VRE to Allow Guns on Trains, Looks to Adjust Discount Fares

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

Virginia Railway Express riders will be able to carry firearms aboard trains operating in Virginia because of a policy adopted by the commuter rail service's operations board.

During a meeting Friday, board members changed the transit agency's policy to match Virginia code, which allows people without a criminal record to carry weapons in plain view and those with a permit to carry concealed weapons. VRE spokesman Mark Roeber noted that guns remain banned once trains, which run from Manassas and Fredericksburg to Washington, cross the Potomac River into the District.

"When we looked at making the current [policy] changes, this was an issue hanging out there," Roeber said, noting VRE already made "hundreds" of exceptions for riders who need to carry weapons for their job. "It made sense to make the [policy] uniform with the language that existed in the code of Virginia, so that's what we have vouched to do."

Also at Friday's meeting, the board worked on other policy changes, including those related to its discount fare programs.

Students who ride VRE might get slapped with higher fares as rail officials look to adjust a youth discount program that officials say adult riders are abusing.

VRE allows children 6 and younger to ride free with a fare-paying adult. Riders ages 7 to 21 are offered a 50 percent discount on tickets, which can cost as much as $10.30 for a one-way ride.

Although VRE does not know how many people are abusing the fare policy, Roeber said, the number of youth tickets being sold does not match the number of students on the trains.

VRE is looking to discontinue the youth discount program and instead allow riders 10 and younger to board for free when riding with an adult.

The transit agency is also modifying the discount program it offers to seniors and riders with disabilities. Riders 65 and older or with disabilities can still buy half-price tickets, but only through Commuter Direct or vendors at VRE's "destination stations," within the Capital Beltway.

VRE will also require new documentation from disabled riders. Those qualifying must have a doctor fill out a form similar to the one used by Metro. In turn, VRE will create a photo identification card disabled riders can present at the ticket booth.

"We're not trying to eliminate our discount programs," Roeber said. "We are just putting safeguards in place so only those eligible can use the programs."

VRE officials said that by changing the discount fare programs, they expect to generate an additional $150,000 to $300,000 in revenue yearly. About 60 percent of the transit agency's $47 million operating budget comes from fares.

The VRE Operations Board has authorized a public hearing on the youth fare changes. Although a date has not been set, the meeting will be held in Alexandria in the next few weeks.

Another policy change, which does not need to go to a public hearing, affects the VRE's Free Ride Certificate Program. Since the commuter-rail service opened in 1992, it has offered riders a free ticket anytime a train is canceled or delayed. The original program gave tickets to riders who were delayed 30 minutes, but in July 2007, VRE changed that threshold to 60 minutes as program costs rose -- reaching up to $60,000 annually -- because of poor on-time performance.

VRE officials said Friday that they are moving the threshold back to 30 minutes because trains have been operating more efficiently over the past two years. In fiscal 2009, the annual on-time performance of the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines was at 89 percent, up from 84 percent in fiscal 2007.

"We're the only commuter-rail service that does this, as far as I know," Roeber said. "It's one of those things where you are trying to generate a ridership base and give them something different than what most people are offering."

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