Boosted by the popularity of three new midday trains, Virginia Railway Express carried more passengers last month than ever before in the seven-year history of the commuter rail line.
VRE, which operates lines from Fredericksburg and Manassas to downtown Washington, counted 8,066 passenger trips per day in October, an 18 percent increase from last October's average of 6,818 per day.
The strong ridership numbers, which have been on the rise for more than a year, indicate that the once-troubled rail line is becoming a significant part of the region's commuter service, transportation experts said.
"They're not only viable, but a very attractive option for commuters in the [Northern Virginia] area," said Fran Hooper, director for commuter rail support services at the American Public Transit Association in Washington.
The new ridership figures mark the high point so far of a turnaround that has seen the service rebound from the summer of 1997, when ridership was its lowest. Company officials and transportation experts said that VRE has been able to get back on track by improving its agreement with the company that owns the tracks, launching customer service initiatives and providing an alternative to drivers tired of fighting traffic.
Some of those drivers had been slowed by the first phase in the reconstruction of the "mixing bowl" interchange at Springfield, and more such converts are expected. "I think the impact of the mixing bowl will be a future bump on ridership," Hooper said.
Dan Carpenter, 46, of Manassas, began taking VRE trains about four years ago, because his car pool often didn't work out.
"I've noticed that as the service has gotten more reliable in recent months, the trains have definitely been filling up," Carpenter said as he waited for his wife to pick him up at the Manassas Depot yesterday afternoon.
As recently as two years ago, VRE ridership was about 6,000 rides per day, and as many empty seats as passengers were making the daily commute. What's more, VRE's on-time record was one of the worst in the country, and there was some question about the viability of the service.
CSX Corp., which owns the tracks VRE uses, often did not accommodate the needs of the commuter line, causing frequent delays and sabotaging the on-time record. If one of CSX's freight trains needed the tracks or was having problems, VRE trains had to sit by until the way was cleared.
"There were some operational problems where we hurt them," said Robert Gould, spokesman for CSX. Those problems came to a head in July 1997, when a freight train derailed and disrupted VRE's service for weeks. Management changes at CSX led to a better deal for VRE, and the commuter trains were given priority during peak times.
At the same time, VRE instituted a broad range of rider-friendly services. VRE expanded parking at several stations and stopped charging for it at all stops. It added cafe cars so riders could read the paper and drink a cup of coffee. An e-mail service to keep riders apprised of events was launched. And VRE started doing little things, such as handing out candy on Halloween and Valentine's Day. The commuter service is considering a proposal to reimburse riders for day-care fees caused by late trains.
"One of the things that has happened is that the trains are now packed," said Keith Angstadt, who rides the VRE to and from the Brooke stop in Stafford and his job in Crystal City each day. "There's not a whole lot of room anymore like there used to be."
VRE expects to alleviate crowding shortly after the first of the year, when 13 new double-decker cars arrive. "We're like a train," said Matt Benka, a spokesman for VRE. "It starts slowly and takes a good mile or two to get to any relative speed. But once it gets going, it's fast and powerful. . . . We're about two miles out from the station right now."
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.
CAPTION: VRE Sees More Passengers (This graphic was not available)