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VRE Ridership Decline a Puzzlement

Post transportation editor Steven Ginsberg and I are curious about something: Ridership on the Virginia Railway Express was down slightly in the past year. Post staff writer Lena H. Sun wrote a brief in Thursday's Metro section saying that:

"In the fiscal year that ended June 30, ridership declined 2 percent from the previous year ... But in each of the previous four years, ridership increased about 13 percent."

What do you make of that phenomenon? VRE has been one of the great successes in regional transportation. Starting in December 2007, the Northern Virginia commuter train system will be adding 50 new bi-level cars to the service. VRE and MARC in Maryland offer a valuable option for Washington-bound commuters -- and it's not like there are any fewer of them.

During the summer, the freight lines that own some of their tracks order slowdowns for all trains as a safety precaution whenever it gets really hot, as it did this past week. In fact, VRE's Train Talk put out the word again this afternoon:

"Heat Restrictions in Effect Today: With the continued heat wave, heat restrictions are again in effect. On the Fredericksburg line, delays of 10-15 minutes are expected. However, this could be longer if there are additional issues along the way."

That throws off schedules, as does track work and signal problems on the frieght lines. But judging by the number of complaints we get about traffic on I-95, I-66 and I-270, it's hard to believe that commuters are choosing the roads over the rails.

Does anyone know a commuter who stopped using VRE for some reason?

By Robert Thomson  |  August 4, 2006; 1:34 PM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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That is really interesting. I have no idea why, but perhaps it's because they cancelled service more days last year?

Quick suggestion, Dr. Gridlock...can you link to the original Post article when you reference it? Makes it easier to see the context.

Posted by: Arrrlington | August 4, 2006 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Arrrlington, Here's the original:

50 Bi-Level Rail Cars to Join Fleet

Virginia Railway Express will add 50 bi-level cars, officials said yesterday after the system's board awarded a $92.5 million contract to Sumitomo Corp. of America.
The cars will be delivered beginning in December 2007. VRE has a fleet of 86 rail cars and uses 69 to operate the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines. Many of the existing cars are old and need to be replaced, spokesman Mark Roeber said.

When the new equipment is in service, VRE will have 25 percent more seating capacity, he said.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, ridership declined 2 percent from the previous year, Roeber said. But in each of the previous four years, ridership increased about 13 percent.
-- Lena H. Sun

Posted by: Dr. Gridlock | August 4, 2006 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see VRE and MARC overlap each other's territory a little bit more than simply sharing Union Station as a terminus -- Maybe see some VRE trains head toward New Carollton, and better yet, MARC to Pentagon and/or Crystal city. I think if either system could move passengers beyond DC, it would be a good thing.

Posted by: Bill | August 4, 2006 3:15 PM | Report abuse

I can't speak for VRE riders since I commute in from Maryland, but I can tell you that I nearly quit riding MARC last year after becoming frustrated with consistent delays and breakdowns. I'd say out of 10 weekly trips on the Camden Line, at least 4 were disrupted in some way, and during the hot summer months the speed restrictions due to heat added 20 minutes to my commute.
That kind of unpredictability can be equally as stressful as sitting in traffic, IMO.

Posted by: Tim | August 4, 2006 3:50 PM | Report abuse

It hasn't just been the summer heat restrictions that have thrown off the VRE schedule. This has been a constant since the current management took over the line. Check out the article in The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star from last week.

It's a bit difficult relying on a commuter line that may or may not get you to your job anywhere near on time. Certainly the demand for a marginally timely commuter line is there (last year they had to build an overflow parking lot here at Leeland Road), but the performance is so lousy the regular lot now has open spaces all day.

Posted by: Patrick | August 4, 2006 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I stopped using the VRE in April after one particularly nasty week- when the train was running at least 30 minutes late 4 days in a row! I am now a very happy Omnirider.

Posted by: Maria | August 4, 2006 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Quality and reliability of service are HUGE issues.

Remember that taking the commuter train to work often requires three different modes of transportation: car or bus to the station, transfer (with a wait) to the train itself, and perhaps another transfer (and a wait) to Metro.

For many people, the hassle of driving, even with traffic jams, is not that much greater. If the commuter train (and Metro) don't offer reliable, hassle free service, a lot of people figure that if they're gonna be hassled either way, they'd rather be in the comfort of their own car where they can eat, listen to the radio or CD, and get a one-seat ride from home to the office.

VRE, MARC and Metro managers (and those who fund them) need to be paying attention!

Posted by: Meridian | August 4, 2006 4:38 PM | Report abuse

I gave up riding VRE three years ago. Aside from the reliability issues that others have mentioned, I found VRE to be intolerably uncomfortable for a ride that took too long to begin with. Standing on Metro is more comfortable to me than sitting on the VRE Manassas line, and I suspect there are other VRE riders who feel the same way. I often noticed other riders assuming unusual postures and sitting positions.

Posted by: Dave | August 4, 2006 5:26 PM | Report abuse

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.

Posted by: Steve | August 4, 2006 5:42 PM | Report abuse

When my wife and I purchased a home, we considered homes near VRE and METRO. When we realized that VRE ran 1 way only (in to DC in the morning and out of DC in the evening--which brings me to my next point) and the last train out of DC was before 6 pm, we eliminated it from consideration (i now see they now run trains that leave close to, but beofre 7). Basically, if you do not work for uncle sam, VRE is useless as any day you have to stay late (virtually any professional and most congressional staffers face this on a regular basis) you are out of luck.

back then we even asked VRE if it was considering add trains after 7pm and they said they were unprofitable as they had extremely low ridership.

as a new yorker (please, i am not the New Yorker's view of the world poster boy), i was totally amazed by this (and MARC). LIRR, Metro North, and NJ transit run both ways all day and on weekends. you could get from ct to the island or upstate ny to philly (and vice versa) all on regional rail any day of the week.

DC is supposed to be this amzaingly huge metro area, but it basically has virtually no regional rail. and METRO is the worst of both worlds--it has all the inconveniences of a subway and regional rail. but with all its many, many faults it is still better than VRE and MARC.

Posted by: L.I. | August 4, 2006 8:57 PM | Report abuse

You are asking the wrong questions. Try asking, "What is the average age of the riders? What percentage is 50+?" There is an answer to the 2% in those questions. The question for future declines in ridership is "How many riders changed jobs to ones located closer to home?"

Posted by: Phillip Ramsey | August 4, 2006 10:01 PM | Report abuse

L.I. hits the proverbial nail on the head. I had two colleagues who tried the VRE, but we're attorneys and they found that it was impossible for them to predict whether they'd be able to make the last train. They went back to driving for that reason (but they bought ILEV vehicles).

Posted by: Rich | August 5, 2006 1:58 PM | Report abuse

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.

Posted by: Jim | August 5, 2006 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I've ridden on the FBurg line for nearly four years from Stafford to Alexandria. I'm seriously considering driving - which I'd never thought I'd do - because of the total unreliability of VRE. The biggest problem I've had is that the management just doesn't care. I've communicated with them over and over to see what they are doing to improve service and rather than answer, they just give excuses as to why the problems aren't their fault. On top of that, they've been raising fares each year for worse and worse service (and they say service would be even worse without the fare increases) so it's not even much of a value. Layer in consistent 1-2 hour delays on top of dramatically rising costs and complete indifference from management, and driving - even on I-95 - seems to be a better option.

Posted by: Mike | August 7, 2006 8:43 AM | Report abuse

When I moved to Woodbridge, I looked into all my commuting options including VRE to Union Station (I work on the Hill) and bus to Springfield metro. The most convienent and cost effective method has consistently been picking up slugs. I can leave my house at 6:00, fet to the Horner Road loat by 6:10, drop off my slugs at L'Enfant about 6:55 and be working out in the staff gym by 7:15. Try doing that on mass transit.

Posted by: Woodbridge Va | August 7, 2006 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Can't speak for VRE, but there seems to be wild variation in QOS on the various MARC lines. I ride the Penn line, opposite rush hour, and I LOVE it. The longest delay I've had is 30 minutes, when the power went out up the NE corridor! But I can definately understand the complaints of it not being accomdating to off-hour schedules. I think the only reason Penn is convinient for me is that the airport makes it economical to run more off-hour trains. But it also sounds like Amtrak does a far better job of providing high quality than CSX is doing. Transit is a self perpetuating system, if there are more often more convinient trains that will bring in more ridership, the higher ridership will increase fares and make it more economical to run more trains, etc.... Unfortunately, the riders will never be the ones to get the ball rolling and local government farebox return requirements seem to give no breathing room to get the ball rolling. Take Maryland for example...MARC started with a farebox return requirement of 40% I think? And they crushed it, returning almost 60%... so what does the state do? Increases the required return to 50%!!! Instead, they should have used the excess cash flow to provide more service. Even if those new services weren't extensively used immediately, the other more profitable lines could make up the difference until they built up the ridership. Seems like no one thinks that way in Annapolis (or Richmond apparently).

Posted by: PJB | August 7, 2006 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I am a commuter who stopped using VRE. The major reason was because I switched to an alternative schedule and don't have a handy VRE train to take home when I want to go home. But VRE's quality had declined too -- higher costs, crowded trains, and the free EZ bus shuttle to my neighborhood was saddled with some completely rude drivers who didn't know their own policy and would refuse to take people to the station.

Posted by: Fairfax | August 7, 2006 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I rode the VRE a couple of years ago when I lived in Springfield and worked in Alexandria. Since I was close to a station, I found it very handy. I eventually stopped riding it was very expensive (especially going from Backlick to Alexandria)and it was cheaper for me to take a bus to the metro and ride into Alexandria that way. It was less convenient, but much cheaper. Additionally, I found the afternoon rides dreadful. The cars were always overcrowded and very hot. The Manassas Line always seemed to have the "cattle cars" as I called them. They were narrow and all metal. It always scared me what would happen in those cars if we had an emergency. There would be chaos for sure.

Posted by: KH | August 7, 2006 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Gridlock, anyone who rides the VRE daily, like I do, knows why ridership has declined. If you purchased a monthly pass and rode it every day, to and from work, you would know why too: unreliability. 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. One work week includes 10 trips; at least 5 of them will have delays. There are times (more than should be acceptable) when I return home many hours late because of the VRE. Many mornings I am forced to drive to work because the VRE is delayed an hour for some reason or other, and I cannot be that late to work. This is after I have already paid $95.00 for a monthly pass (which is even before I get to the metro, where I shell out more money), so basically some days I just throw my money away. For these reasons, and more, many cannot simply risk the disaster VRE has become.

Posted by: LD | August 7, 2006 5:25 PM | Report abuse

I rode the VRE for over a year in 2003-04, before I was introduced to slugging. I found it expensive (then $165/mo. See LD, but it's $195.00 as opposed to $95.00 for the monthly pass), increasingly crowded (trains and parking lots), increasingly unreliable, and very inflexible. Slugging has proven just the opposite for me. Costs are limited to getting to the lot and then Metro fare from the drop-off point, both costs already incurred by most VRE riders. The cars are rarely cramped for space (unless you're picked up by a kind soul taking 6 in a mini-van because it's close to 6 pm at the Pentagon -- still roomier than the train), and the HOV lanes have been consistently free-flowing (the only exceptions being when accidents shut down both the regular and HOV lanes, in my experience). The Horner road parking lot at exit 158 fills by around 7:15 am, so I wouldn't slug from or pick up there after that, but I've never seen Potomac Mills Mall's parking lot fill completely, and I find rides there up until just before 9 am on a regular basis. Reliability is very high as long as you arrive at least 15 minutes before the lanes open up to everyone (which is still later than the last VRE comes through Woodbridge). The Omniride provides a great alternative if you miss a ride, especially at night (as late as an 8 pm departure from the Pentagon, or as late as 10:30 pm from Springfield Metro if necessary), and at $3.80 for tokens that don't expire like VRE's passes, it's cheaper too, though some of the early buses are a little packed like VRE and can get caught in traffic if leaving between 6 and 7 pm.

So, that did it for me. I've slugged now for two years, and plan to continue. I drive on occasion when necessary (picking slugs up, of course), and overall am thrilled with my average commute.

On a side note, I hope that the HOT lanes proposals don't go through for I-95 and I-395, as I believe they have for 495. As an alternative to HOT lanes, I wouldn't object to a requirement of HOV-4 for cars and HOV-2 for the hybrids that currently can drive solo as a means to take more cars off of I-95.

Then if we could just put up a parking structure at Horner, a piece at a time so as not to cripple the whole thing at once, and maybe run Metro down to the Woodbridge area, Woodbridge would be the poster child for flexible commuting in Northern Virginia. Pie in the sky, I know.

Posted by: Woodbridge Slug | August 8, 2006 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I take the VRE in from Manassas, and that line has no where near the amount of delays as the Fburg Line, of course, Norfolk Southern, who owns the Manassas tracks doesn't do the slower speeds in the summer and that helps.

I tend to see less people in the summers b/c a lot of riders take vacation at that time.

Posted by: Leti M | August 8, 2006 3:05 PM | Report abuse

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