VRE is on track to expand

In the three years since Rich Dalton moved from Boise, Idaho, to Fredericksburg, he has learned a thing or two about traffic.

That’s not just because his job, as the interim head of Virginia Railway Express, is to keep the fast-growing commuter rail company moving. It’s because he rides VRE, except on days when he needs his car to get from station to station.

He sees a marked difference between the two experiences, and that has inspired a back-of-the-napkin idea: an ad featuring images of the gridlock on Interstates 66 and 95 next to the open space in front of a VRE locomotive.

“We’ve got to be able to show the gridlock on the freeway and a VRE train right in front of it” with open space showing the way, Dalton said.

Dalton, 47, is the temporary face of VRE as the organization looks to find a new leader to replace retiring chief executive Dale Zehner. Dalton joined VRE in 2009 as its director of rail equipment and services.

He will be filling the shoes of someone who officials say has brought an era of consistent growth and stability. Prince William County Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville), who is chairman of VRE’s operations board, has said that he hopes to have a new chief executive in place by September but that the transit agency is in capable hands until that happens.

Officials say Zehner’s tenure brought more reliable service. The rail line was plagued in past years by service breakdowns and delays. VRE’s on-time performance has been about 95 percent in recent months, its highest ever. They say VRE has benefited from new equipment and better relationships with its host rail lines: CSX, Norfolk Southern and Amtrak.

Dalton said in an interview that those efforts will not slow while the operations board considers who will replace Zehner. With shrinking state and federal funding for transportation, he said, VRE must work to ensure that when government money becomes available, it’s “in a position to show we’re efficient and this is a good place to spend dollars.”

“That’s something we have to do every day at VRE,” Dalton said.

And as VRE’s 3 percent fare increase takes effect Monday, some passengers will be looking to get the biggest bang for their buck. At public meetings around the region this year to propose the increase, many chairs were empty. Officials took that as a sign that things are going well and that riders are satisfied.

“That 66 traffic kills you,” said passenger Lisa Shifflett, who switched to riding the rails. “By the time you get to work, you don’t want to be there.”

The fare increase is expected to generate about $900,000 to pay for rising fuel costs and increased payments to Keolis, a contractor that runs VRE’s day-to-day operations.

VRE’s on-time performance has been consistently among the best rail officials have seen, and Dalton said that things that are important to customers have to continue to be top priorities. He said he is challenging VRE staff members to analyze “how we got where we are” to come up with more best practices.

The biggest challenge for VRE is growth, Dalton said. Ridership has increased by about 6 percent in each of the past several years, he said. The average ridership for May was about 19,300 commuters, according to recent VRE statistics.

VRE plans to buy seven more rail cars and is looking for funding to do so, Dalton said, as part of its effort to replace 20 legacy cars. More trains, more stations and making existing platforms longer to deal with longer trains will have to be phased into plans, he said.

For now, VRE is marking its 20-year anniversary. “It’s a great time to reflect a little bit,” Dalton said.

Jeremy Borden covers Prince William County, Va., for The Washington Post.
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