Update: Virginia Railway Express on Thursday afternoon said it will operate regular service Friday. It said Amtrak informed the agency that it will be able to accommodate all VRE trains at Union Station.
Less than 24 hours before the eye of Hurricane Florence makes landfall in the Carolinas, it has become clearer that the storm is staying far enough to the south of Washington that its effect on the region will not be “disastrous,” as previously feared. Forecasters say the region should expect showers and breezy winds this weekend.
Then why did Virginia’s and Maryland’s commuter rail systems cite Florence for slowdowns and even service reductions Thursday and Friday? The problem, they said, was Amtrak trains not traveling south of Washington as the result of the storm were disrupting train traffic to Washington’s Union Station.
Amtrak canceled train service to the Southeast through Sunday ahead of the storm. MARC and VRE say that means crowded conditions at the region’s central rail yard, affecting local commuter rail service. But Amtrak says that isn’t the case.
Despite the disputed cause of the reduced service, commuters expressed their frustrations.
“Why the complicated schedule changes on Thursday? The storm isn’t here,” one unhappy commuter tweeted at Virginia Railway Express.
VRE announced modifications for Thursday, saying some trains would not depart or arrive at Union Station, and on Friday service would be reduced to an “S” schedule, which is typically implemented during major storms and essentially means fewer trains.
"Because Amtrak trains that normally would operate through the southern Virginia/North Carolina region have been canceled due to Hurricane Florence, the equipment for those trains that is being stored at Union Station has affected VRE’s ability to access some of the tracks we use,” VRE said.
Officials with the Maryland commuter service MARC said delays Thursday to reach Union Station were the result of Amtrak and VRE’s cancellations of southbound trains, and the agency didn’t rule out the possibility of reducing service on Friday.
The commuter train systems carry thousands of Maryland and Northern Virginia residents to the nation’s capital. Elsewhere in the region, the storm’s shift diverted what transportation officials had feared would have been catastrophic flooding conditions in the region that has received above-normal rainfall this summer. As of Tuesday, the region was preparing for torrential rains and powerful winds strong enough to knock down trees and power wires, and to halt travel.
An Amtrak spokeswoman Thursday afternoon denied any impacts on commuter rail at Union Station. She said the equipment for the trains that aren’t traveling south of Washington “aren’t being stored at Washington Union Station.” She added: “The Northeast Regional trains that serve various cities in Virginia are originating in Washington, D.C., and operating north. The Amtrak long-distance, overnight trains that travel south have also been canceled through Sunday. This equipment is being stored in Philadelphia. There are no delays to commuter service in and out of the station."