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Virginia Railway Express trying to make the trains run on time

VRE passengers board a train.
VRE passengers board a train. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 9:52 PM

Virginia Railway Express passengers who arrive at a platform even a minute late will have to wait for the next train as rail officials look to make the commuter service more efficient.

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VRE Chief Executive Officer Dale Zehner said Wednesday that he has directed Keolis Rail Services America, a subsidiary of a France-based company that operates the trains, to depart from stations on time, even if they see riders running to catch a train.

"From this point forward, if you are not on the platform when the train is scheduled to depart the station, it is likely you will miss the train," Zehner said in an e-mail to riders. "As I have always said, I only expect 2 things from our riders, to have a valid ticket and to be on the platform 5-10 minutes prior to your train's departure."

People regularly run to catch trains, VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said, and it is usually up to the conductor whether to wait. But if a train waits just one extra minute at each station, the service's on-time record will suffer, Roeber said. VRE considers a train late if it arrives five minutes past the posted schedule, he said.

"There has always been that gray area between leaving on time or holding as long as you can," Roeber said. "The one thing people ask for the most when they ride is that their trains operate on time."

VRE's on-time performance took a hit in July, when trains on the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines were on schedule only 63 percent of the time. While late passengers were part of the equation, the service was also plagued with heat restrictions and mechanical failures. VRE was also adjusting to operations by Keolis, which took over the service from Amtrak in July.

On-time performance through September is up to 80 percent on the Fredericksburg Line and 92 percent on the Manassas Line. Last September, VRE trains were on schedule 94 percent of time, Roeber said.

Gregg Baxter, general manager for Keolis's local operation, said all train crews synchronize their watches with the master clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory before departing in the morning. Baxter said he "fully agrees" with the new policy.

Some riders expressed support in e-mails to VRE, which officials provided to The Washington Post. Waiting for a late rider is "frustrating" and "disrespectful" to those who are on time, they said.

Others, however, said there should be exceptions if wrong information about train platforms and schedules is displayed at a station.

Officials said the service should also be more efficient in the coming months as Keolis employees become more comfortable with the system and because VRE recently added more maintenance staff.

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