerman, president of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons. “No other passenger railroad in Virginia regularly imposes heat restrictions.” Now, there are only two other passenger railroads in Virginia that I know of: the Washington Metro and Norfolk Southern (host to VRE’s Manassas line and to two Amtrak trains in Virginia and many more elsewhere). Both of those railroads do seem to have better track and fewer delays.

Even CSX doesn’t do badly when the weather isn’t against it. As the Federal was approaching Main Street Station in Richmond on that Saturday evening, we passed an Amtrak regional train heading to Newport News. It was on time, and it had traveled about 550 miles from Boston, and it had just traversed about 100 miles of CSX trackage. I took that as a sign that there was no severe weather north of Richmond, and it was true.

But CSX seems particularly vulnerable to typical Virginia weather: summer heat and thunderstorms, occasional heavy snow or ice storms in the winter. With its north-south mainline running through Washington, Fredericksburg and Richmond and carrying dozens of trains daily, CSX maintenance and operations have a lot of room for improvement.

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13 Years of VRE at Fredericksburg

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on July 24, 2005, and is reproduced with permission.

Virginia Railway Express began service on the Fredericksburg line 13 years ago this month. Is it time for a trip down memory lane already with a system that is so young? I think it is.

Not long ago I overheard two commuters complaining that VRE had not improved at all—service was the same as the day the trains started rolling. This didn’t sound right, but my own memory was a little foggy as to events in the summer of 1992. Also, although I have a VRE first-day rider’s certificate from July 20 of that year, I rode only intermittently until 1996, when I started commuting to work in northern Virginia, so I wasn’t a commuter from the beginning of VRE. But I’d saved some old timetables, including the first VRE Fredericksburg schedule, and I was able to dust them off and turn back the clock.

VRE began service to Fredericksburg with four rush-hour trains each way. Trains left Fredericksburg every half hour from 5:29 a.m. to 7:29 a.m. In the evening there was a gap of one hour between the first two departures from Union Station. The first train left at 4:15, and the last one at 6:30. The trip was scheduled for an hour and 21 minutes.

Today there are six rush-hour trains each way, plus a midday train from Washington to Fredericksburg (it returns to Washington empty for another trip to Fredericksburg). The trip takes an hour and 30 minutes because more people are riding, so the trains spend a little more time at each station, and because VRE stops at two stations it didn’t serve in 1992: Lorton and Franconia-Springfield.

In 1992, a one-way ticket to Washington cost $5.95, a ten-trip cost $50.50, and a monthly pass cost $175.00. Now a one-way ticket costs $8.35, a ten-trip costs $76.50 (51% more) and a monthly ticket will set you back $230.60.

VRE’s stations in Washington, Arlington and Alexandria have always been close to Metro rail stations, and a substantial number of VRE’s passengers have always made part of their trip via Metro. Back in 1992 you paid extra for any connecting service beyond VRE, but nowadays you can buy a monthly pass that gives you a discount on Metro, and your VRE ticket gives you a free ride on Metro, Omnilink and Fairfax Connector buses.

When VRE started running, it didn’t operate on any holidays. Since then, riders enjoyed a few years when VRE ran reduced service on minor federal holidays, but that fell victim to budget cuts, along with free transfers to Dash (Alexandria Transit) and Art (Arlington Transit) buses.

Today, with purchase of a $2 step-up ticket, you can use your VRE monthly, ten-trip or five-day pass to ride any of five Amtrak trains each way between Fredericksburg and Washington (on weekdays only, although Amtrak runs seven days a week). Back in 1992, there was no cross-honoring of tickets on Amtrak. The four rush-hour trains were all you could ride with your VRE ticket.

Amtrak service at Fredericksburg has been through some interesting changes in the past 13 years as well. In 1992, a typical Amtrak train was scheduled to travel from Washington to Fredericksburg in 62 minutes. Today it’s typically 67 minutes, and that’s mainly due to more people riding, requiring more time at stations, although a few Amtrak trains make more stops than they did in 1992. Another difference back then: there were more Amtrak trains calling at Fredericksburg, including a daily trip between Richmond and Atlantic City (which no longer runs) and the Florida trains, which now roll on through without stopping. If Amtrak survives the annual threats to its budget, then the current investments by Virginia, North Carolina and other states should give us faster, more frequent intercity train service at Fredericksburg.

And what will VRE look like in 12 more years at age 25? In 2017, when I hear commuters complaining that the service hasn’t gotten any better, I will tell them how back in 2005, there were only six VRE trains to Washington, all of them making every stop, and no service on weekends or holidays. Then the real shocker. “And you know what?” I will say. “Back then, a ten-trip ticket cost only seventy-seven dollars!”

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Who Rides VRE?

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on June

12, 2005, and is reproduced with permission.

Virginia Railway Express passengers are 64% male, more than half are middle-aged, and more than 80% have a household income over $100,000, according to the results of a 2004 survey.

To think of VRE riders as upper-middle-class white males is to overlook a lot of riders, however. More than a third are female, 6% have a household income under $50,000, and 19% identify themselves as minorities.

More than 5,000 passengers filled out the survey, showing higher participation than in presidential elections or maybe even American Idol. More than half gave VRE a grade of B for overall quality of service, and another fourth gave it a C. Their number-one concern—cited by almost 1,400 riders—was late trains.

Still, 79% had recommended VRE to someone else in the past year. My guess is that they would rate Interstate 95 lower. Almost 4,000 people cited traffic as a reason for riding the train.

Almost two-thirds of VRE riders (63%) are government employees or in the military. Nearly everybody is riding to work, with fewer than 3% traveling for another purpose.

I’m sure that the number of tourists is somewhat higher in the summer (the survey is always conducted in the spring), and overall they represent more individuals, since the tourists on board are probably different people than those who were riding a week earlier.

Of the Fredericksburg line riders, more than a third (over a thousand) board at Fredericksburg each weekday morning. Almost another third (more than 800) use the two Stafford stations (Leeland Road and Brooke). Fredericksburg handles more riders than any other station on the VRE system. In second place was the Broad Run station outside Manassas, with more than 750 riders; Leeland Road was third with about 550.

Passengers tend to get up early. The first train leaves Fredericksburg at 5:15 a.m., and more people ride this train than any other. (In fact, 20% said they would like a train to leave Fredericksburg at 4:45.)

But a fourth of the riders said they take an earlier train than they would prefer because of full parking lots. Generally, fewer people get on each subsequent train, with about 70 boarding the final VRE train out of Fredericksburg at 7:50 a.m. VRE must be run by morning people, because one survey question asked whether passengers would like a “late evening” train leaving Washington at 7:30 p.m. (Almost 3,000 riders said yes.)

More than 80% of VRE riders drive alone to a station. About 14% (more than 700 systemwide) carpool or are dropped off. More than 150 systemwide (3%) walk to the station. I expect that the percentage is higher in Fredericksburg, and I expect the systemwide percentage to grow as more homes go up close to the stations at Leeland Road, Rippon, Woodbridge and Lorton.

Although 94% of VRE riders arrive at the station by car, nearly two-thirds (63%) walk to their destination after getting off VRE in the morning. Half the riders reach their destination within 10 minutes of getting off the VRE train.

About two-thirds get off the train at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, DC, or at Crystal City in Arlington. Both stops have many employers within a few minutes’ walk, and a lot of passengers change to Metrorail at Crystal City or travel to the Pentagon or Rosslyn (both in Arlington). Even with a fourth of the riders transferring to Metro, more than 90% are at their destination within 20 minutes.

More than a fourth of the riders have been using VRE for less than two years; almost 400 had been riding since VRE service began in 1992. Before switching to VRE, 37% drove alone; 20% have always used VRE.

That isn’t just loyal riders, however. VRE passengers who received Metrocheks or another transit subsidy (and that’s almost three-fourths of us) typically have a choice between subsidized public transportation or subsidized parking. Where I work, for example, you can get either a parking pass or Metrocheks. You can’t park—you can’t even pay to park— in the garage if you choose to ride the train.

Yet a lot of passengers have made the choice to ride VRE all the time, and that’s exactly what the local governments wanted: They fund VRE to mitigate traffic.

As long as people give VRE a grade of B and give I-95 an F, VRE will be transporting as many people as it can carry.

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Controversial Cab Cars Up Front

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on March 6, 2005, and is reproduced with permission.

The wreck that killed 11 people in Glendale, Calif., on Jan. 26 might have been less serious if the diesel locomotive on the Metrolink commuter train had been up front, pulling the train, instead of pushing from behind.

Having the engine push a passenger train “is the most dangerous thing in the world,” an employee of the Staten Island, N.Y., Railroad told me decades ago. He said that in a collision, the coaches would stop more easily than the heavy locomotive, which would tend to keep moving and crush the cars against whatever they had hit.

The Staten Island Railroad was then and is now basically an extension of the New York City subway, not an operator of push-pull diesel trains, as they are known. At the time, though, New Jersey Transit was changing to push-pull operations. Until then, when its diesel trains reached the end of the line, the locomotive would uncouple from the train, change tracks, run around the train, and couple to the other end to pull the train in the other direction. Most of the engines were set up to run pointing either direction. Still, the movement cost time, work and money. New Jersey was a pioneer in running cab coaches on trains so that the locomotive would not have to change its place on the train. It could push or it could pull, and the train could be driven from either end.

Since then, push-pull operations have become standard on commuter railroads throughout North America, and Virginia Railway Express trains normally operate with the locomotive at the south end of the train. Since grade-crossing accidents are rarely fatal for anyone on the train, the economics of running push-pull trains has dwarfed any safety concerns, and the past few decades have shown that there are lots more dangerous things in the world—driving, for instance.

The Glendale wreck revived the question, however, although “Tim Smith, California state chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the union has been complaining about the practice for years,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Despite increasingly stringent Federal Railroad Administration requirements for crashworthiness, a cab car is not as solid as a locomotive.

Having a locomotive be in the lead “will reduce, if not eliminate, the resultant damages or injuries from a collision at a grade crossing,” said Curt Secrest of Spotsylvania, who has about 25 years of rail industry knowledge and experience. He pointed out some factors that made the Glendale wreck far worse than most grade-crossing accidents: “Most of the collisions at a grade crossing occur when a motor vehicle crosses in the path of the train, which results in a T-bone–type collision.” In most of these events, he said, the train is delayed, but the motor vehicle is shoved off or down the tracks following impact. When Juan Manuel Alvarez drove his vehicle onto the tracks in the path of an oncoming Metrolink commuter train, then got out, “he drove his vehicle parallel to the tracks instead of perpendicular, which changed the dynamics of the impact.… Add in the commuter train on the adjacent track and the work train in the siding and you have the worst possible scenario.”

It’s different, though, “when a dump truck or other large vehicle” is struck or “when a semi-trailer (usually low-boys) hauling heavy equipment” gets stuck on the crossing—“there are usually grave consequences when a train strikes these.”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles–area Metrolink commuter railroad, in what it calls “an abundance of caution,” has decided to rope off the front rows of seats in its cab cars, pending the results of a federal investigation of the crash, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Whatever the findings of the investigation, it’s unlikely that commuter railroads will abandon push-pull operation, because there are hundreds of scheduled push-pull trains running on a given weekday, with almost half being pushed by the engine. Even higher crashworthiness standards are a possibility. The front rows of passenger seats in cab cars might be eliminated. Another possibility is detection equipment that would apply a train’s emergency brake if a there’s a motor vehicle between lowered crossing gates. Continued elimination of grade crossings is a certainty.

The Glendale wreck was, if not a freak accident, at least a rare type of one, but it could happen again, and VRE passengers could choose not to sit right up front if there are other seats available.

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Could a Grade-Crossing Suicide Cause a VRE Wreck?

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Feb. 6, 2005, and is reproduced with permission.

Is Virginia Railway Express vulnerable to the kind of suicide wreck that killed 10 people in Glendale, Calif., last month? Juan Manuel Alvarez drove his vehicle onto the tracks in the path of an oncoming Metrolink commuter train, then got out. The train hit his vehicle, derailed, and struck a train coming the other way. Alvarez, it was reported, had been intending suicide, but he was charged with murder for causing the fatal wreck.

The VRE Fredericksburg line could experience a similar tragedy, and VRE officials are aware of it. In fact, three years ago, in conjunction with local fire departments, rescue squads, and hospitals, VRE held an exercise called “Cold Dawn” on the Quantico Marine Corps base. The hypothetical disaster was caused by a terrorist who parked a tank truck on the track as a train approached, then abandoned the truck. VRE continues to plan and drill for emergencies.

Besides planning and preparation, other factors mitigate the danger that the Glendale catastrophe would be repeated on the Fredericksburg line. For one thing, unlike many commuter lines that thread through the streets of cities and suburbs, VRE has few grade crossings. The 54-mile line to Washington has only seven. There is simply less opportunity for a vehicle to be left on the tracks, intentionally or by accident. Two of the crossings are on the Quantico base and should be less accessible to terrorists or anyone else wanting to cause a train wreck. A few crossings in Stafford and Prince William County are somewhat remote and less easy to guard.

However, simply leaving a vehicle on the tracks is unlikely to kill anyone besides the vehicle’s occupants. The efforts of groups such as Operation Lifesaver (which promotes grade-crossing safety) have reduced the number of accidents, but there are still, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are about 3,000 grade-crossing collisions a year; few of them, however, are disasters.

One thing that made the Glendale wreck so calamitous was the collision with the second train. If the first train had merely smashed into Alvarez’s vehicle, the train might have suffered little damage beyond scratched paint. However, the train did leave the tracks, always a possibility when hitting a motor vehicle. Even so, a derailed train sometimes remains upright, often with injuries but no fatalities. In short, train vs. motor vehicle is an unequal match, unless, as in the Cold Dawn scenario, the motor vehicle is loaded with hazardous materials.

A collision between two trains has large potential for damage, injury, and death, but it would be difficult to plan. If someone intended to kill a large number of people by causing two trains to collide, derailing one by means of a motor vehicle parked on the tracks would not be guaranteed to work. The train going the other way might have arrived a minute later or earlier, and therefore could have been a mile away when the first one derailed—still in danger, but with time to slow down or stop short of the derailment.

With 3,000 grade-crossing accidents a year nationally and six crossings on the Fredericksburg line, a collision between a VRE train and a motor vehicle may be only a matter of time. But it’s not likely to be a disaster. Whether people get killed is a matter of educating the public, of planning and preparing for emergencies, and of money. The federal government has provided some funding for grade-crossing elimination on some busy railroad lines, and in the future the remaining crossings on the Fredericksburg line may be replaced by overpasses, particularly if the line is ever upgraded from 70 to 110 miles per hour.

The line may still be the scene of occasional accidents, but not necessarily disasters, nor should it be a tempting target for anyone wanting to cause a catastrophe.

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CSX Track Capacity Will Expand

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Jan. 23, 2005, and is reproduced with permission.

Nearly five years after the money became available, CSX is finally moving ahead with track improvements to be funded—and owned—by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The $66 million capacity expansion is designed to decrease congestion and shorten trip times between Washington and Richmond, but most of the work is between Fredericksburg and Washington and will directly benefit Virginia Railway Express operations.

The first project, with construction at last under way, is a new bridge at Quantico Creek. The existing single-track bridge is a bottleneck. The new bridge will add a second track and provide room for a third. It’s part of a plan to have three tracks all the way from Washington to Richmond to accommodate moderately high-speed passenger service: 110 miles per hour. (The current speed limit over most of the railroad is 70 mph.) In cooperation with other states in the southeast, Virginia would contribute to a high-speed passenger-rail network. North Carolina has been moving ahead with improvements to the tracks within its borders, but progress in Virginia has been slow, mostly because CSX had not begun the state-funded work. The new Quantico Creek bridge is scheduled to enter service in 2007.

Another project, which VRE hopes to see completed this year, is to install crossovers near Arkendale Road in the Widewater area of Stafford County, so faster trains can pass slower ones. Anyone who has ridden VRE for a while has probably heard an announcement that there was a slow-moving CSX freight train ahead. Depending on what’s coming on the other track, sometimes a dispatcher can allow a faster train to pass. However, between Quantico and Dahlgren Junction in southern Stafford, a distance of 18 miles, there are no switches for a train to change tracks. In the middle of that stretch, the crossovers at Arkendale will add flexibility to operations.

If you’ve boarded a train at Fredericksburg, you’ve probably wondered, “Where is Track 1?” Most VRE stations have Track 2 and Track 3, but no Track 1. Track 1 exists in only a few places. You can see it at Hamilton’s Crossing (at the southern tip of the Fredericksburg battlefield, near Benchmark Road) or between Alexandria and Crystal City. At Crystal City, it ends, but there and at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington you can see where Track 1 used to be. By the end of 2006, VRE expects that the once and future Track 1 will be restored for about a mile on the Washington side of the Potomac River bridge. Later, the third track will be restored for another mile, from the south side of the Potomac to Crystal City, and six miles from a track junction in Alexandria to the Franconia-Springfield station. Except on the double-track Potomac bridge, this construction will result in three tracks from L’Enfant to Springfield—the busiest part of VRE’s Fredericksburg line: CSX freights enter the line near L’Enfant, and Manassas line trains leave it in Alexandria. Within the next few years, Track 1 will be added south of the Fredericksburg station too.

More good news: for the most part VRE does not expect the construction to disrupt operations, since it will involve adding a track alongside the others on existing right of way. Installing the crossovers at Arkendale and connecting the new track to the others will certainly mean some delayed trains, however.

Will riders see a difference? A 2000 study by CSX and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation showed that train movements—essentially, trains getting in one another’s way—were causing 48% of the train delays on the Fredericksburg line. The Quantico Creek bottleneck accounted for another 8%. That’s more than half the delays. Maybe the capacity improvements won’t cut delays in half, but they should at least give a major boost to VRE’s on-time performance. Also, more track capacity will mean more trains. Part of the commonwealth’s agreement with CSX is that VRE and Amtrak will be allowed to operate more trains over the line.

More trains, running on schedule more often: for those of us commuting to northern Virginia and Washington, that will be a big improvement.

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Quiet! It’s Santa!

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Dec. 26, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.

I had just settled down for a long winter’s nap in the Virginia Railway Express quiet car, when from behind me arose such a clatter that I sprang from my seat to see what was the matter.

There was a man wearing a red cap trimmed with white fur. “I got all the presents and I’m on my way!” he said loudly. Could it be—was this the jolly old elf himself?

“This is the real Polar Express!” he exclaimed.

Had I gotten on the wrong train? It would be bad enough to be headed for Manassas, but the North Pole? I would never get home in time for Christmas, unless—maybe I could ride in the sleigh with Santa!

“Excuse me, Santa,” I began, but he silenced me with a wave of his hand, and I realized he hadn’t been talking to me at all, or to anyone else on board. He raised his cell phone to his ear and said loudly, “Hi! I’m on the train!”

I stood there while he carried on a conversation with someone far away. When he finally said goodbye, I began again: “Excuse me, Santa, but this is the quiet car. Would you mind…”

“Oh!” he said. “I thought I was the only one here.”

“Well, you’re certainly acting like it, Santa, but there are lots of other people here who were hoping for a quiet ride home.”

“Don’t be such a Scrooge!” he scolded me. “Who do you think you are—the Grinch? It’s Christmas!”

“Well,” I said meekly, looking around to the other passengers for support, “could you give us a present, then? Just keep your voice down, please?”

I didn’t wait for an answer. I walked back to my seat, slouched down, and pulled my coat up over my head. Nestled all snug in my seat, I closed my eyes, listened to the rumble of the train and, after a while, fell asleep.

When I awoke, I was alone in the car. I thought I’d heard the conductor announce Fredericksburg and tell us to grab all our stuff. Had it all been a dream?

I looked around at the empty car and wondered what my family would say when I arrived home. Who would believe me when I told them that Santa himself had been aboard the train that evening, and that I had ridden the real Polar Express? (I didn’t see the North Pole, though. I must have slept through that stop.) And I didn’t have a souvenir silver bell to prove that it had all been real.

As I put on my coat and gathered up my things, I looked out into the night as we entered Fredericksburg. I could see the Christmas lights illuminating the town, and falling snow beginning to turn the streets white.

Just then, as I was about to leave the train, I heard bells—sleigh bells! And music. The faint tune of Jingle Bells reached my ears. Was it a sign from Santa after all? The adults who don’t believe would say that it was just another cell phone.

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VRE Fares Are About Average

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Oct. 17, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.

The fares charged by Virginia Railway Express are about average for commuter rail lines, I discovered after looking at the fare structure of 15 commuter rail systems nationwide.

I looked for routes of 54 miles or thereabouts—the same as the distance from Fredericksburg to Washington, D.C., Union Station. Some commuter rail systems don’t have any lines that long—Trinity Rail between Dallas and Fort Worth is only about 34 miles long, for example. Others, notably the Long Island Rail Road in New York State, have routes that run much longer—in the case of the Long Island, upwards of 100 miles.

For a one-way ticket, VRE charges $8.10, or 15 cents a mile. This put VRE in 7th place, with the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro North system in New York and Connecticut (operated by the same transit authority) charging a whopping 27 cents a mile for a 54-mile ride. At the low end is the Trinity system, which charges only $2.25, or less than 7 cents a mile, for a trip over the whole line. The average fare per mile for the 15 systems I investigated is 14.5 cents, making VRE just about 3% above average.

Interestingly, the Trinity system is captained by Pete Sklannik, lately of VRE, and he worked at the Long Island Rail Road before coming to Virginia.

In monthly tickets, VRE fares are also right about in the middle. A monthly ticket between Washington and Fredericksburg costs $227.90, or 9.5 cents based on 20 working days in October, or rather 20 days on which VRE operates. VRE ranked 8th highest out of 15, with the New York State and Connecticut services again the most expensive, charging $315, or 14.5 cents a mile, for a monthly ticket. Cheapest is the Tri-Rail service between West Palm Beach and Miami, charging only $80 for a monthly ticket, or 3.7 cents a mile.

Where VRE is on the high side is with 10-trip tickets. As VRE riders know, the biggest jump in this year’s VRE fare increase was in the price of the 10-trip tickets. VRE charges $72.90 for a 10-ride ticket between Washington and Fredericksburg, making VRE 5th highest out of 12 (three of the 15 systems I investigated do not offer 10-ride or 12-ride tickets). Priciest again were the New York lines, offering no discount at all on a 10-trip ticket, with a resulting fare of 27 cents a mile for a 54-mile trip. Cheapest again was Tri-Rail, charging $42, or 6.5 cents per mile, for a 12-ride ticket between Boynton Beach and Miami.

The highest fares are on the commuter railroads serving New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, with ticket prices consistently higher than VRE’s. The lowest fares are in Texas, Florida, and Washington State. Interestingly, the commuter rail systems serving San Diego and San Francisco charge much lower fares than the Los Angeles system, so commuter rail is generally cheaper out west with the exception of Los Angeles.

The systems that are much more expensive than VRE also offer much more service, however—seven days a week and, in the New York area, almost around the clock. Off-peak service is generally hourly or better.

However, the cheaper systems also tend to offer a lot more service than VRE, typically running seven days a week and offering substantial midday and evening service in addition to rush-hour trips. Also, while VRE is cutting the use of its tickets to ride Amtrak, the trend among smaller systems is in the other direction: Sound Transit in Seattle and the Coaster system in San Diego are now supplementing their limited offerings with rides on Amtrak trains that run over their routes.

With VRE fares up this year and maybe next, it is some consolation to know that the ticket prices are about average nationwide. However, it’s also true that riders elsewhere tend to get more service for their dollars.

Commuter Rail Fares Compared

RailroadTripMilesOne-WayPer MileWeeklyPer Mile10-tripPer MileMonthlyPer Mile
NY MTANY-Bridgeport54$14.75$.270$101.00$.187$147.50$.273$315.00$.145
LA MetrolinkLA–San Bernardino53$10.00$.189  $7.50$.141$283.75$.134
NJ TransitNY-Hamilton54$10.05$.186$85.50$.158  $281.00$.130
SEPTAPhila.–Newark, DE39$7.00$.179$95.50$.117$60.00$.159$163.00$.104
MARCDC–Harper’s Ferry55$9.00$.163$67.50$.123$72.00$.131$225.00$.102
Shore Line EastNew Haven–New London51$7.75$.152  $70.00$.137$165.00$.080
NICTDChicago–Michigan City56$7.55$.135  $71.70$.128$215.00$.096
CaltrainSan Francisco–San Jose43$5.50$.128  $46.75$.109$145.75$.085
CoasterSan Diego–Oceanside42$5.25$.125  $48.00$.114$144.00$.086
MBTABoston-Fitchburg50$6.00$.120  *$72.00$.120$198.00$.099
MetraChicago-Kenosha52$6.10$.117  $51.85$.100$164.70$.079
SounderSeattle-Tacoma40$4.00$.100$40.00$.100  $144.00$.090
Tri-RailMiami–Boynton Beach54$5.00$.093  *$42$.065$80.00$.037
TREDallas–Fort Worth34$2.25$.066    $70.00$.051

* 12-ride ticket

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Delays Waste Rail Commuters’ Time Too

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Sep. 19, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.

Drivers aren’t the only commuters wasting time in rush-hour traffic. Rail riders do their share of sitting and stewing too. The widely publicized Texas Transportation Institute findings that the average commuting driver in the Washington, D.C., area spends 67 hours a year stuck in rush-hour traffic made me wonder how much better off we rail commuters are.

I estimate that I spent 48 hours in the past 12 months sitting out delays—on a late train, at the station, or at a bus stop. At the train stations and bus stops, seats are few if they exist at all, so a lot of the time spent “sitting out” delays actually involved standing, sometimes for an hour or more.

In estimating the extra time I spent on late trains, I didn’t count the trains I usually don’t ride. For example, I usually can ride the 6:05 Amtrak train out of Alexandria only if it’s running late. A half-hour delay to that train actually gets me to Fredericksburg early. Over one year, I logged 35 hours and 41 minutes of other delays, ranging from an hour and 44 minutes in April (an average delay of about 4 minutes a day) to 5 and a half hours in September 2003.

In its study of commuting by car, the Texas Transportation Institute classified time spent in traffic jams as wasted. That’s probably a fair assessment. Extra time on the train isn’t necessarily wasted—I might spend a bit longer reading, for example—but on the whole it’s time I’d rather spend somewhere else, and if someone is waiting for me at Fredericksburg, then the delay is consuming the time of two people.

Besides the extra time I spent on late trains (or waiting for them), I reckoned two other categories of time wasters: cascading delays and delays caused by unreliable connections.

The cascading or snowballing delays occur when a morning train is, for example, 10 minutes late into Crystal City, so I have to ride a bus that leaves a half hour later than the one I usually take. A 10-minute delay turns into a 30-minute delay because of a missed connection. I reckoned 1 hour of cascading delays this summer. Before July, my VRE ticket was good on more buses, so cascading delays were shorter if not fewer, and you could tack a few hours onto my total for those.

Coming home, theoretically I could catch a 6:26 Metrobus to Crystal City, arriving there 10 minutes before the last Virginia Railway Express train to Fredericksburg. In practice, the bus is often 20 minutes late, ruling out this choice. So I usually ride the 6 o’clock company shuttle bus to Crystal City. It arrives just after the 6:10 train to Fredericksburg has departed, or I might see the train doors closing just as the shuttle bus arrives. I then wait 40 minutes for the next train. I figure that a 10-minute wait would be reasonable, so 30 minutes of it is time wasted or unavailable for more productive pursuits.

Because I occasionally run errands during that time (there are lots of stores in Crystal City), I counted only half the time as wasted, and only during July and August of this year: the company shuttle bus used to arrive in Crystal City 10 minutes before the Fredericksburg train. So I figured I spent at least 12 hours in Crystal City waiting for a train when I really didn’t want to be there. With the new bus schedule, I expect to spend 6 to 12 hours a month sitting in Crystal City, which would equal all the time a driving commuter spends in traffic jams. To borrow from W. C. Fields, on the whole I’d rather be in Crystal City, if those were the only two choices.

What commuters could use more of is choices. If you can walk between the train and your office, then you probably don’t have to worry about cascading delays or delays caused by uncertainty. Your time chalked up to railroad delays probably is 30-plus hours a year, far less than the average driver spends in traffic jams, but you would benefit from better timekeeping on the railroad.

For those of us who transfer to another mode of transportation, better on-time performance by trains and buses could eliminate a lot of the delays and give us something we’re always short of: time.

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VRE’s Core Business

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star in slightly different form on July 11, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.

The “core business” of Virginia Railway Express is “taking people into the business district in the morning and bringing them home in the evening,” according to the VRE website. That phrase “core business” is one I have heard repeated over and over by passengers this year, because a lot of them, like me, are not part of VRE’s core business.

To people who have ridden VRE for years despite late trains, freight derailments, heat restrictions, flood restrictions, service cancellations, service reductions and fare increases, it stings a bit to be told that VRE can do without us.

All eight people in my immediate family have been VRE riders for years. Some of them have first-day rider certificates from 1992. Yet not one of us fits VRE’s idea of its core business. We have used the VRE service for recreation, for trips to college, for travel to airports, to get to conferences and, yes, to get to work. But even I, the only commuter, do not work in the business district, and my work schedule is not as limited as VRE’s schedule. My company is not closed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, Columbus Day, or Veterans’ Day, and I occasionally work on a Saturday.

However, under pressure from its sponsoring jurisdictions, VRE announced in March that it was “examining every expense and service to ensure that they support both the core business and VRE’s future.” Weekend use of Amtrak trains, even with a stepup fare, is not part of VRE’s core business, nor is running a weekend train of its own—not even one Saturday train, nor even one train on the minor holidays. Use of my VRE ticket to ride Alexandria Transit buses isn’t part of VRE’s plans either, so now there are half as many buses I can ride to get from the train station to work.

The service cuts and fare increases will have a positive effect within the narrow area of VRE’s budget. However, I think they will have a wide negative impact politically. Maybe this summer there will be just as many people riding VRE, as some of us have no alternative and others climb on board to replace those who drop out. But I think that VRE’s political support will diminish, especially in Spotsylvania, and this comes at a time when the county has had a new dialog about sponsoring VRE.

I suspect that the vast majority of Spotsylvania voters who might support VRE are not part of VRE’s core business. They are occasional users, and a lot of the daily commuters are not on a standard 9-to-5 schedule. I wish that before telling us that it will no longer try to serve us, VRE had paid for a scientific survey of not just the commuters but all the people in its service area. How many were using VRE occasionally before the holiday service cuts? How many before the weekend service cuts? How many before the bus connection cuts and the fare increases? And how many of those will still use VRE, and how many would still vote for county participation in VRE?

It appears that VRE made its decisions without such a scientific survey. Spotsylvania should not. Before we climb on board, let’s find out not only who rides every day, but who used to ride and who wants to ride, and where and when, and let that inform our voice in governing VRE’s operations.

At the Transportation Connectivity Symposium in Farmington last month, Dave Snyder, VRE’s superintendent of operations, safety, and security, said that VRE’s mission is “traffic mitigation.” Many of us who pay for VRE—through federal and state taxes if not through local gas taxes—have bigger ideas. We are looking for transportation choices, and lately we have been getting fewer of those, not more. That causes more traffic, not less. As taxpayers, let’s give VRE a new mission: be part of an integrated transportation system that gives people attractive, affordable transportation choices throughout Virginia.

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VRE Communications Disappoint

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on May 16, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.

Communicating with passengers during a service disruption is essential, and used to be a strong point for Virginia Railway Express. Twice, however, in recent weeks, VRE has failed to give passengers and those who are waiting for them one crucial piece of information: when they might expect to get home.

On May 7, a sudden, violent thunderstorm struck the Fredericksburg area, and it knocked a tree onto the tracks, halting trains. On the last VRE train of the evening, due in Fredericksburg at 8:04 p.m., we stopped near Dahlgren Junction, behind Earl’s hardware. The crew promptly informed us about the downed tree and said they didn’t know when it would be cleared. OK. Things happen. There was a tree blocking Rte. 3 too, on Amelia Street. After we’d been sitting for about half an hour, the crew said we were going back to Leeland Road station, where we would get on a bus to Fredericksburg.

By the time we got to Leeland Road, it was almost 9 p.m., and there was no bus in sight. I overheard the conductor say that the bus wasn’t expected for 50 minutes and that the crew had tried to call taxis, but none would come. Some of this information got passed from passenger to passenger by word of mouth, with some people hearing “50” as “15.” I asked the conductor whether the fact that the bus wasn’t expected until 9:45 was being announced at Fredericksburg, where there were people, including my wife, waiting for some of the passengers. He didn’t think so.

My wife and one of my daughters heard announcements that train 313’s passengers were being taken to Leeland Road for “alternate transportation,” but nothing to indicate that we wouldn’t get to Fredericksburg till maybe 10 p.m.

Meanwhile, back at Leeland Road, some people started calling home for rides, and most of them offered empty seats to other passengers, to the applause of people waiting in the parking lot. Some taxis came and went too, some of them leaving empty as most remaining passengers chose to wait for the bus or for rides they were expecting.

Finally, around 9:30, I was offered a seat in a van and got a ride to Fredericksburg and ultimately all the way home.

Because the passengers helped each other out and shared rides and information, we had a major inconvenience but generally knew what was happening, if not when. Family members waiting in Fredericksburg weren’t so well off. At 9 p.m., someone at VRE must have known that train 313’s passengers were just getting back to Leeland Road and that we wouldn’t be in Fredericksburg for another hour. That information should have been given to the people waiting in Fredericksburg.

A few weeks earlier, on April 15, signal problems in Washington created major delays on VRE. I arrived at Crystal City that evening to find a crowd on the platform and a repeating announcement that, due to evening delays, we should expect crowding. As a friend of mine likes to say, alluding to Hamlet, I didn’t need a ghost out of the grave to tell me that. But what evening delays?

By talking to other passengers I learned that trains had been running half an hour late or more. But presently, a few minutes before it was due, train 313 was announced—running on time. In the 40 or so minutes before it finally showed up, unlucky 313 was never mentioned in an announcement again. Surely, as time went by, someone at VRE must have known that 313 was not on time and could have acknowledged that in an announcement, even told us when it might be expected. Or if VRE had no idea when it might be expected, that information would have been helpful too.

Like all forms of transportation, VRE sometimes experiences unexpected delays, and VRE used to be good at promptly informing passengers of the nature and expected length of delays. Lately, however, giving misinformation (train 313 running on time) or leaving out important information (train 313’s passengers not expected at Fredericksburg for another hour) gives the impression that specific, accurate information, which is so important to passengers and families, is no longer that important to VRE.

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Getting to Work Without VRE

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on March 21, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.

How did Virginia Railway Express riders get to work on Presidents Day? Federal workers had the day off, but the rest of us had a transportation problem, because VRE no longer runs on any federal holidays. Here are the ways three people addressed the problem.

Scott W. Fischer of Fredericksburg told me about his drive to work that day: “I’m a regular VRE rider, but I had no real complaints about getting to work on President’s Day other than I had to drive. There were plenty of cars on I-95 and I-395, but traffic never slowed down once, not even at the usual spots of Potomac Mills, Lorton, Springfield etc. I also took advantage of the HOV lanes being open to all traffic.” This passenger made the trip in 49 minutes, much faster than the usual weekday commute or even a weekend drive, and got to work more than half an hour early.

Not everyone has a car available, although most of the transportation network in Virginia is based on the assumption that everyone does. Jackie Badillo does not. “I am legally blind and depend on the VRE to get to my job in Alexandria from Fredericksburg daily,” she wrote. She has been riding VRE since 1993. “I purchase my ticket monthly. The company I work for was open Presidents Day however. I had no way to get to work, so I was forced to stay home.”

I didn’t have a car available either. Four people in my family are employed—two full-time, and two part-time—and we share two cars (two of my teenagers work at the same store). The other three family members who are employed needed to drive to work, so I hitched a ride with them into town. My VRE monthly ticket was good on Amtrak, but Amtrak was running a holiday schedule, and the first train didn’t leave Fredericksburg till after 9:30. After a train ride, a bus ride, and a mile-long walk, I got to work around 11. The last train left Alexandria at 7:15 p.m., so I was able to put in about 6 hours of work. I worked late on other days during the week to make up the time.

I didn’t hear from any students who ride VRE, but at least some colleges were open on Presidents Day. The bus I rode that morning went past Northern Virginia Community College, and that’s where quite a few of the bus riders were heading.

VRE touts its service as relieving highway congestion, at least on federal workdays. That may be true. At least, there probably would be a lot more vehicles on the highways if VRE didn’t run. However, public transportation is not just about making driving easier. It’s about transportation choices, and for many people it’s about basic transportation.

The assumption that everyone has access to a car, and that public transportation is nothing but an option among others, is false. A lot of people cannot drive. A lot of others have chosen to use public transportation. Public transportation went through decades of decline following World War II, but those years are over. Public transportation has been growing since the 1970s because people want it and use it. That’s why Fredericksburg, which had no local train or bus service 13 years ago, now has both. (I was going to say “today,” but today is Sunday, and there is no VRE service today.)

Just as Virginia has gotten on board with more public transportation, it now will have to learn a lesson that other states have learned: “commuter” rail isn’t just for commuters. When you establish a public transportation service, just as when you build a road, people will use it and depend on it. We have already reached that point with VRE. It isn’t just an option, and it isn’t just for federal workers. It’s just getting harder and more expensive for the rest of us to use.

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Left Behind, Part I

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Feb. 8, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.

“Wait!” the man shouted, pounding on the door of the train. “Wait! Wait!” Then the train pulled out of the station. Three others following him were left behind, too.

At another station up the line, a man was using the ticket-vending machine not 10 feet from the door of the train. As he turned and walked toward the train, the door shut, and he was so close that I thought he might have made it. He, too, was left behind.

I realize that VRE must attempt to run its trains on time, but when the last train of the morning has people right outside the door, it seems a shame to leave without them. It would not have delayed the train even one minute to let those four people on board. We might have been five minutes late instead of four.

Mike Testerman, president of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons, disagrees: “I speak as one guilty of being oft tardy. I really sympathize with those left behind, but the thousands of other commuters are paying for reliability and punctuality when VRE, Amtrak and CSX are able to deliver it. It’s a challenge at best.”

“Swiss trains leave on time and arrive on time,” adds Testerman, who has traveled by rail in Europe. “The Swiss rail passenger culture accepts that trains will leave late arrivers. If ticket machines or validators are malfunctioning, the conductor could hold a train at his or her discretion. Collecting a surcharge from late-boarding passengers might also work, but commuters need to take responsibility for being at the station on time.

“For those who play it down to the wire, it might be helpful for VRE to post the exact time that their engineers set their watches by. Can they do that with their platform messaging signs?

“I once watched (could’ve touched) a train leave Richmond without me, and I had to drive all the way to BWI to catch my flight to St. Louis.”

Dick Peacock, secretary of the Railway Patrons, commutes on VRE from Manassas and is more sympathetic toward the late riders: “The Manassas Line conductors seem to show more mercy,” he said. “I think the conductors should show more mercy on the passengers if it is the last train.”

There’s one difference between Virginia and Switzerland: In Switzerland, if you miss a train, there is probably another in half an hour. In Virginia, the next train might not come for 19 hours. This has led to some desperate and dangerous actions.

Last month in Manassas, as a VRE train was about to depart, a passenger started to run toward the train, according to VRE’s April Maguidad. The doors closed and the train started to pull out of the station. Another passenger on the train blocked a door open. The passenger on the platform attempted to jump onto the moving train through the blocked-open door. The running passenger fell at the edge of the platform and, fortunately, was not injured.

“Rather than simply being late for work, she could have been seriously injured or even killed,” Maguidad said. “… We would love to wait for those who are running to catch the train. With our growing ridership, we simply cannot afford to do so.”

I have a few suggestions. First, as VRE says, never get on or off a moving train. Second, as Testerman suggests, include the time on the electronic station displays. (I check my watch now and then against the Naval Observatory website; VRE sets its clocks by the Naval Observatory.) Third, add five minutes to the schedule if necessary but the last VRE train of the day should wait for anyone who is actually on the platform at departure time. Some passengers will still be left behind, but the door won’t close in their faces, and they won’t be tempted to get on after the train is moving.

Left Behind, Part II

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on March 7, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.

Last month I wrote that the last train of the day should keep the doors open for anyone actually on the platform when the train is ready to leave, and that Virginia Railway Express should, if necessary, add five minutes to the schedules of the last morning and evening trains so as not to leave people behind.

Former railroad conductor Nicolas Clifford wrote to point out some flaws in my idea:

“The solution you propose (add 5 minutes to the schedule of the last morning train, wait for passengers on the platform) will not work. Humans adjust their behavior to the rules they are presented with. If I am going for the 8:15a train, and used to time my arrival for 8:14 (thus occasionally missing the train when I missed a light, or whatever), knowing that the train will wait ‘so long as I am on the platform’ will incite me to arrive a minute later.

“Further, as others adjust as well, I will be able to count on ‘someone being on the platform’ at 8:15, and as he boards, I arrive on the platform at 8:16. The train then waits for me, and leaves at 8:17. What does the railroad do? Add another 5 minutes? And when does it stop? Whenever it does, someone will just be arriving on the platform.…

“My suggestion? The person who is a minute late should set his alarm a minute earlier, or accept the occasional drive into the city. And, if he is going for the last train, he should set his alarm two minutes earlier.

“I thank you, nonetheless, for your charitable heart. Simply, minutes count in the world of the railroad, and ‘giving one’ to one person means taking hundreds away from others. The vast majority of VRE’s riders would prefer that the trains held to their schedules.”

I thanked Mr. Clifford for correcting me, and thought about it some more.

I learned a long time ago that it’s better to be at the station 10 minutes early than 1 minute late, and I try to do that. I’ve had to run to catch trains a few times, and I’ve seen a few leave without me, usually because some connecting transportation (a bus or a subway train) was delayed. I usually take the second-to-last bus, not the last one, that would get me to the station on time, but sometimes that isn’t good enough. Just once (that I can remember), the last train of the evening was pulling out of Crystal City, the door was open, and I was on the platform and called to the conductor, and he held the train for me. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had kept going, but he didn’t, and I appreciated it, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone a slight delay if the alternative for that person would be to get home hours late.

Also, the morning when I saw so many people left behind, there was ice on the roads, and quite possibly those people had left home early, still missed the train, and now might have to get back onto icy roads. Still, I understand that most people on the train, which was already late, would want it to make up time and not fall farther behind. So maybe there shouldn’t be a rule that the last train of the day should wait.

On the other hand, I often ride an Alexandria Transit bus to get between VRE and work, and the buses, which run every 20 minutes, usually wait for anybody in sight who is running for the bus, yet they keep pretty much on schedule anyway. Maybe it’s because city buses make shorter trips and have less time to accumulate delays, although one Metro bus I ride is often 20 minutes late.

Maybe trains are more likely to accumulate delays. Nevertheless, out of pity, I won’t mind, especially in the evening, if we wait a few seconds to let a late arriver on board. Someday, once again, the late one might be me.

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VRE Holiday Service Cuts Hurt Riders

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Jan. 25, 2004, and is reproduced with permission.

Eliminating Virginia Railway Express service on minor holidays is a bad idea. This new VRE policy took effect on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, when VRE trains did not run. VRE is also dropping its Presidents Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day service.

VRE says that eliminating all train service on these four days will save $75,000 a year. VRE also says that only one-sixth of its commuters ride the trains on those days. That would be those of us—more than a thousand riders, if my math is right—who do not work for the government, plus the other occasional VRE riders who board trains on any given day.

VRE already was running only half its service on the minor holidays, and those of us who have been depending on VRE to get to work asked for some alternative service—maybe two rush hour trains instead of three, or a substitute bus service on the holidays.

Fredericksburg and Quantico riders with ten-trip or monthly tickets can ride the two morning or evening Amtrak trains, but the many passengers who get on at the two Stafford County stations—Leeland Road and Brooke—will have to make other arrangements.

The cuts in holiday service are the latest episode in a bad VRE pattern of telling riders to find another way to get to work. Yes, cutting service will save money. That is true of most government agencies. They all would cost less if they provided less service, or no service on some days, or no service at all. However, providing public service is the reason for having government agencies.

Now, this doesn’t mean that government agencies, like VRE, which are designed to serve masses of people, should spend their budgets providing service that very few people use, which is why VRE doesn’t run on Christmas, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Independence Day, or Memorial Day. But getting rid of all service on days when a thousand of its passengers want to go to work is a bad move.

What VRE can and should be is a transportation alternative for many people, not just commuters. That means, in the long run, providing more service, not less. It means providing more than just commuter schedules. Yes, this will take public funding and political support, which will be harder to get if VRE narrows its scope from being a commuter railroad to become just a commuter railroad for government workers.

VRE could and should become a public service that not only provides transportation alternatives for many trips—not just commuting—but also sparks economic development without encouraging sprawl. With only commuter schedules, VRE has managed to attract not just daily riders but students, airport passengers, and families on day trips. These people are not on government work schedules, but they produce revenue and they vote. Making VRE harder for them to use will make political support and public funding harder to get.

Going beyond commuter schedules will not only attract more riders from the Fredericksburg area, it will enable VRE to bring passengers to the Fredericksburg area. With government budgets so tight, providing more service may have to wait a while, but reducing service is a step in the wrong direction.

Why not a substitute bus service on the minor holidays? Carrying a thousand people to work would require 23 buses. Carrying them on six trains (three from Fredericksburg, three from Manassas), as VRE was doing, makes more sense. The fact is, VRE has grown so big that even when it is carrying only a sixth of its normal load, the riders can’t be handled economically on buses. When it comes to moving large numbers of people, there is no economical substitute for rail service.

If VRE tells us to find another way to get to work, some people will do that. Some of us, however, aren’t going away. We will press for more and better transportation alternatives, not just for government workers but for everyone in the Fredericksburg area.

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VRE Service Sliding Downhill

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Dec. 28, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.

The 7:15 a.m. Virginia Railway Express train out of Fredericksburg operated only once in the past two weeks. On Monday, Dec. 15, it never left the storage yard because of engine trouble. The same thing occurred on Wednesday of that week. On Thursday, all VRE trains except one were cancelled because of a freight train derailment in Alexandria. To accommodate track repairs by CSX (the host railroad), VRE canceled half its trains the next day and all of Christmas week.

On the days when the 7:15 was canceled owing to engine trouble, commuters had to wait 35 minutes for the next VRE train. On Dec. 18, while 19 freight cars, having chewed up the track, were off the rails in Alexandria, passengers arriving for the 7:15 train found a VRE train sitting in the station but going nowhere, as a recorded announcement stated, “Due to a CSX freight derailment in the Alexandria area, all VRE service has been cancelled. VRE passengers are advised to seek alternate transportation.”

What alternate transportation? The last National Coach commuter bus had already gone north. There is an 8:30 Greyhound departure to Springfield and Washington, though I didn’t know it at the time. I will keep the information handy in the future, because, by my count, on five workdays this year VRE has canceled all service and offered no alternatives: two days for the Presidents Day blizzard, two days for Hurricane Isabel, and the latest freight train derailment.

I was able to do some work at home on some of those days, but I can’t always do that. Much of my work must be done in the office. When VRE fails to operate, I end up using vacation time for the days I don’t work. This year, I could easily have used up a whole week of vacation just making up for the days VRE failed to run. Some vacation.

Also, that “alternate transportation”—what little of it there is—can 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 price of this “alternate transportation” comes on top of the money I have already paid for a month of unlimited rides on VRE.

I do not have a spare car to drive to work on the days when VRE fails to run. Acquiring another car as a backup mode of transportation would be prohibitively costly—hundreds of dollars per month. Even if I had a spare car, where would I drive to? Like many other workers, I have a choice between subsidized parking and subsidized mass transit. I have chosen transit, and so I don’t have a parking permit for the garage at work.

The fact is that choosing VRE to travel to and from work is, for many of us, a commitment. We cannot afford to pay for a monthly VRE ticket and a backup mode of transportation for the days when VRE suddenly fails to run. Having made a commitment, we need one in turn. We need VRE to say, “We will get you to work and we will get you home.”

We understand that there will sometimes be extraordinary delays. We understand that there will be harsh weather that interferes with service. But when those things happen, we need VRE to follow through and get us to work and get us home. A recorded announcement glibly telling us to seek “alternate transportation” doesn’t cut it.

On the day of the freight train derailment, VRE obtained buses to meet one train’s passengers at Lorton. As rush hour wound down, it should have been possible to obtain buses to meet more trains. Furthermore, by 7:30 a.m., Metro had restored service on its tracks near the derailment site, having suspended service because of possible hazardous materials in the derailed freight cars. If VRE had taken us to Springfield, we could have taken the Metro to work as we did on Friday. I was late for work, but I got there and put in almost a full day. I did not have another VRE vacation day.

VRE has earned its leading role in area transportation by providing a good alternative. Now many people depend on it. We cannot just switch to another form of transportation when things go wrong. VRE must quickly become dependable again, or a lot of riders will seek “alternate transportation,” and not just for one day.

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Quiet Cars: Some People Are Unclear on the Concept

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Nov. 30, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.

The quiet cars—a welcome innovation on Virginia Railway Express—provide a quiet spot for passengers seeking a refuge from noise. The idea seems to have started with Amtrak, where quiet cars were so popular that Amtrak began designating them on more trains, and it has spread to commuter railroads. Maryland Rail Commuter (“MARC”), VRE’s neighboring system to the north, has caught on to the idea; the new MARC timetable uses a Q to indicate which trains have quiet cars. If you’re traveling to Baltimore or BWI Airport, chances are you got up early, are getting home late, or both. It’s nice to know that quiet cars are available on both legs of the trip. Yes, quiet cars are catching on with the passenger railroads.

Some passengers still haven’t caught on, though. People unclear on the concept think that if they talk quietly on their cell phones, that’s good enough. Unfortunately, silence is fragile. Although half of a phone conversation, spoken loudly, can annoy all but the noisiest group of passengers—and VRE doesn’t have many of those—it doesn’t take a lot to disturb the peace in a quiet car.

The reason cell phones are not permitted in the quiet cars is that they are so disruptive. They are designed to intrude. Many of them have a ringer that gets louder and louder till someone answers it. They demand attention, and in a quiet environment, they get it. They interrupt sermons in church, they interfere with concerts and films, and they wake up passengers on the train.

Many cell phones also seem to have poor reception, poor transmission, or maybe just poor electronics, requiring the users to speak loudly in order to be heard. They can be heard, all right, often by a lot of people who would rather not listen.

VRE riders have only an hour or so to relax on the way home or on the way to work, and one cell phone ringing in the quiet car sounds a lot like an alarm clock—insistently chirping or maybe playing the Mexican Hat Dance until everyone is awake.

Passengers choose the quiet car on VRE for a reason. Some of us are short on sleep. Some are single parents who still have an evening of household work ahead of them. Some work two jobs. Some just want a little peace and quiet.

We aren’t being selfish. In fact, we’ve learned to pity the poor person who has interrupted some other activity to answer the telephone and hear “Hi! I’m on the train.”

The quiet car on VRE, as people are learning, is normally next to the engine, and the train crews sometimes announce that fact and even politely ask noisemakers to move to another car.

It makes sense to have the quiet car at one end of the train, so that there aren’t people passing through it at every station stop, but the car at the other end of the train usually has the only bathroom, so it’s where people traveling with kids, for example, will usually want to sit—not a good choice to be the quiet car.

The car next to the engine is OK, though. Curiously, I can sleep through the sound of the diesel, which from inside the train sounds more like a distant rumble than a roar. I can sleep through the whistling. I can even sleep through the announcements for stations other than my own. A cell phone ringing or a loud voice, however, means end of nap time. I think it must be the same for a lot of other people, because they choose the quiet car even though there is some noise from the engine and the announcements.

You don’t have to throw away your cell phone, though. The rest of the coaches are available for cell phone conversations—but you still might get a few dirty looks if you loudly state, “Hi! I’m on the train.”

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VRE Compared With New Jersey Transit

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Nov. 2, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.

NJ Transit in Montclair Heights. Photo by James Dunham.

“The next stop is Newark Broad Street,” said the computer. Only it wasn’t. The next stop was Penn Station in New York City. We had just left Newark. For our entire ride from Montclair, the computer had been announcing the stations as though the train were going in the other direction. My friend Ted said it reminded him of a Twilight Zone episode.

During an October trip to New Jersey and New York City by train, I rode New Jersey Transit a lot as I traveled around visiting friends and family. Because I used to live in New Jersey, I had ridden New Jersey Transit trains hundreds of times, but on this trip I consciously compared it to my everyday mode of commuting, Virginia Railway Express.

Some VRE trains have a computer that announces the stops, and on rare occasions I have heard it announce the stops backward. My Columbus Day ride wasn’t the first time I’d encountered this problem on NJ Transit, however, even though I don’t ride NJ Transit all that often. I’d say that VRE does a better job of on-board announcements, both automated and human. VRE’s train crews usually make intelligible announcements, whereas on NJ Transit the announcements are often hard to understand.

VRE’s crews are friendlier too, and the trains and stations are cleaner. However, NJ Transit’s inferior cleanliness may be due to one of its advantages: it goes a lot more places than VRE does, and at all hours. NJ Transit is a statewide agency, with rail and bus service to virtually every corner of the state, as well as to Philadelphia and New York City. In level of service, NJ Transit is vastly superior to VRE. Only a few NJ Transit rail lines are limited to rush-hour service; most run seven days a week, from before dawn till after midnight, with service at least every two hours. On the line between New York City and Trenton, the weekday NJ Transit trains run every half hour.

It’s also easier to purchase a ticket on NJ Transit. The only VRE stations where you can purchase a ticket with cash are Alexandria and Union Station (in Washington, D.C.), though there are a few close-by vendors, such as Nader’s in Fredericksburg. Virtually every NJ Transit station has a ticket vending machine that accepts cash, and you can always buy a ticket on board.

Another plus on NJ Transit is step-up tickets. If you have a monthly ticket to Newark but want to go to Manhattan one day, you pay the difference in the one-way fare. On VRE, your only choice is to buy an additional full one-way ticket between the two stations. VRE has been promising step-up fares for years but has yet to offer them. Also, you can’t buy a ticket on board any VRE train, and special tickets, such as senior and student discounts, aren’t even available at any VRE station, as far as I know: you have to go to outside vendors, such as Nader’s or the Commuter Stores in Arlington.

NJ Transit also has better access to most of its stations. This is partly due to geography, with NJ Transit’s lines passing through the centers of many towns, and partly because VRE doesn’t go to many cities and towns that it would serve if it were a statewide agency.

For travel to airports, NJ Transit and VRE each have pluses and minuses. A transfer from VRE to Metro, costing less than $2, will take you to the main terminal of Reagan National Airport. Two free transfers—to a MARC train and then a shuttle bus—will take you to the terminals at Baltimore-Washington International. The service is reasonably convenient, but the VRE portion of the trip is limited to weekday rush hours.

NJ Transit has a new station at Newark International Airport with frequent service, but the monorail that takes you the final mile or so to the terminals costs a hefty $5 each way. At least that seems like a lot to this parsimonious Yankee, but I suppose it’s cheap compared to a cab or airport limo. Via connections with SEPTA, the Philadelphia-area transit system, you can use NJ Transit to reach Philadelphia International Airport, paying an extra fare of a few dollars.

Just as there’s no good way to get to Dulles via VRE, you can’t easily get to La Guardia or JFK using NJ Transit: once you reach Manhattan, there’s no convenient public transportation to either airport—a surprising fact, and one reason so many New Yorkers fly out of Newark.

Finally, there’s the matter of other local transfers. Here, VRE wins hands down, at least where buses are involved. Your VRE ticket gets you a free ride on Metrobus, Alexandria Transit, and other bus systems in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. On NJ Transit, every transfer costs extra, even from an NJ Transit train to an NJ Transit bus.

VRE does pretty well for a small but growing commuter system, and NJ Transit does pretty well for a large transit system, but Virginia and New Jersey could learn a few lessons from each other. NJ Transit could have better announcements, friendlier crews, and free or cheap transfers between its own trains and buses.

Virginia could have daily, frequent train service to all major cities and towns, tickets that are easier to purchase, and step-up fares. A statewide system will require political and financial changes, but VRE could improve its ticketing system with a little effort.

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Fredericksburg Station Needs Better Signs

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Oct. 5, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.

On the main roads in Fredericksburg, you’ll see signs directing you to the Fredericksburg railroad station. Some signs are for Amtrak, some for Virginia Railway Express, but all will direct you to the station on Lafayette Boulevard. If you’re walking there or if someone is driving you there, you need no further directions.

If you are driving to the station, however, it sure helps to know ahead of time where to go to park, because there are no signs directing you to the parking lots, and on a weekday, unless you arrive very early, all the lots you can see from the station will be full.

The main nearby parking lot, between Caroline and Sophia streets, is for Fredericksburg residents only, but even city residents arriving at the station after about 7 a.m. will not see anywhere to park. If you cruise the neighborhood looking for a parking spot, you might not find the other VRE parking lots (down Frederick Street), because the way to them is not obvious. Cruising the neighborhood looking for a parking spot is not a good idea when your train departs in 10 minutes.

The station area could really use some more directional signs on Lafayette Boulevard, Caroline Street and Princess Anne Street directing drivers to the large VRE parking lots.

Once you enter the station, the signs are better, but they could still use some improvement. One posted by CSX Transportation, which owns the railroad, warns, “No trespassing.” Welcome to the station.

A VRE sign warns, “Passengers must purchase and validate tickets prior to boarding trains. Violators subject to a fine of not less than $150.00.” To let you know that VRE means business, the sign cites the Virginia statute in case you want to look it up. Nothing except a small VRE logo after “$150.00” suggests that this restriction does not apply to Amtrak passengers. The sign has confused and worried many Amtrak passengers who expected to buy a ticket on board (you can do that on Amtrak but not on VRE). Maybe Amtrak needs one that says, “Wait! We didn’t mean you!” If you’re not intimidated by the CSX and VRE signs, you can go ahead and legally board an Amtrak train without a ticket.

VRE and CSX make their presence felt at the Fredericksburg station, but Amtrak has a low profile—too low. With service seven days a week, Amtrak has more trains serving the station each week than VRE does, but little information for its passengers. VRE has loudspeaker announcements and scrolling-text displays to inform passengers of delays, ticket machine outages, and changes in service. Amtrak cannot even tell its passengers which track the next train will be on. With a call to the Amtrak toll-free number (800-USA-RAIL) you can find out whether the train was on time leaving Richmond (going north) or Alexandria (going south), but things can go wrong in those 45 or so miles, so the information is not up to the minute, and you can’t get the information at all without seeking it out.

Yes, Amtrak has perennial budget problems, but it also has a hundred or more passengers boarding at the Fredericksburg station each weekday, and Amtrak needs to find a way to tell its passengers (1) that, yes, you can buy a ticket on board, (2) whether your train is on time, and (3) which track it will be on. It will cost Amtrak some effort and money, but Fredericksburg is no longer a flag stop, and it’s time for better passenger services. For Amtrak, it could start with an electronic display that provides train status and a sign that tells Amtrak passengers that they may buy a ticket on board.

VRE could put in signs directing people to the large parking lots on Frederick Street.

For the many new riders of VRE and Amtrak, better communication would make parking and traveling more convenient and help ensure that their first trip is not their last.

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A Hot Time on VRE

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Sep. 7, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.

I expected the 6:17 p.m. train out of Alexandria to be crowded. so I thought I would wait for the delayed 6:00 Amtrak train, which was running half an hour late. But then the 6:17 pulled in; instead of the usual Mafersa cars with their cramped 2-and-3 seating, the train had the commodious Kawasaki bilevels with wider seats and more seats. It was my oldest daughter’s 19th birthday, so I thought I would get home sooner rather than later by getting on board.

I found an empty seat on the lower level and settled in for the one-hour ride to Fredericksburg. I noticed that the lights were off and that the whoosh of the air conditioning was absent. The car wasn’t particularly hot, though, so I figured the power must have gone off momentarily. After a minute or two, the lights came on and the air conditioning was back.

We were about two miles out of Alexandria when the lights went out, the air conditioning went off, and the train coasted to a stop. I heard someone say that this was the third time the train had lost power since leaving Union Station in Washington (about 25 minutes earlier). The conductor announced that the crew was trying to restart the engine—one that is leased from Amtrak and is nearly 30 years old. Uncle Sam, please buy some new engines for Virginia Railway Express.

“Please just make it to Woodbridge,” said a woman’s voice out loud.

“No, Brooke! Brooke!” said a man’s voice.

The temperature outside was in the 90’s, but the sky was cloudy, so the sun wasn’t beating down on the train, but as the minutes ticked by, the atmosphere grew hot and stuffy.

The atmosphere was also relaxed, thanks to a few passengers who encouraged patience and cracked jokes. There were hundreds of people on board, on two levels, so maybe there were pockets of crankiness too somewhere, but on the lower level of the second car, there were some people with a contagious good attitude.

One man called to his buddy a few seats away that they should have stayed and had that beer they’d talked about and taken a later train. A later train, indeed: presently the Amtrak train I’d thought of waiting for blasted past on another track. Even the Metro trains flashing by seemed to mock us; every one was air conditioned.

It could be worse, one man pointed out: we could be heading back to Washington. That had happened to him one night. I laughed, because at that moment the train started rolling back towards Alexandria. It stopped after moving a few feet, however, and we sat some more.

Then the conductor announced that we would be getting off and boarding the last VRE train of the evening. This had me worried, because the last train usually has only four cars and tends to be moderately full, even on a Friday. I didn’t think it would have room for all our train’s passengers, even with a lot of people standing.

Then there was a change of plans: they wouldn’t put us off yet. We would wait for the last VRE train to arrive. (When the conductor passed through our car, he said we would have to get out and push.)

One woman and a friend decided they wanted to get off anyway. They were tired of being cooped up. You don’t want to go out there, a friend cautioned them—it was still hot. “Bugs. Mosquitoes. Snakes.”

“Water buffaloes!” chimed in someone else. Water buffaloes?

When the engineer walked through our car, he said the problem was his fault. “Let’s all get him!” joked someone, and another person mused aloud that it probably wasn’t really the engineer’s fault.

VRE had another change of plans, and a good one: The final VRE train would push ours to Fredericksburg. We were about an hour late when the other train coupled on to ours, and it took a while to connect the cables and hoses and release the brakes. While we were waiting, the last Amtrak train of the evening blasted by. (I could have been on that one too. Sigh.) At last the lights and air conditioning came back on, and we started creeping forward as the other train’s engine labored to move two trains up the grade to Franconia. Then we crested the hill, gained speed, and were on our way.

VRE’s Ann King came through handing out free ride certificates as consolation for the delay. Her cell phone rang, and after listening, she announced the message: Trains 311 and 313 were on the move again. Indeed we were, and in Fredericksburg, where my wife was waiting with the minivan, she got the same message. (One thing I like about the train is that when it breaks, I don’t have to get it fixed. The next morning I was taking the minivan to a garage to get the brakes worked on.)

We arrived at Fredericksburg almost an hour and a half late. The experience wasn’t good, but it wasn’t that bad. VRE kept everyone informed, and I didn’t have to pay for repairing the engine.

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Gunston Road and Martha Custis Drive in Alexandria, Va., three days after the big storm. Photo by Steve Dunham, copyright 2003.

Will We Learn From Winter Woes?

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on March 23, 2003, and is reprinted with permission.

The winter storm on Presidents’ Day weekend brought highway and rail traffic to a skidding stop. For two days I couldn’t get out of our Spotsylvania neighborhood by car, and when I finally started driving again on Tuesday, Feb. 18, Virginia Railway Express still wasn’t running. The commuter railroad, having canceled all service on Monday at the behest of host railroad CSX, was still sidelined.

Dave Snyder, VRE’s superintendent of operations, safety, and security, told the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons that he was ashamed that the trains didn’t run. In his long railroad career, including work on northern lines, he had never seen service shut down completely.

Without a train to take me to work, in late morning on Tuesday, I drove north on I-95, headed for the Franconia-Springfield Metro station. I averaged about 20 miles per hour. Traffic was moving, but just barely.

I was sure that Metro would be running; I didn’t even bother to check the Metro website for service delays. Metro was running, but just barely: trains every half hour instead of the usual off-peak headways of 8 to 10 minutes or so. I saw one train leave, and I had to wait half an hour for the next one. Next I had to walk—the bus routes I ride to work are more than half a mile from the train station. Like all the other pedestrians, I had to walk in the street, because the snow had been plowed from streets and driveways and dumped on the sidewalks. Metrobuses and Dash buses were operating on a Sunday schedule and were rerouted off side streets, but I didn’t have to wait long for a bus to Shirlington. I made it to work in about three and a half hours total.

The storm was unusually harsh for the region, but many things could have been handled better. Two reasons that VRE and Metro exist are to relieve traffic congestion and to give people transportation choices. During and after the storm, these systems didn’t do either very well.

VRE may do better next time, depending on CSX. Snyder said that CSX has agreed to consult with passenger train operators in the future before shutting down the railroad. CSX still might shut down, but maybe the railroad will be a bit more mindful that it can be a better corporate citizen by providing transportation even when things get rough.

Metro might not do any better next time. “Let’s face it, no one is ever really prepared for two feet of snow,” said Jim Gallagher, Metro’s deputy general manager for operations. He said he would give Metro an A for effort and a C for service during and after the storm. But Washington gets 23 inches of snow a year—not usually all at once, it’s true—and Metro, which bills itself as “a convenient and reliable way to travel when local roadways are coated with ice and snow,” needs to get itself ready. There will be more snowstorms in the future, and if federal offices are open, a huge number of workers will want to ride Metro to work whether the system is ready or not.

Walking is—or should be—a transportation choice too, especially when governments are urging people not to drive. Yet pedestrian facilities seem to be dead last on the list for snow removal, when they are on the list at all, and often they are treated as expendable. This merely encourages more people to drive in the worst weather, because the parking lots and roads will be cleared early, but the sidewalks will not.

In the next big snowstorm, we might have VRE running at least some trains; otherwise it is likely to be the same mess all over again.

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Kawasaki bilevels at Fredericksburg
Kawasaki bilevels at Fredericksburg (photo © 2002 Steve Dunham)
Gallery cars at Washington
Gallery cars at Washington (photo © 2001 Steve Dunham)
Sounders at Alexandria
Sounders at Alexandria (photo © 2002 Steve Dunham)

VRE Reaches Higher to Accommodate Passengers

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on March 9, 2003, and is reprinted with permission.

Virginia Railway Express may soon have all bilevel passenger cars, and this is what VRE needs, according to Dave Snyder, the commuter rail line’s Superintendent of Operations, Safety, and Security. Addressing the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons’ annual meeting in Ashland, Va., on March 1, he said that VRE cannot run longer trains or more trains: there is no room in Washington to store more trains during the day. As it is, he said, VRE “floats” one train every day, so that one is always out on the line on midday trips to Manassas or Fredericksburg. By juggling its trains this way, each weekday morning VRE sends to Washington one more train than can fit in the storage yard.

VRE would like to acquire more land in Washington for train storage, but so far has not found any at a reasonable price. Real estate in Washington is so expensive, said Snyder, that you have to build up, not out. Comparing railroad passenger cars to houses, he noted that nobody builds ranch houses in downtown Washington, and said that VRE must do the same and run a fleet that is all bilevel cars.

VRE began operations in 1992 with a fleet of single-level cars built by the Brazilian manufacturer Mafersa. In 1999, VRE acquired 13 bilevel Kawasaki cars. In 2001, VRE purchased 19 used gallery cars from the Chicago-area commuter railroad Metra. Then, about one year ago, VRE placed into service two bilevel trains leased from Seattle’s Sound Transit. Since then VRE has leased a third set of Sounders.

All these are “bilevel” cars, and all except the gallery cars are truly double-deckers; the gallery cars have upstairs balconies, but there’s no second floor; everybody is in the same “room.”

This assortment of passenger cars has enabled VRE to provide a seat for almost every rider. VRE is now carrying more than 14,000 one-way riders a day (7,000-plus round trips), operating some trains of the original single-deck Mafersa cars. Although these can seat 100 passengers each, Snyder says that their capacity is too low for VRE’s needs. Bilevel cars can hold 145 to 160 passengers each, and in coming months, VRE will get closer to having an all-bilevel fleet. Sound Transit is having trouble getting permission from its host railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, to run more trains, so while the Sounder surplus sits idle for the time being, VRE hopes to lease a fourth train. And because the refurbished gallery cars proved rough-riding, VRE has been rebuilding them with improved suspension and better seats. Snyder said that VRE plans to put seven more gallery cars back in service.

With more Sounders and gallery cars, said Snyder, VRE could provide seats for 16,000 one-way trips a day, but he expects VRE to “reach 16,000 fairly quickly.”

Long-term solutions to the capacity crunch involve running VRE trains through to Baltimore and running Maryland Rail Commuter trains through to Alexandria, but right now two crucial stations—L’Enfant Plaza and Crystal City—have platforms for only one track, and that one track can’t handle rush-hour traffic in two directions, so run-through service is years away.

VRE also will stay in the market for track space in Washington to store more trains during the day.

Finally, VRE will need to purchase more bilevel cars of its own. Sometime in the next few years, Sound Transit will need its cars back, and the gallery cars, already 40-plus years old, will be ready for permanent retirement. To provide enough seats for its growing crowd of passengers, VRE will need a large chunk of cash. If the number of passengers greatly exceeds the number of seats, a lot of riders for whom driving is an option will be back on I-95.

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VRE’s Strategy to Accommodate Growth

By Steve Dunham

This column originally appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on August 18, 2002, and is reproduced by permission.

The Virginia Railway Express Operations Board has endorsed Phase 1 of a strategic plan to accommodate a 50 percent growth in riders over the next 8 years. VRE is now carrying about 6,000 round-trip riders each weekday, and expects that number to grow to 9,000 by 2010. However, VRE has been working hard just to provide seats and parking for those 6,000 people, and it will need major capital investments to keep up with the growth.

Historically, VRE has spent $13 million to $15 million per year on capital projects. To meet projected growth, that funding must more than double, to between $29 million and $46 million per year. That money would pay mostly for additional railcars and expanded parking. Some of the increase would be expected to come from the federal government, but VRE expects that $6.1 million to $10.9 million a year would be needed from state and local sources.

VRE’s chief operating officer, Pete Sklannik, emphasizes that the strategic plan is just that: a plan, not a budget. But if VRE can get the money, it would order new railcars to add capacity to existing trains and to increase the number of weekday trains from 32 to 40. Even if VRE could order new trains today, however, they would not be delivered for years. Dozens of new cars would be required by 2010 to accommodate all the passengers VRE expects to carry.

To provide the needed capacity in the meantime, VRE has leased three new double-deck trainsets leased from Seattle’s “Sounder” system. These trains, which have proven popular with riders, are operating on the Manassas line, but they may see service on the Fredericksburg line in the near future.

VRE also has purchased 19 second-hand gallery coaches from Chicago’s Metra system. These have proven unpopular with passengers because the seats are relatively hard and the cars are rough-riding. However, VRE needs the seating capacity and is rebuilding the cars with new seats (chosen by the passengers) and improved suspension.

Even with the gallery and Sounder cars, five trains on the Fredericksburg line and three on the Manassas line regularly fill up, and the Sounders and gallery cars are only a temporary solution. They will need to be replaced by new equipment—the Sounders in 2003 and 2004, when they must be returned to Seattle, and the gallery cars in 2009 or 2010, when they should be retired. VRE estimates that 35 to 45 new cars would be required.

VRE is aiming for a totally fleet of passenger cars, because the storage capacity during the day, when most trains are not in use, is already at its limit. There are no more tracks available for VRE storage in Washington. The only way to increase train capacity is by fitting more passengers into a train of the same length. Bilevel cars are the answer. Even with the shift away from the unpopular 3-and-2 seating of the single-deck cars, the bilevel trains, with two seats on each side of the aisle, can still seat more people per car and do so comfortably. Creating a totally bilevel fleet would require about 40 more cars (a total of 85 new cars).

If the life of VRE’s current locomotives can be extended through overhauls, then only a handful of new engines would be needed for VRE to run 40 trains a day in 2010.

The other capacity crunch addressed in VRE’s Phase 1 strategic plan is parking. By 2010, VRE expects to need at least 1,150 more parking spaces, perhaps as many as 3,360. VRE is already committed to adding about 300 more spaces each at Fredericksburg, Manassas Airport, and Manassas Park. Woodbridge will get a new lot that could be expanded into a garage, and plans are in the works to expand parking at Lorton and Rippon as well.

In its Phase 1 strategic plan VRE will basically be running to keep up. But what if VRE has more than 9,000 round-trip riders by 2010? One year ago, in the summer of 2001, VRE had projected its short-term ridership growth, and the estimate was obsolete by mid-September, when passengers flocked to VRE to escape congestion on I-395 in the area of the Pentagon. Although the congestion has been somewhat alleviated, many of the new riders never went back to the highway, and VRE’s growth projections—only a few months old—were already eclipsed.

That’s why VRE is beginning Phase 2: to study the demand for service and the opportunities for growth beyond the obvious current needs. A safe bet is that Virginians will want, and get, more passenger trains.

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It’s High Time for Spotsylvania to Get on Board VRE

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star on July 21, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.

It’s time for Spotsylvania to join the other forward-looking counties and cities that participate in funding Virginia Railway Express. The 10-year-old rail system provides an important service to the county and is used and appreciated by countless residents. I commute to Arlington on VRE, but the seven other members of my family also use VRE, several times a year. I am certain that this pattern is repeated throughout the county and that the commuters represent a fraction of the Spotsylvania residents who use VRE. The families I have seen traveling to Washington for the day, the people I have spoken to who are traveling to and from National Airport, and individuals attending conferences in northern Virginia or Washington all indicate that a large number of Spotsylvania residents use the service.

As a matter of responsibility to its neighbors and its citizens, Spotsylvania should participate in funding VRE. However, there are other reasons.

A station at Crossroads Industrial Park near New Post, where VRE trains spend the night, would provide a more easily accessible station for many Spotsylvania residents traveling north and, eventually, south. The station could include a mainline platform so that trains en route to and from Richmond could serve the station.

Furthermore, the industrial park could become a destination once VRE service is extended beyond Spotsylvania and once reverse-flow rush-hour train service begins. These events may be years in the future, but Spotsylvania should be looking toward the future and developing a greater industrial tax base in this area. With a railroad station, Crossroads would also be a possible location for a major conference center that could attract clients from as far away as Washington and Richmond.

Spotsylvania needs to emphasize development that is not totally dependent on road travel. The increasing congestion in our county is exacerbated by development such as the new Capital One offices that are in sight of a major residential development—Lee Hill—but virtually inaccessible from there by foot. The Spotsylvania Fred service is a small positive step, but, again looking at the example of Capital One, the buses run every one to two hours and the schedule does not lend itself to getting county residents to and from work.

Improved public transportation improves communities. Much of Spotsylvania County is continuing a transition from rural to suburban. Participation in VRE not only would offer a benefit to residents who use the service for many purposes besides commuting, it would raise the overall quality of life for county residents.

Participation need not be costly. In fact, it could reduce the tax burden on county residents. The gas tax that the county would be authorized to levy would partly fund VRE and partly be available for other purposes, and a significant proportion of the tax would be paid by travelers who are not county residents but who are passing through or visiting the county. Even for residents, the tax would be minuscule. I estimate that I pay fifty cents per month in gasoline tax to support VRE. Yes, I go out of my way to pay the tax: I buy gas in Fredericksburg.

In the long run, Virginia Railway Express should be funded by the state rather than the cities and counties, and service should be statewide. The Virginia Association of Railway Patrons is working toward that goal. Meanwhile, however, Spotsylvania should join the other counties and cities in supporting VRE financially to benefit county residents, improve the quality of life, and foster the growth of the industrial tax base.

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Evening on the Train With George

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Dec. 9, 2001, and is reprinted by permission.


The man who was calling George did not need a cell phone. I’m sure George heard him all the way from Washington.

The caller was sitting right behind me on the train. Napping, for me, was out of the question. Reading was out of the question. I and everyone else on the train heard half of the exchange with George. The question was whether Mr. Volume would shut up any time soon. Springfield, Lorton, Woodbridge, Rippon, and still he was loudly addressing George.


Maybe his fellow passengers smashed it.


I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t want to make the headlines with the first case of train rage.


God bless the U.S. Marines.


Thanks for the heads-up.

Quantico, Brooke. The ringing in my ears died down. Somewhere, I suppose, George was waiting for another call. Josh was picking up the pieces of his phone from the floor of another train.

Beep, beep, beep-beep-beep. Uh-oh.

“HELLO, STEVE?” No, he wasn’t talking to me. He could have lowered his voice and I still would have heard him fine. He did think of someone else to call. Drat.

Only ten minutes till Fredericksburg, but I saw my opportunity. The train was finally emptying out. I grabbed my ticket and other belongings and bolted. I got so far away I could hear the rest of the conversation only dimly.


Since Amtrak added “quiet cars” to some of its trains, passengers have been clamoring—er, whispering?—for more. (In “quiet cars,” cell phones are not permitted.)

Virginia Railway Express passengers are ready for quiet cars too.

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Watch Out for Bowling Balls on VRE

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star April 2, 2000, and is reproduced here by permission.

April 1 marks the beginning of the new Virginia Railway Express safety campaign, featuring the theme “Stay off the luggage racks.” The new slogan took first prize in a contest run by VRE, edging out other safety-minded proverbs such as “Do not leave banana peels on the floor” and “Be careful with bowling balls.”

The problems with the luggage racks began when passengers misinterpreted last year’s poster, which featured two VRE employees lounging in a luggage rack. “The intent was to get passengers to keep their baggage off the seats,” said a VRE spokesman. “In hindsight, I guess we should have known that people would imitate the poster.” The spokesman, Matt Benka, who prefers to remain unnamed, thinks that the message of the poster was clear enough, and points out that it showed employees in the luggage rack. “People should have realized that lounging in the luggage rack is for members of the train crew only,” he said.

The question remains of why passengers find the luggage racks so attractive, so I asked two people who were climbing down from the luggage racks as our train arrived in Fredericksburg one evening. “The seats on these Brazilian cars are too close together,” said one. “The luggage rack is the only place you can really stretch out and take a nap.” VRE acknowledges that the cars’ design dates from a time “when people were shorter.”

The other passenger said he was just trying to be a good neighbor and free up a few seats. He said that he used to require a three-person seat for himself, his laptop, his briefcase, his coat, his hat, his gloves, and his scarf. “But I would occupy only two seats in the summer,” he pointed out. “Instead, now I stretch out in the luggage rack and make more room for everybody else.” He said he is unhappy with the new safety campaign because he thinks he will be forced to occupy three seats again. “VRE should have chosen my slogan,” he griped. “It was ‘Be careful with bowling balls.’ But obviously the contest was rigged.”

VRE responds that the luggage rack theme was chosen because passengers climbing in and out of the racks are causing the most problems, but acknowledges that bowling balls are a serious issue as well. “We would never put it on a poster,” said Benka, “but we used to think that a person who takes up three seats is just being selfish. However, we learned that these people have been hit in the head by bowling balls.”

An unpublicized study by the National Transportation Safety Board showed that people were putting their bowling balls into the overhead luggage racks because the bowling balls tended to get away if left on the floor. “Vehicle acceleration, deceleration, and side sway impart a rotating motion to heavy spherical objects occupying the vehicle deck,” according to the 1999 study.

“We didn’t want to come right out and say ‘bowling balls’ because it would sound silly,” said a Safety Board spokeswoman who spoke only on condition of anonymity. Nevertheless, she insisted, bowling balls rolling around the car floor caused such a hazard that passengers started putting them in the overhead racks instead. The study reported that bowling balls are indeed less likely to roll around in the luggage racks, but that when they get loose, they tend to cause more serious injuries than if left on the floor.

Although VRE claims an outstanding safety record, the behavior of a substantial number of passengers indicates that they may have suffered bowling ball injuries.

Steve Roberts, VRE’s operations director, denies that his imminent departure has anything to do with the bowling ball problem. “I have learned from the experience, though,” he said. In his new job starting up a commuter rail system in Georgia, he plans to propose special cars for bowling. “Converted baggage cars would be ideal: no windows to break, and pin-resetting machines like they have in bowling alleys would retrieve and return the balls, making it so much safer for everybody.”

As for the luggage racks, the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons has endorsed the new safety campaign, but has asked VRE to consider adding sleeping cars to the trains, noting that the more relaxing accommodations should be provided at no extra charge to anyone traveling at least 50 miles.

Finally, I wish all my fellow commuters a Happy April Fool’s Day.

Steve Dunham commutes 50 miles on VRE from Fredericksburg to Crystal City.

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2,300 HP Takes You to Work

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star March 5, 2000, and is reproduced here by permission. It incorporates corrections kindly provided by VRE’s operations director at the time, Steve Roberts.

When the snow started to fall, I used to brag that I go to work in a vehicle with 2,000 horsepower and a built-in snowplow. True, VRE’s diesel locomotives pack a lot of power—actually 2,300 to 3,000 horsepower—and Iöve never seen one stopped (or even slowed down) by snow. I soon learned, however, that winter weather can foul up railroad operations no matter how much brute force a train can apply to snow. Switches and signals, for example, being electrical, are vulnerable to extremes of temperature and moisture. No train I’ve ridden this winter has been more than 13 minutes late, however, although some Virginia Railway Express riders have chanced upon worse, notably an extra midday train on January 25 that ran over an hour late.

So during my own commute on snowy days, I put aside my reading and enjoyed the view. After all, I reminded myself, up in New England people pay just to ride special trains to look at the snowy countryside. If you’re riding through it and not driving through it, Northern Virginia looks very good covered in snow and ice—especially if your vehicle has 2,300 horsepower and a built-in snowplow, which brings us back to the engine.

Heading north, the engine is normally in back—literally. VRE trains operate in “push-pull” mode: the train can be driven from the locomotive cab or from a cab in the coach at the other end of the train. The engines can push the train or pull it, or both—some VRE trains run with an engine at each end. Having heard that track space in Washington is at a premium, I wondered why VRE would bother with two engines on a train with three or four coaches. Surely one could do the job, so why not use just one and make room for one more coach, which means another hundred seats? I asked the VRE crew one morning and learned that the second engine is the “protect” engine. It’s available in case of a breakdown on one of the trains. Running it on a train during rush hour keeps it with the rest of the fleet and means it’s likely to be closer to a trouble spot than if it were left sitting in Washington or Spotsylvania. (Yes, the trains go to Spotsylvania, but there is no station, owing to the county’s refusal to invest in any transportation that doesn’t use roads. VRE has a layover facility at Crossroads Industrial Park just south of the Route 17 bypass, near New Post.)

Sometimes the second engine looks like … North Carolina Railway Express? Yes, almost. VRE’s newest engine is from North Carolina, which has an ambitious rail passenger program that funds two daily trains between Charlotte and Raleigh (one, the Carolinian, goes all the way to New York and stops in Fredericksburg). North Carolina is also examining possible commuter rail routes and is acquiring new locomotives, making a rebuilt one available to VRE. It ran for a while with the words “North Carolina” in huge letters on its sides. Its parentage soon became railroad trivia because of a makeover beauty treatment erasing the words “North Carolina” and advertising the engine’s new ownership.

In fact, all of VRE’s locomotives are previously owned. The original group of 10, in service since 1992, were actually built in 1970 as GP (“general purpose”) engines. After rebuilding, they were redesignated “RP39” and numbered V01 through V10, rated at 2,300 horsepower. A generator provides power for lights, heating, and air conditioning in the coaches. Another four engines, V20 through V23, have 3,000 horsepower. The newest engine, V24 from North Carolina, also boasts 3,000 horsepower.

What’s behind (or in front of) the engines is another story. For the moment, passengers on the Fredericksburg line must be content with the newer coaches built in Brazil by Mafersa (the cars with five-across seating) and the second-hand Budd coaches (with two seats on each side of the aisle) and cafes. VRE has acquired 13 bilevel cars from Kawasaki, and a few are in service on the Manassas line. The Fredericksburg line, VRE promises, is next.

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How Fast Is VRE?

By Steve Dunham

Parts of this article appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star Feb. 6, 2000, and are reproduced here by permission.

Virginia Railway Express trains cover the 54 miles from Fredericksburg to Washington Union Station in 1 hour, 28 minutes, for an average of 36.8 miles per hour, counting 10 intermediate stops. Although the track speed limit is 70 miles per hour most of the way, all VRE trains operate as locals, making every stop.

In addition, several Amtrak trains carry a decent load of commuters. Since VRE monthly and 10-trip tickets are valid on Amtrak trains between Fredericksburg and Washington, I think it’s fair to count those Amtrak trains when considering the speed of commuting on the Fredericksburg line. Number 93, departing Washington at 5:39 p.m., is one of the busiest. Making two intermediate stops, it is scheduled to reach Fredericksburg 1 hour and 9 minutes later, for an average speed of 47 miles per hour including stops.

Speed on the Manassas line is much less impressive. VRE covers the 36 miles from Manassas Airport to Washington in 1 hour 15 minutes, for an average speed of 28.8 miles per hour, including eight intermediate stops. Amtrak’s Cardinal and Crescent also carry VRE riders between Washington and Manassas, averaging about 37 miles per hour with only one stop, at Alexandria. Only the Crescent comes close to serving the rush-hour trade however, and inbound to Washington neither the Crescent (from New Orleans) nor the Cardinal (from Chicago) is particularly reliable for local travel, since the trains originate hundreds of miles away, with many opportunities for delay before they arrive at Manassas.

As commuter trains go, is this good or bad? How does VRE stack up against other regional rail systems? I looked at schedules for other comparable lines around the country—trains going a similar distance and making about the same number of stops—and found that VRE’s Fredericksburg line is near the middle of the pack, while the Manassas line is one of the slowest among comparable services.

The Fredericksburg Line

On suburban lines of about 54 miles with about 10 intermediate stops—in other words, equivalent to VRE’s Fredericksburg line—out front is New Jersey Transit’s line between New York and Trenton, with an average speed of 42.4 miles per hour for 58 miles with 10 intermediate stops. (An express that makes only two intermediate stops is the queen of commuter trains, averaging 52.7 miles per hour.) The Trenton line trains are riding on Amtrak’s coattails, however: this is the main line between New York and Washington, where Metroliners blast by at 125 miles per hour, maintaining an average speed of 75 including stops.

In other places, operations similar to VRE’s Fredericksburg line tend to have average speeds in the upper 30s. For example, four Metra lines out of Chicago to points 50 to 55 miles away (Fox Lake, McHenry, Kenosha, and Antioch) have average speeds ranging from 36.6 to 39.5 miles per hour, with about 10 intermediate stops.

At the low end of the survey, though not far behind VRE, is the Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad, which covers the 56 miles between Chicago and Michigan City in 1 hour 38 minutes, making 12 stops, for an average speed of 34.2 miles per hour. In one respect, the South Shore operation is very similar to VRE’s: the train makes several stops close to the city center.

The Manassas Line

VRE’s Manassas line trails the pack of comparable services. Number one, and another rider on Amtrak’s coattails, is MARC’s line between Washington and Baltimore’s Penn Station. With top speeds of 110 miles per hour, MARC trains cover the 40 miles in 53 minutes making seven intermediate stops, for an average of 45.2 miles per hour. A distant second is the Metra route between Chicago and Geneva, covering 36 miles in 57 minutes with nine intermediate stops, for an average of 37.9 miles per hour.

Next above VRE’s Manassas line are the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s lines from Boston to Haverhill and Rockport, tied at 31.8 miles per hour. Both lines are 35 miles long and both have eight intermediate stops. All other comparable services ranged from 32.3 miles per hour (Philadelphia–West Trenton) to 37.5 miles per hour (Chicago-Aurora).

Why the Low Speed?

VRE’s stops at Alexandria, Crystal City, and L’Enfant Plaza are a top reason for VRE’s usefulness and partly responsible for its modest overall speed. Passengers have a direct ride on VRE to stations within a few blocks of major employment centers, but VRE trains make long stops at those stations. Furthermore, because of sharp curves and complex terminal trackage, VRE travels at low speed for the final four miles between Crystal City and Union Station.

For just the 46 miles between Fredericksburg and Alexandria, VRE covers the distance in 62 minutes, for a very respectable average speed of 44.5 miles per hour. Amtrak does even better, covering the distance in 52 minutes.

This leads to another question: How fast could VRE go?

In the 1960s, the speed limit on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac (now part of CSX) was 79, not 70, miles per hour. VRE Operations Director Steve Roberts says that the track and signals would permit a return to that speed.

Another limiting factor is the time spent at stations. VRE trains (except for the new bilevels) do not have automatic doors, so trains usually load and unload through no more than half their doors.

A third factor is the number of stops. On the Fredericksburg line, VRE has added two (Lorton and Franconia-Springfield) since the service began in 1992. Both are lightly used, and two other stations—Brooke and Rippon—have relatively few riders. With Fredericksburg trains generally running about 35 minutes apart, however, making any train an express would create an unacceptable gap of more than an hour between trains at the skipped stations.

But if VRE could add one express train with automatic doors and a top speed of 79, how quickly could it make the trip to Washington? I estimate that it could reach Union Station in 1 hour and 10 minutes, shaving 18 minutes off the trip. Although CSX limits VRE to six trains each way, that might change soon. With state investment to boost speeds and add track capacity between Washington and Richmond, both VRE and Amtrak expect to add trains to the line, running faster and more often.

The Manassas line may have less opportunity for faster service, since no increase in the speed limit appears imminent, and even between Alexandria and Manassas Airport, the average speed is a meager 31.1 miles per hour. However, the introduction of the bilevel cars with their automatic doors should provide an opportunity for reduced time at stations.

Fredericksburg line comparison

Railroad Route Miles Intermediate
Time Avg. Speed
NJ Transit Trenton–New York 58 10 1:22 42.4
Metro-North New York–Bridgeport 55 9 1:22 40.2
Metra Chicago-Kenosha 52 9 1:19 39.5
Metra Chicago-Antioch 55 12 1:25 38.8
Metro-North New York–Brewster 53 10 1:23 38.3
LIRR New York–Ronkonkoma 50 9 1:19 38.0
NJ Transit Long Branch–New York 51 8 1:21 37.8
Metra Chicago-McHenry 51 7 1:21 37.8
VRE Fredericksburg-Washington 54 10 1:28 36.8
Metra Chicago–Fox Lake 50 10 1:22 36.6
CSS&SB Chicago–Michigan City 56 12 1:38 34.2

Manassas line comparison

Railroad Route Miles Intermediate
Time Avg. Speed
MARC Washington-Baltimore 40 7 0:53 45.2
Metra Chicago-Geneva 36.0 9 0:57 37.9
MBTA Boston-Attleboro 32 6 0:51 37.6
SEPTA Trenton–Phila. Market E. 35 8 0:56 37.5
Metra Chicago-Aurora 38 8 1:01 37.4
Metro-North New York–Stamford 33 7 0:54 36.6
LIRR New York–Babylon 38 7 1:03 36.2
MBTA Boston-Plymouth 36 6 1:00 36
LIRR New York–Huntington 37 8 1:02 35.8
MARC Washington–Balt. Camden 37 8 1:03 35.2
Metra Chicago–University Park 36 8 1:03 34.3
Metro-North New York–Croton-Harmon 33 9 0:58 34.1
Metra Chicago-Elgin 37 9 1:06 33.6
NJ Transit Jersey Ave.–New York 35 9 1:02 33.3
SEPTA W. Trenton–Phila. Market E. 34 10 1:03 32.3
MBTA Boston-Haverhill 35 8 1:06 31.8
MBTA Boston-Rockport 35 8 1:06 31.8
VRE Manassas-Washington 36 8 1:15 28.8

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Christmas Spirit Rides the Rails

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star Dec. 12, 1999, and is reproduced here by permission.

The Christmas spirit—in the sense of peace and good will—is a regular rider on the Virginia Railway Express trains. I don’t just mean the Santa excursion trains running this weekend on the Fredericksburg line, although they do give families a holiday outing together without the stress or distractions of driving, or the VRE holiday collection of toys for disadvantaged children, to which many passengers generously contribute. I mean things that are in ever scarcer supply on the highways: courtesy, patience and even kindness.

Maybe it’s because many rail riders choose the train precisely to escape the rudeness, impatience and hostility dished out on the roads to strangers as well as neighbors. Perhaps people seeking a touch of tranquillity are willing to preserve it by exercising a little thoughtfulness.

Not that we don’t have a few grinches on board: people hogging three seats, or driving on the sidewalk as a shortcut to the station, or tailgating their neighbors into the parking lot.

The majority of passengers, though, display consideration for others. Whereas a stranger on the road driving slowly while looking for an unfamiliar street is likely to get the opposite of Southern hospitality, a first-time rider struggling with the ticket vending machine will normally attract help.

People look out for each other, especially when they leave behind their possessions or tickets. Once my keys fell out of my pocket and were sitting on the seat when I was getting off the train. A man across the aisle noticed, grabbed the keys, and stopped me. Although VRE runs a lost-and-found service, I’m sure that a lot of lost items get returned by other passengers before the train crews ever get a chance to find them.

Most railroad trouble is taken good-naturedly too. A few weeks ago, boarding the 5:30 train out of Crystal City, I heard a man saying that this train had recently made the trip to Fredericksburg with the lights off. As we pulled out of the station, the lights went out, and I heard a woman addressing him liltingly: “You jinxed us!” There was only a little grumbling from passengers, and a few made lemonades out of the lemons. “Now we can see out. We should do this all the time!” I heard one man say. (VRE windows are so heavily tinted that, except in brightly lit areas, riding after dark is like riding in a tunnel.) The lights were on and off the rest of the way to Fredericksburg, confounding both those trying to read and those trying to sleep, but there was little complaining. (Let me add that in three and a half years of commuting on VRE, this was only the second time I was on a train that lost its lights. If it happened more often, even usually complacent passengers might lose their cool.)

Passengers also tend to be generous in helping strangers. On the infamous when day lightning struck the CSX dispatching center in Jacksonville, Fla., shutting down VRE (not to mention rail lines as far away as Michigan), one woman at the Alexandria station who had arranged a ride home went around asking whether anyone else wanted a ride.

The VRE crews have a lot to do with the courtesy that prevails. They are unfailingly helpful and cheerful—and that’s saying a lot for people who deal with the public, even such civilized types as VRE riders tend to be.

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Union Works to Give VRE Riders a Better Trip

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on Aug. 22, 1999, and is reproduced here by permission.

The United Transportation Union wants to give Virginia Railway Express riders a better, safer trip, said the UTU’s Ray Cunningham. With Labor Day approaching, I spoke with him to find out what difference the union makes to VRE passengers. The UTU represents the conductors and assistant conductors on the VRE and Amtrak trains that serve Fredericksburg.

VRE’s crews are popular with passengers, who often greet the crew members by name. The crews have built a reputation for being polite and helpful, taking time to assist new riders and usually giving passengers a prompt explanation of the least delay.

The VRE crews are Amtrak employees, and most of them work VRE trains as their regular assignment. Daily contact with the same passengers may contribute to the bonhomie of the VRE crews; somehow the crews on Amtrak’s Northeast Direct trains serving Fredericksburg don’t seem as uniformly friendly. Cunningham attributed that perception to the fact that Amtrak trains are not commuter trains. Often the Amtrak trains are sold out, he said, and the crew will try to find seats for VRE passengers, but may be unable to. Also, VRE passengers occasionally see empty seats in a Business Class car, he explained, and wonder why they can’t sit there. “We can’t put six-dollar passengers in Business Class,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair to Amtrak coach passengers who paid twenty dollars for their ticket.” Another time that VRE passengers may not be permitted into an empty coach is when space is reserved for a large group (such as a school class) boarding together farther down the line, and the car is being held for them.

Cunningham also noted that priority boarding at stations such as Washington Union Station may bother some VRE passengers, who are last to get on. He explained that intercity trains let the elderly, the handicapped, and families with children board first; passengers holding VRE tickets must yield to these Amtrak passengers. (I’ve noticed that VRE riders boarding Amtrak trains do tend to courteously step aside and let not only those priority passengers but anybody with luggage get on first.)

Cunningham feels that more education of commuters about the way intercity trains operate—often with all seats reserved (and sold out) and giving priority to passengers who are traveling hundreds of miles—would alleviate any feelings VRE commuters have about Amtrak train crews being less friendly to them.

Nevertheless, VRE passengers make up a high proportion of the riders on some Amtrak trains that pass through northern Virginia during rush hour, and the crews do their best to accommodate them. He pointed out that a train may depart Richmond with a hundred people on board, concentrated in maybe two coaches; when it gets to Fredericksburg, the crew will try to direct the crowd of commuters into relatively empty cars.

The union always looks for ways to serve passengers better, said Cunningham, expressing concern about the VRE “honor system” of validating tickets. The crew is supposed to examine all tickets to see that they are valid, but sometimes a train will have so many passengers or will be short a crew member and the conductors won’t have time to check them all. He’s sure VRE is losing revenue because of this. He also said that passengers who forget to validate their ticket face a possible penalty of $150, and that people worry about unintentionally boarding without a validated ticket. To alleviate these problems, the union is proposing “a ticket that we punch,” he said. If all ticket validation were done on board, honest passengers wouldn’t have to worry and dishonest ones would be more easily caught.

The union has also been discussing with VRE ways to improve passenger safety at Quantico, where the trains usually block the crossing when they stop, and people on the wrong platform still have to get across the tracks.

Cunningham noted that the union always has a dialog going with VRE. “We have a very good relationship,” he said.

The United Transportation Union members also follow the labor tradition of volunteerism. Cunningham said that a lot of the union members participate in Operation Lifesaver, an industry grade-crossing safety program. VRE conductors go to class for training and then visit schools to talk about safety around railroad tracks. They do this on their own time, outside of working hours.

With such dedicated UTU members taking them to and from work, VRE riders do have something to celebrate on Labor Day.

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Local Railroad Control Needed in Emergencies

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on June 27, 1999 and is reproduced here by permission.

The June 3 debacle on CSX, affecting trains all over the South, showed the folly of dispatching thousands of miles of railroad from one center with no alternative for local control. When a lightning strike in Jacksonville, Fla., disabled not only CSX Transportation’s signal system but its communications, the railroad was unable to move its trains for hours. Neither VRE nor Amtrak was able to transport passengers over CSX rails, paralyzing the movement of thousands of people in the evening rush hour.

The railroad’s signals reflect the presence of trains or the alignment of tracks determined by a dispatcher. A train ahead on the same track will be indicated by a red or yellow signal, depending on its distance. Also, a dispatcher can line up the track for a train, giving red signals to any conflicting movements by other trains. The system is excellent for preventing collisions, but, being powered by electricity, is vulnerable to power outages.

VRE commuters have experienced lightning-induced delays before. A thunderstorm sometimes knocks out the signals locally. This creates delays but does not paralyze the railroad. Trains follow a stop-and-proceed rule similar to the right-on-red rule for drivers, although this safety rule is enforced. A train coming to a red signal (or a dark signal, displaying no colored light) can obtain permission from the dispatcher to continue at 15 miles per hour until encountering a green or yellow signal or another train.

On June 3, trains did not have even this option. They could not get permission to proceed even at 15 miles per hour. I was on VRE train 307 when it left King Street in Alexandria on time at 5:39 p.m., due in Fredericksburg at 6:46. A half-mile farther, near Telegraph Road, we stopped. Presently the conductor announced that the dispatching center in Jacksonville had lost power and that we could not move until power was restored. VRE had no idea when that might be. If we had been able to move at 15 miles per hour, we would have reached Fredericksburg around 8:45—two hours late, but a big improvement over what really happened.

Instead, like the Gumbie Cat in Cats, we sat, and sat, and sat and sat. We were only a few steps from Dove Street in Alexandria, but the train crew forbade passengers to abandon the train—too dangerous, although the chance of being hit by a moving train was zero. The Fredericksburg-area passengers mostly stayed put. Where would we go? Call home? “Hi, honey. I’m in Alexandria. It’s only 45 miles. Can you come get me?” Well, a few people did end up calling home.

Meanwhile, as we waited, the conductor walked along the tracks back to the Alexandria station, verified that there were no trains in the way and no switches to cross, and asked for permission to back the train to the station. Permission denied.

After two and a half hours, as the sun was going down, the crew had no idea when we might move, and relented and gave us permission to get off. Maybe they realized that it was safer to let people walk the gravel while there was still some daylight. Ten minutes later I joined the milling throng at the Alexandria station. I learned from other commuters of an announcement that buses would take us home from the Franconia-Springfield Metro station.

Hundreds of VRE passengers were waiting for buses at Franconia-Springfield. I went in search of a phone without a queue of people waiting to use it, and spotted one on the VRE platform. Then I saw—oh, no!—train 307, my train, just out of reach, pull into the station and, with no passengers waiting to board, depart for Fredericksburg mostly empty. All the passengers were hundreds of feet away at the bus platform, out of sight. The trains were moving again, but no one had told the train crew that their passengers had been sent to Franconia-Springfield. Around 9:45 a bus collected the last passengers for Brooke, Leeland Road, and Fredericksburg. I got off in Fredericksburg at 10:59.

The nightmare should not have lasted so long, however. Thousands of miles of railroad should not be totally dependent on a dispatcher in Jacksonville. Lightning will strike again. Hurricanes will come. When they do, CSX needs local dispatchers with authority to move trains until central control can be restored.

The lightning was an “act of God”—not that I blame Him. If I could shoot lightning bolts, CSX would have gotten zapped a long time ago. The severe restrictions imposed by CSX, however, were an act of stupidity, not safety. As the VRE conductor verified, there would have been no danger in backing train 307 into the station. Better yet, the trains could have proceeded, as we have done before, at 15 miles per hour. And while passengers have an obligation to obey the train crew, purchasing a ticket does not imply consent to remain on board indefinitely.

Fortunately, the incident was rare. Aspects of it, though, were needless. CSX must let its people, and not just its technology, run the railroad. When trouble comes—and it will—let common sense rule and let the people on the spot run the trains slowly and safely.

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The Crew Makes or Breaks a Train Trip

By Steve Dunham

This column appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg, VA, Free Lance–Star on May 2, 1999 and is reproduced here by permission.

“That’s your mistake,” the Amtrak conductor told two Virginia Railway Express commuters who found themselves on a train heading into Maryland. The departure sign at Union Station had told them which stairway to use for the Amtrak train heading to Richmond, so they had hurried down the steps and gotten onto the train that was sitting there. Within moments they found themselves heading north out of the station. Next stop: New Carrollton, Md. The conductor’s pitiless remark did nothing to lighten the frustration of the delay in returning home. Fortunately the VRE passengers were able to board the Metro Orange Line at New Carrollton, but they still faced a nine-mile ride back to Washington so they could start their trip over in the right direction.

For better or worse, railroad passengers from the Fredericksburg area are hosted by Amtrak personnel, who also operate the VRE trains under contract. While Amtrak people run the gamut from gracious to surly, fortunately those who regularly work on the VRE trains are among the best. A train rarely makes an unscheduled stop without an announcement explaining the delay and an estimation of its duration. “Ladies and gentlemen, could I have your attention, please. We’re stopped here for a freight train ahead of us that’s having mechanical difficulties” is a typical announcement. “The freight train should be moving shortly and get out of our way at Quantico.” Sometimes the delays are worse, but usually the train is back on schedule by the time we get to Alexandria, and almost always the delay is explained.

Not all Amtrak crew members are so forthright. More than once I’ve been on an Amtrak train that sat in the middle of nowhere, and sat, and sat, and none of the crew bothered to tell the passengers why we were going nowhere. Sometimes the crews have no information. Maybe there’s a red signal ahead and the dispatcher hasn’t told them why. On the VRE Fredericksburg line, the railroad, CSX, is controlled by a dispatcher in Jacksonville, Fla., and the train crew doesn’t always know the reason for a delay, but usually will at least share that lack of information with the passengers.

Sometimes the crew goes beyond courtesy into entertainment, and turns the passengers into an audience for standup comedy. One year ago, the train I was riding stopped for a few minutes outside the Alexandria station. The conductor announced that there was some trouble on the line ahead, he didn’t know when we would be moving, and there was even talk of putting us all on buses. Before the gloom got too thick, he reminded us that it was April Fool’s Day. I once saw a Manassas train leaving Crystal City with crew members wearing costumes; it was Halloween. One of them called to the Fredericksburg passengers still waiting on the platform, “We have more fun on the Manassas line.” Maybe so, but I doubt it. We too get holiday treats, and sometimes a few lucky passengers even get prizes, as during VRE’s birthday celebration last July.

The VRE crews do make an extra effort to give passengers a pleasant trip. A family traveling on a handful of single-ride tickets is sure to get an explanation of the fare structure and a suggestion to buy a discounted 10-trip ticket next time. Passengers who ask how to reach a Washington museum from a VRE station usually get complete and detailed directions. Near the end of last summer, when I took some of my kids to Washington for the day, the conductor showed them where to see beaver dams from the train (north of Brooke, on the east side of the tracks) and where to look for a bald eagle nest (on a light pole just north of Quantico Creek).

Although Fredericksburg passengers can usually count on friendly, helpful train crews, they occasionally run into a graduate of “snarl school,” as rail travelers have christened the imaginary source of unpleasant train crews. A few weeks ago I was boarding the 11:10 a.m. Amtrak train to Washington, and a first-time rider who didn’t know VRE from Amtrak tried to board with a single-ride VRE ticket (only 10-trip and monthly VRE tickets are good on Amtrak). The conductor not only let him know that his ticket was not valid on this train, but said that the next VRE train was “at 4:30.” In fact, the next northbound VRE train would not come until the following morning, and there is no VRE train in either direction at 4:30 a.m. or p.m. Why did the conductor gratuitously gave the man misinformation? To repay him for trying to board his train with the wrong ticket? Fortunately one of the passengers told the man what the conductor didn’t: that he could buy an Amtrak ticket on board. It would cost more, but the man was willing to pay it. After all, he had somewhere to go and needed help, not wrong directions.

Such incidents are, thankfully, rare, and when the odd crew member threatens to ruin someone’s trip, a friendly passenger can make up for it. If you see a fellow passenger in need of help and a crew member doesn’t get there first, go ahead, make someone’s day.

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