IN WHAT could be a bold step backward -- to the days of commuting by train -- Northern Virginia's transportation planners are seeking funds for an experiment in rail service between the edges of Greater Washington and downtown. It's a gamble, but if the proposal can be carried off as envisioned, it may just relieve some of the congestion on I-95 and other auto trails to and from town. And

at the prices they're talking

about, it could be a great way

to go as well.

The Northern Virginia Transporta

state legislators to seek state aid

for a two-year experiment with lines between Fredericksburg and Union Station and Manassas and Union Station. Passengers between these points could connect at Brooke, Quantico, Featherstone, Woodbridge, Springfield, Burke, Fairfax Station and Clifton for service to and from Alexandria and Union Station. The cost? At most, $6 round trip.

That would be quite a bargain; the question is whether the cost of running the railroad would be too. Officials estimate that the two-year test would cost $14.5 million, using existing lines. They're looking for $8 million from local and state governments and $7 million through ticket sales. So far, Fairfax and Prince William counties have been interested enough to contribute $65,000 for a consultant, and pitches will be made to Stafford County, Fredericksburg and Manassas for money for the study.

To cut costs, the commission hopes to lease used equipment from another transit authority and to contract for workers with two railraods that own the lines: Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac, and Norfolk Southern. But this would mean trying to negotiate new labor agreements between the railroads and their unions that would cut crews from from five to two people. Tickets would be handled by "trainmeisters" -- volunteers who would do this in exchange for free travel (as is done now on Reston and Prince William buses).

How much would all this ultimately cost the various governments? That's hard to gauge -- but in the face of more and more growth outward into the state, it seems worth an experiment to get a better idea.