Outside the window of Virginia Railway Express train No. 305, even the Potomac River looks faint from the 90-degree heat, motionless, not even daring a ripple. The people on the streets seem to be walking through syrupy air, moving slower -- and so is the train.
It's summer, and that means "heat restrictions," or speed reductions meant to keep track from overheating and developing dangerous kinks. And that means more time to look out that train window.
But here is the mantra of the VRE rider, the words that for many efficiently massage as the 90-minute ride to Fredericksburg turns into 100 minutes, or 105: "I'm not on 95. I'm not on 95. I'm not on 95."
"I'll put up with an hour delay once in a while compared to an hour delay every other day on [Interstate] 95. I so hate driving that I don't care," Robert Kranc, 60, said Friday as he did a crossword puzzle on the way home to Spotsylvania County from his job as a defense contractor in Rosslyn, a 95-minute trip he has been doing for a dozen years.
Others on the southbound train echoed Kranc's viewpoint, even though delays on VRE this month have not been once in a while -- they have been almost every day, said Mark Roeber, a spokesman for the railway. Some delays have been hours long; the average heat delay this past month has been 10 to 15 minutes.
VRE trains are staffed by Amtrak and run on tracks owned by CSX Corp., which has imposed the heat delays on passenger trains since 2002 after a heat kink caused an Amtrak derailment in Kensington, CSX spokeswoman Misty Skipper said. Heat delays kick in at temperatures around 90 degrees, but Roeber said that this season, the threshold was lowered to 85. Regional engineers have some discretion on that.
Trains also have been delayed because of mechanical and communication problems, said Roeber, who called this season an "escalation" with CSX. VRE chief executive Dale Zehner wrote an angry letter to John Gibson, CSX's vice president of passenger and operations planning.
Just yesterday, VRE raised its fares 21/2 percent, to $240 a month for the Fredericksburg line and $214 for the Manassas line. Roeber said the higher fares cover increases in insurance and gas prices and ridership, which rose from an average of 14,900 a day last year to 16,000.
CSX has some of the strictest heat delay rules in the country, and its directive affects commuters from Florida to Virginia to Maryland, where MARC trains use its tracks. But the epicenter of trouble this season seems to be VRE's Fredericksburg line, whose on-time performance this month has been 52 percent, compared with 90 percent for riders on the Manassas line, where Norfolk Southern owns most of the track.
As irritating as riders say this is, many express a Zen-like acceptance of the drawbacks.
Among those are Krista Collins, 33, and Elizabeth Koch, 23, who chatted and laughed from Alexandria to Fredericksburg, where they share an apartment and rise each morning at 5 o'clock to catch the 6:10 train. Despite the e-mail VRE sent to its customers that day -- "heat restrictions in effect" -- the women had no complaints.
"You're not guaranteed a smooth ride home if you drive," said Collins, a case manager for the city of Alexandria who spent a decade commuting in Atlanta and considers her current setup "fabulous."
"Also, it's not really VRE's fault, it's CSX," said Koch, who works for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria. "I'd much rather sit in this than that," she said, pointing outside to distant, unseen I-95.
But how can they not find it annoying to have what is already a two-hour ride each way regularly extended by 10 or 15 minutes?
"Living in Alexandria is just too expensive," Collins said. Koch, who owns their home, agreed. "We're in social-service jobs. We don't get paid a ton."
The economics of even a delayed train ride make sense to Jim Earnhardt, 54, who gave up a 12-mile commute "on country roads" in Christiansburg five years ago to move to Fredericksburg for a better job as an Army telecommunications specialist in Alexandria.
He said he doesn't "get the chance to do much with my family" -- including a 13-year-old son -- during the week, doesn't like it that people often have to stand on VRE and finds the commute "pretty rough." But he didn't even notice the heat delays.
"I guess I was just reading my manuals," he said.
MARC trains have had heat delays on about half of the days in June, an improvement from last year, MARC spokesman Richard Scher said.
Riders on that side of the Potomac have a similar attitude as the Virginia travelers.
"We've been commuting on this train for a long time, and you just get to a point. You don't get antsy anymore," said Sharon McKinley, 52, a music cataloguer at the Library of Congress who has been riding between Laurel and Union Station for five years -- one hour one way, door to door. "Believe me, I have nasty things to say about MARC, but there are just too many things that are out of their control when it comes to heat delays."
The resigned attitude does not apply to Kim and Paul Roberts, who clutched their bags to their chests and waited to get off a VRE train. The couple, who work for NASA, have been commuting from King George County, southeast of Fredericksburg, to the L'Enfant station for about six months -- nearly two hours one way compared with the 30- to 45-minute car and Metro trip they previously had from Alexandria.
Paul Roberts's eyes widened as he discussed heat delays: "You're captive! You're stuck!"
The couple hustled as the train pulled up. Is this going to work out? "It's going to have to," he said, "because 95 is not an option."