Monday, July 24, 2006

The Virginia Railway Express, after years of strong growth, has suffered about a 2 percent drop in daily ridership that cost the commuter railway more than $1 million in operating revenue.

VRE total ridership jumped an average 13 percent each year from 2000 to 2005. But in the fiscal year that ended June 30, about 178 fewer passengers used VRE per day than the previous year. Its counterpart, the Maryland Area Rail Commuter (MARC), posted a jump of 107,000 more riders from July 2005 through May, MARC documents show.

With more than $1 million lost in revenue, a fare increase next year is “always an option,” said Dale Zehner, VRE’s chief executive officer. As a quasi-government agency, VRE must receive 50 percent of its operating revenue from passenger fares, said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber. The rest comes from local, state and federal subsidies.

VRE officials attribute the loss of riders to a year’s worth of delays caused by track maintenance and heat restrictions, as well as parking troubles.

“It’s awful,” Mr. Zehner said. “I’m amazed that it’s not worse. For the delays we’ve had, I would have thought we would have lost more. I guess it says a lot about our riders. One, that they’re loyal, or two, they don’t have much more options than us.”

The problems started last summer when VRE officials placed a record number of heat restrictions on the trains for about one-third of the summer. This is partly due to CSX placing heat restrictions when temperatures hit the mid- to high 80s, instead of the 90s, as part of a company policy, Mr. Roeber said.

Railroad tracks can bend, or “kink,” when steel absorbs too much heat. When railroad companies impose heat restrictions, train operators are required to slow trains by 10 mph so they can spot heat kinks before running over them, he said.

CSX, which owns VRE’s Fredericksburg line, also started a one-year plan to replace about 33 percent of the line’s railroad ties. Norfolk Southern, which owns VRE’s Manassas line, replaced railroad ties on about 20 percent of its tracks, Mr. Zehner said.

During flooding last month, VRE officials had to shut down both lines for one day and operate VRE on a limited schedule a few more. Now, hot temperatures have meant more heat-restriction delays.

Each delay has caused passengers to be about 10 to 20 minutes late, Mr. Roeber said.

Passengers also complain about limited parking at stations, VRE officials say. The railway recently added 285 parking spots at its Broad Run station, but the parking lot is full before the last train leaves at 7:50 a.m., he said.

“They almost become beleaguered and say ‘oh, no what’s next,’” he said, explaining why ridership has dropped despite high gasoline prices that typically drive motorists onto public transit systems.

Fernando Carral, a probation officer who travels on the VRE every weekday from Fredericksburg to Union Station, said the VRE is unreliable but riders don’t have other alternatives.

“First, it was CSX with the work. Then summertime, we get heat restrictions,” he said. “The thing with riders on VRE — they don’t have many options. So [VRE] sort of has us by the chin and hairs.”

Tomeeka Fair, 32, of Fredericksburg said she stopped riding the VRE in January because of delays and the “trains are just very uncomfortable.”

“It was good until the weather [last summer], and then there would be delays all the time,” said Mrs. Fair, who added she rarely rides the train now. “It’s just not reliable. I hear people in conversations talk about it. On a whole, nobody has good things to say about it. If I could, I would put VRE out of business.”

CSX also owns two of MARC’s three track lines. CSX inspectors have generally imposed the same heat restrictions on their VRE and MARC tracks, said Robert Sullivan, a CSX spokesman. But because CSX workers already replaced ties on MARC lines recently, they did more heavy work on VRE this past year, he said.

“We always have routine track work,” he said. “MARC had more expensive work a couple years ago. That’s just the way the cycle works.”

VRE’s drop in ridership compared with MARC’s increase may be linked to its schedule, said Jay Westbrook, who CSX hired last year to be liaison between VRE and CSX because of the maintenance.

CSX officials recently revised the MARC train schedule on CSX tracks to better reflect arrival and departure times. They have agreed with VRE officials to review the Virginia schedule within the next one to two months, Mr. Westbrook said.

“The schedules don’t reflect the number of freight traffic on the line today,” Mr. Westbrook said.

Also, MARC and VRE ridership is “more of an apples and oranges comparison,” he said, because of different economics and demographics.

But VRE officials say their ridership has the potential to expand because of population and job growth near the end of the lines.

Population in Spotsylvania County, where VRE makes its last stop on the Fredericksburg line, is expected to grow by about 34,000 between 2000 and 2010, according to estimates from the Virginia Employment Commission. The population of Prince William County, the last stop on the Manassas line, will increase by 45,000 in four years, the county’s demographic projections shows.

To regain ridership, Mr. Zehner is trying to capture that market. He is talking with officials from the county government for an extension and extra train station in their counties. About 3,500 to 6,000 new riders could board from an 11-mile extension into Haymarket, and 1,000 new riders could board from a 12-mile extension into Spotsylvania, VRE officials said.

VRE officials also are looking forward to next year’s completion of the Quantico bridge. The current bridge can hold only one track over the creek. An extra bridge with tracks means delays will be cut down on the Manassas line by at least 20 percent, Mr. Zehner said.

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