VRE's Ridership Decline Continues

An additional $25 million in state funding will allow VRE to add more than 50 passenger cars in the next year and replace its aging locomotives.
An additional $25 million in state funding will allow VRE to add more than 50 passenger cars in the next year and replace its aging locomotives. (Photos By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007

Commuters have been ditching Virginia Railway Express in growing numbers over the past nine months, sharpening a decline that began in 2005, even though the system's on-time performance has improved since last summer.

VRE, which operates two lines, one each from Manassas and Fredericksburg ending at Union Station, has lost more than 5 percent of its passengers since July 2006, according to the agency's most recent performance data. Ridership on the Manassas line is down nearly 8 percent, more than twice the loss on the Fredericksburg line, which typically experiences more delays.

Total average daily ridership for both lines in March this year was 14,060, down from 15,290 in March 2005.

What happens on the commuter line affects traffic across Northern Virginia, because former riders generally become drivers, adding cars to already overburdened roads, transportation experts said.

"It's counterintuitive," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "People are going out onto roads that are some of the most congested in the nation. That's a sign of desperation to me. There's something wrong at the whistle-stop."

Pierce R. Homer, Virginia's transportation secretary, is mystified by the decline. "We're going to look real hard at the numbers and ask questions . . . and chart an appropriate path," he said. "We need to take a hard business look and see if the changing numbers are attributed to performance issues that can be solved or other issues."

VRE was alone among the nation's 17 major commuter rail services to lose passengers last year, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

The transportation funding package approved by Virginia lawmakers this year will provide VRE with an additional $25 million a year for capital improvements and operating expenses, which were $42 million for the 2006 fiscal year.

That money will improve VRE's performance and popularity, according to spokesman Mark Roeber. More than 50 passenger cars will be added in the next year, and the agency can now afford to replace its aging fleet of locomotives, some of which date to the 1970s and have been the source of repeated mechanical breakdowns. The money will also pay for more parking spaces and, eventually, an extension to Haymarket and an expansion of the most congested sections of the Fredericksburg line.

"Once they know they have a place to park and a quality ride to get on, people will come back in droves, because we'll consistently beat the car," Roeber said.

For now, though, VRE is not making that claim.

The low point for the agency came last summer, Roeber said. In July, on-time performance plunged to 48 percent on the Fredericksburg line and 59 percent on the Manassas line as heat restrictions, maintenance work and "catastrophic" software failures consistently made passengers late for work or dinner.

On-time performance on the Manassas line was back to 96 percent in September, the highest point in the past nine months, but the damage was done: Ridership sank more than 12 percent during the month, the biggest drop in the nine-month period.

Once riders give up on the system, it can be hard to regain their confidence, Roeber said, especially with ongoing parking shortages at Broad Run, Burke and other stations along the Manassas line.

VRE "can be a pain," said John Caplis, a Coast Guard commander who rides from Manassas to L'Enfant Plaza. "For people who have office environments where showing up five to 10 minutes late is a problem, VRE is a challenge."

A year or so ago, Caplis said, it was often hard to find an empty seat on the train during peak hours. "You used to see people standing in the aisles, and you never see that anymore," he said. "A lot of people seem to have left."

AAA's Townsend said: "People don't have faith in the system. It will take a massive campaign to convince people to come back into the system.

"It's like any relationship. They have to learn to trust you again."

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