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Roads Over Trains?

The results of my request for comment on the decline in Virginia Railway Express ridership left me wondering about commuters returning to their cars after sampling transit. (I'm an example of the opposite: I took up travel on Metro's Red Line after it dawned on me that I was paying $10 to warehouse my car downtown each day.)

Transportation editor Steve Ginsberg is going to ask one of his reporters to look into it for a news story, and I may write about the question in an upcoming Dr. Gridlock column. I think a return to highways would be an unfortunate development. We need VRE and MARC to work, so that Washington commuters will have options. Steve and I would appreciate hearing from any VRE or MARC riders -- or former riders -- whom we could interview for The Post on this topic. You can let me know by sending an e-mail to Please include your name, home community and a phone number at which we can reach you.

Here's a sampler of some of the comments I received when I asked commuters to analyze the decline in ridership on VRE after so many years of growth:

This comment from LD captures the spirit of many of those who responded to our post:
"The sad truth is that the VRE's schedule is meaningless. Delays are caused daily for a myriad of reasons, some within VRE's control, and some not: heat restrictions in the summer, snow delays in the winter, flooding emergencies in the spring, on top of signal and electrical problems, other train movement, train mechanical problems, and the list goes on and on. When a VRE rider enters the platform, he/she really doesn't know if the train will be on time, or even coming."

This was an interesting suggestion from Jim:
"The improvements at the Springfield Interchange have made the drive much easier for a lot of people. I suspect some of them may have switched from VRE back to their cars for that reason."

There were some votes for slugging up I-95 rather than taking the train. That was expressed by Steve:
"I quit a month ago after nearly three years of declining service, lame excuses, and a commute that went over 4 hours three nights in a row. A number of us left at the same time and now are happy Slugs. The only three things that really matter to me on VRE are safety, maintenance and on time service. Fortunately, the first they do well; the second and third are poor and getting worse."

By Robert Thomson  |  August 8, 2006; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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Next: Purple Line Prose


Very telling comments by the riders. I believe in listening to your customers to get the word on how one is doing in the market with your product/service.

Separately I wanted to add a possible idea for an article... Is there a comparison on what it costs per passenger to move people (per mile) by Metro, VRE, AMTRAC, single/dual rider Car, Metro Bus? And if there is any environmental cut at this on the gas/energy required to transport folks in each of these ways. It should stimulate some sort of strategic policy, (in a perfect world.) We know which ones might be convenient to use. On the other hand this may be too heavy for a column but it would be very interesting to know...

Been enjoying yours for quite a while now!



Posted by: Anonymous | August 8, 2006 6:03 PM | Report abuse

I'm not ready to give up on trains just yet. In fact, as a candidate for the Maryland House of Delegates in District 16, my transportation plan relies heavily on innovative rail projects. You can read more about my plan at to save space here. None of the projects I propose runs on a freight company's mainline. But I wouldn't stop running those existing MARC and VRE routes. Our region needs to continue to work with CSX to improve service on those lines.

It's not the mode of transit that is responsible for ridership. In 1996, Louisiana and other Gulf states combined funds to create a New Orleans to Mobile commuter rail line. On its own track, it had about 5,000 riders per month. When Mississippi cut funds, the project ended. An existing Amtrak line which - you guessed it- ran on a CSX mainline, suffered many delays as freight took priority. That train's ridership was 2,664 for all of 2004. Now, CSX has every right to focus on its original business. It's not their fault. But you can see that the train with poor service had far less ridership.

We also need more leadership from our elected officials. For instance, the Federal government offered the State of Maryland funds to create one of the first Maglev high speed rail corridors in the U.S. It would take riders from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes. Would that get people off I-95? You better believe it would. But our current legislators refused to fund it, much as they cut the GBBI funds. They are still applying transit concepts from the 1960s to 2006 gridlock.

So I wouldn't give up on commuter rail simply because our very limited current system has problems. On the contrary, rail is the solution to our problems.

Posted by: Robert Dyer | August 9, 2006 12:51 AM | Report abuse

since the use of CSX and NS rail lines is a major cause of delays, would it be possible for MARC/VRE to build their own track in the same right-of-way that CSX and NS use? and what about expanding VRE up the Dulles corrodor by reclaiming the W&OD right-of-way and putting tracks back in? just some thoughts.

Posted by: Mike Jacobs | August 9, 2006 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Mr Dryer... you seem very out of line with the rest of your political party. Considering the bush administration has pretty much said it won't federally fund rail and states should consider BRT instead. Meanwhile, BRT is nothing but a hoax - so they can wait a few years, and if ridership isn't high, instead of being comitted to the project and putting in any real effort to increase ridership, they can just nix it all together - cause it's much easier to just nix BRT than it is rail. And the ehrlich administration has all but destroyed all transit projects in exchange for their precious ICC. Also, the ehrlich administration, when MARC ridership increased and they were returning more than the farebox requirement, simply jacked up the farebox requirement rather than using that cash flow to expand service and further increase ridership. If you are indeed progressive enough to think independently from your party, then i commend you. Just saying that your views are very much NOT held by those around you.

Posted by: PJB | August 9, 2006 12:33 PM | Report abuse

PJB, you are correct about BRT. I don't want our elected officials to cop out by selecting the bus option. There are some very good ideas that have come out of MTA's study that could be implemented to improve bus transit in general. Potential ridership of rail is far higher than for BRT. If I am elected, I will only support the Purple Line rail option for that corridor.

I want to not only improve existing MARC service, but expand it as well. So, yes, I was disappointed with some of the recent State actions on MARC. The idea that someone would propose closing MARC stations in the midst of a full-blown transportation crisis boggles the mind.

Posted by: Robert Dyer | August 9, 2006 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Bill, look at this site to get part of you answer

There is a chart in there that compares different modes of transportation based on energy consumption and average passenger usage. They go in order best to worst of: motorcycle, commuter train, car, airplane, bus, subway. I'm sure if you look at Metro just during rush hour it does well, but they also run during slow periods where they are very inefficient and costly. The electric car they came out with a few years ago was running at 700BTU/m making it about 5 times more effecient than current autos and by far the best environmental system with todays technology.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 9, 2006 7:23 PM | Report abuse

I just wanted to comment on cars vs. Metro. I often wonder if Metro really understands why we don't ride. It costs me $3.75 to park at Franconia-Springfield and then $3.55 each way to ride from Franconia-Springfield to Foggy Bottom. That's $10.85 a day, which in my opinion is outrageous for public transportation. I can park in DC (and often get there faster) for $11 or $12 a day!

Posted by: Anne Stumpe | August 10, 2006 11:58 AM | Report abuse

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