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Virginia Railway Express's on-time performance slips

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; B05

The on-time performance record for the Virginia Railway Express tumbled this summer as weather, mechanical issues and a rocky transition to a new operator took their toll on the commuter rail service.

VRE trains on the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines were on time 85 percent in April and 88 percent in May but slipped to 63 percent last month when VRE was hit with heat restrictions on multiple days -- requiring trains to travel slower -- and welcomed its new operator and maintenance provider, Keolis Rail Services America. Keolis, a subsidiary of a France-based company, was awarded an $85 million, five-year contract last year, which ended Amtrak's 18-year relationship with VRE. VRE officials said Keolis's proposal was cheaper and promised better customer service and improved operations.

"There has certainly been some stuff out of our control, but there is also a lot in our control," said Gregg Baxter, general manager for Keolis's local operation. "We recognize improvements need to be made, and we continue to take the necessary actions to improve the service."

VRE chief executive Dale Zehner, who sent a letter to riders Thursday about on-time performance, said that while VRE officials focused on getting conductors and engineers qualified to safely operate trains, they did not consider the "institutional knowledge" they would lose when employees who spent more than a decade on the service were replaced with people unfamiliar with the routes and trains. Although all former VRE employees were asked to stay, only one remained on the service.

"A lot of the issues are just the crews being new to the equipment and new to the service," Baxter said. "On the railroad, you can't have everything written down; a lot of it is based on experience."

On the mechanical side, Zehner said VRE had two "extremely good" Amtrak supervisors who monitored and helped in the maintenance yard. Zehner said Keolis did not replace them but is working to hire more people to help with repairs. Zehner said VRE once had four locomotive technicians from MotivePower -- the company building VRE's new locomotives -- in the maintenance yard, but their contract expired in June. A new contract, however, was just executed.

This summer, the commuter-rail service faced heat restrictions ordered by CSX, one of the host railroads; storms, which caused flooding on the Manassas Line; and signal problems.

Spokesman Mark Roeber said VRE has received a few more complaints this summer.

"Whenever delays creep into the system, you are going to hear from the riders," he said.

Zehner said on-time performance for this month has increased to about 73 percent, and he is committed to making sure more trains run on time by working closely with Amtrak, which controls access into Union Station, and host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern.

VRE daily ridership has slowly increased over the years, and the average is about 17,000. Zehner said revenue from fares is critical to maintaining the service, and if on-time performance drops, he knows people might not stay.

"The learning curve for Keolis has been steep, but they are up to the challenge," Zehner wrote. "I firmly believe that we will work out these issues and service will once again be at the level that our riders have come to expect."

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