Virginia Railway Express, which has increased its ridership by more than 20 percent over the last year, announced the arrival of 13 new double-decker cars this week to accommodate more riders.

The new cars can seat about 160 passengers, compared with just fewer than 100 on the current cars. Test runs of the cars, which will be used primarily on the more crowded Fredericksburg-to-Washington line, have been ongoing, and the first public run is planned for Friday.

"They're coming at the right time," said Stafford County Supervisor Robert C. Gibbons (R-Rock Hill), who is on the VRE board. "Probably in hindsight, we should have bought 20 instead of 13."

The 13 cars cost a total of $20 million and were made by the Japanese company Kawasaki. Twenty-two older cars will be retired to make way for the new ones, VRE spokesman Matt Benka said. Eight of them have been sold to a company in Vermont for $750,000, while the other 14 have been leased for six months to an outfit in California for $378,000.

VRE opted for the double-decker model because of extremely limited space at Union Station, where cars are stored for part of each day, Benka said.

The new cars not only have more seats but they also will be considerably more comfortable. The seats are wider, and there is more legroom, headroom and storage space. Even the bathrooms are roomier. Each train also will have an electronic message board updating passengers on VRE news.

In addition to the double-deckers, VRE has purchased 10 used "gallery" cars for $2 million from the Midwest Transportation and Development Corp. and will likely buy 10 more in the coming months, Benka said. The cars were used in the Chicago area. They have balcony seating above the main level but are not as large as the double-deckers.

VRE also announced Friday that it will be equipping every train with Automatic External Defibrillators, the shock devices used to resuscitate people suffering from serious heart trouble. VRE will train engineers and conductors on the equipment and also will offer the course to passengers.

The decision was precipitated by an incident last year in which a rider had a mild heart attack between the Crystal City and Springfield stops. Although officials were able to get that rider safely to a hospital, they do not want to be caught in a similar situation again.

"The world is a stressful place," Benka said. "A lot of people may run into a situation where they might need [resuscitation]."

After hitting its nadir in summer 1997, VRE has gotten back on track in the last 2 1/2 years, consistently beating ridership projections. Daily ridership this month, for instance, has exceeded the 9,000 mark, a figure that officials didn't expect to top until June. As recently as two years ago, daily ridership was as low as 6,000.

CAPTION: Virginia Railway Express has 13 new double-decker cars, each of which can seat about 160 passengers, compared with fewer than 100 on the current cars.