Va. Commuter Rail Losing Passengers

Jim Campbell, left, and Frank Byrnside ride VRE's Fredericksburg line. Some worry the drop in riders will further congest area traffic.
Jim Campbell, left, and Frank Byrnside ride VRE's Fredericksburg line. Some worry the drop in riders will further congest area traffic. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 17, 2006

At a time when authorities are urging increased use of public transportation to reduce congestion, an unexpected loss of Virginia Railway Express riders -- many weary of delays and breakdowns -- is a major setback.

After adding at least 200,000 passenger trips a year since fiscal 2001, the Northern Virginia rail line recorded 120,000 fewer trips from July 2005 to June compared with the previous year, dropping its total to 3.64 million.

Every rider who forsakes a seat on VRE -- which runs two lines, one each from Manassas and Fredericksburg ending at Union Station -- adds to the growing congestion on Washington area roads.

The losses at VRE are "a recipe for horrendous gridlock," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, who said he was "astonished and mystified" by the drop in riders. "We already have the third-worst traffic in the nation, and every single car that's added to the equation bogs down the system even more."

In the Interstate 95 corridor -- where the carpool lanes are becoming as choked as the chronically clogged regular lanes, and backups regularly stretch 50 miles -- VRE is called on to provide the only reliable alternative. Even with major traffic relief projects, such as the Springfield interchange, congestion has worsened as more people have moved to the area.

The same is true in the Interstate 66 corridor, where a major widening project near Manassas is underway and another in Arlington is being debated. Neither is expected to end the jams that slow many parts to a crawl.

With gas at $3 a gallon, other area transit systems have been adding riders by the tens of thousands. Ridership on Maryland's MARC was up nearly 6 percent in the past fiscal year, and Metrorail was up 5.3 percent, breaking records.

Of 15 major commuter rail services in the nation tracked in the first calendar quarter this year by the American Public Transportation Association, VRE was one of only three to lose riders. And its decline was second only to a system in South Florida that had service interruptions tied to track construction.

VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said the dip in ridership is "a hiccup" tied to numerous factors, including agreements with track owners running competing freight service, problems with a bridge near Quantico and the system's service problems. He vowed that "in time we'll have a positive and viable option against any other form of transport."

Ridership fell on both VRE lines in the past year, but the losses -- and problems -- were far more severe on the Fredericksburg line, where on-time performance dropped from 90 percent of trips in 2001 to 69 percent. The causes, beleaguered riders and train officials say, are many.

Some are of the chronic variety: Summer heat restrictions slow trains, leading to congestion. Freight and passenger traffic bottleneck at the Quantico Creek Bridge, where trains share a track. And VRE's aging locomotives -- creaky engines from the 1970s -- break down and strand riders mid-commute.

These complications were compounded by additional problems over the past year. The implementation of a directional signal last August was "disastrous," Roeber said. Rail tie replacement projects held up passenger service. A derailment in January slowed service for days. Heavy rains in June led to full-scale service cancellations and pushed commuters back to their cars.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company