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Virginia Railway, a Service That's Losing Steam

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 1997; Page B03

When transportation planners shared their vision for the Virginia Railway Express five years ago, they saw the state's first commuter railway attracting as many as 32,000 daily riders by the end of this year.

That rosy projection, which helped persuade local and state officials to pour millions of dollars into the ambitious project, was based on studies that showed commuters along Interstates 66 and 95 abandoning their cars in favor of the new railway linking Manassas and Fredericksburg to the District.

It hasn't happened. VRE ridership -- which peaked during the February 1996 blizzard, when riders made an average of 8,110 daily trips -- has gone steadily downhill since last summer. With current seating capacity at 12,000 riders each weekday, the commuter line averaged just 7,142 riders daily last month -- a drop of 11 percent from the same period a year before.

The worrisome free fall has VRE officials considering slashing ticket prices by 20 percent, but even that may not be enough to revive the line. If more riders don't come forward, at least two VRE board members now say, the troubled train system should be scrapped.

"VRE has the least impact of all modes of local transportation at the greatest expense," said one board member, Prince William County Supervisor E.S. "Ed" Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville). "How many hundreds of millions of dollars do we have to spend waiting on their prognostication" of success?

Ridership is down about 22 percent from a year ago in Stafford County, causing Supervisor Robert C. Gibbons (R-Rock Hill), a member of VRE's Operations Board, to say that commuters there must either start getting on the train or bid it adieu.

"We're spending a lot of money on this, and the fares aren't affordable for people," said Gibbons, who supports cutting fares as long as contributions from local jurisdictions don't increase as a result. "At some point in time, we have to ask if it's the best use of our money. It might not be."

In December 1994, officials of the fledgling rail line predicted that a $10 million expansion of service would boost round-trip daily ridership -- then about 4,000 -- by 45 percent by last June.

To the contrary, ridership plunged last summer. Although the Manassas line has partly recovered, the Fredericksburg segment has not and is now running 14 percent behind last year's mark.

VRE officials blame the drop-off on a host of problems, including track work that caused poor on-time performance, government downsizing that has reduced the commuter pool, and competition in the Fredericksburg-Washington corridor from newly expanded car-pool lanes on Interstate 95. Most recently, officials have said VRE's high fares, which average $4.29 for a one-way trip, and additional parking costs are driving riders away.

Rail officials say the problem can be overcome by slashing most fares by 20 percent, a move that would cost VRE $1.5 million annually unless the Commonwealth Transportation Board agrees to pitch in.

"The people who left us are not coming back," said VRE's operations director, Steve Roberts. "But if we cut fares, others will give us some consideration."

Leo J. Bevon, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, shares Roberts's concern and his optimism.

"Everyone would have liked to have seen [ridership] grow faster, but I don't think it's any time for panic," Bevon said. "It's not like we built it and can't figure out why no one's riding. It's just a matter of fixing the problem."

Said Roberts: "The reason our numbers are less than they were a year ago is because people are making good decisions. It's cheaper to drive than take VRE. But that won't last forever."

VRE, he predicts, will experience a renaissance next year when construction begins on the interchange where interstates 95, 395 and 495 come together in Springfield -- the so-called "Mixing Bowl." That massive highway project is expected to take up to a dozen years to complete, stalling traffic and frustrating drivers.

Lawrence D. Hughes, Prince William's deputy county executive, gives VRE high marks for improving the quality of life for outer county commuters as well as providing transportation at a fraction of the cost of building new roads. Still, he said ridership declines are worrisome.

Concerns about flexibility, cost and convenience keep Joseph Czech off VRE. The acoustics engineer from Fairfax County tried riding the train six months ago during a no-cost-to-ride promotion but quickly decided it was easier to car-pool from his home to his job in Crystal City.

"It's easier and cheaper," Czech said. "Even the lower fares wouldn't make a difference for me."

Transportation officials, however, say the commuter line deserves more time to grow. As congestion on area highways increases, so will VRE's base of riders, they say.

Fairfax Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), chairman of the VRE Operations Board, is optimistic. "We could not continue to sustain the ridership decrease that we've had," he said. "A year from now, you'll find the picture will be substantially changed for the better."

Although experts say heavy subsidies are common for commuter rail lines, VRE's high subsidy level has critics questioning whether the railroad is spending too much taxpayer money on too few riders.

Although riders plunk down an average of $4.29 a ride, VRE and the eight local jurisdictions that subsidize the railroad pay an additional $9.23 a trip.

"We're using hundreds of millions of dollars to provide a service to 4,000 of our most affluent citizens, and it's just not fair," said John J. Cramsey, a Woodbridge resident and former transportation analyst for the federal General Accounting Office. Cramsey is among the railroad's most outspoken detractors.

"VRE oversold this thing to a public that really didn't care. I think it's a big waste of money," Cramsey said. "They ought to sell it and start over" with other mass transit.

But Dan Foth, a commuter rail specialist with the American Public Transit Association, of which VRE is a member, said the young railway is a relative success compared with others across the country.

"If VRE died tomorrow, would there be a mass exodus from Stafford and Prince William? Would property values decline and drop? I don't think you'd see it immediately, but I think you'd see it over time," Foth said. "People thought Metro was a major boondoggle at first. Can you imagine the region without Metro today?"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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