A Commuter’s History of VRE, Part 3: Commuting Changes After September 11, 2001

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By Steve Dunham

Some of this part appeared in slightly different form in Steve Dunham’s “Commuter Crossroads” column in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance–Star in 2001 through 2004 and is reproduced with permission.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought sudden changes to commuting on Virginia Railway Express.

After the plane hit the Pentagon, the railroad tunnel under Capitol Hill was closed because terrorists might have planted bombs in it. Metro stopped operating the yellow line across the Potomac because the bridge might get hit by terrorists in a jetliner. Some people walked eight miles from Washington, DC, to Alexandria hoping to board a VRE train there. VRE used one train that wasn’t in Washington during the attack to take passengers home on the Manassas line, and VRE called on Alexandria Transit buses to carry passengers to stations on the Fredericksburg line. Eventually the tunnel was reopened (no bombs), VRE started running out of Washington again, and the yellow line started crossing the Potomac once more.

VRE later urged its passengers “to develop at least two alternate plans to get home: One that involves public transportation and one that does not.” VRE riders in the suburbs closer to Washington might have had alternative public transportation in an emergency. Those in farther areas had precious little. And getting home from Washington without public transportation? “Honey, Washington’s under attack, so come get me”? Richard White, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said that Metro, which is already packed during rush hours, wouldn’t be able to absorb additional passengers trying to get out of the city in an emergency; many people would have to walk.Later, CSX, which owns the Fredericksburg line, and Norfolk Southern, which owns the Manassas line, promised track capacity for evacuation in the case of another emergency, said Dave Snyder, who was VRE’s superintendent of railroad operations, safety, and security.

In the days and weeks that followed the September 11 attacks, closure of highway ramps and increased security checks of vehicles approaching the Pentagon resulted in even worse traffic congestion in that corner of Arlington, Virginia, prompting more commuters to switch to VRE. Down at Quantico, every vehicle entering the Marine Corps base was now being inspected, causing traffic backups onto U.S. 1. Quantico suddenly became a bigger destination for rail commuters. Even once the road congestion had been somewhat alleviated, many of VRE’s new riders didn’t go back to the highway, and VRE’s growth projections—only a few months old—were already eclipsed.

The terrorists had been able to get driver’s licenses and board planes; because they had blended in so well, everyone was now a suspect. A “Security Reminder” from VRE was supposed to help us “spot suspicious persons,” who might be “keeping one or both hands in pockets [or] close to his or her body” and have “bulges or padding around the midsection.” Standing on the platform in Crystal City one evening, I saw that lots of commuters had their hands in their pockets. And bulges around the midsection? It looked like they were getting ready to board the Terrorist Express.

In 2004, VRE began a program called CAST (Commuter Awareness for Safe Travel), encouraging passengers to be safe, smart, informed, aware, and prepared. Some of it was merely common sense: Learn the location of emergency exits on the train and how to use them. Stay calm in an emergency and listen for instructions. Other portions were not as credible: For example, pay attention to the Homeland Security Department’s terrorism alerts. What were we supposed to do differently when the alert level went from yellow to orange?

VRE also asked us to label our bags with CAST tags bearing our name and address so that if we left a bag behind it would be identified. I added tags to all my bags, but if I had been a terrorist with a bomb, I would have put a CAST tag on it to indicate that it was legitimate luggage.

Although cameras are presumed to discourage crime, now anyone carrying a camera near the tracks was often suspected of being a terrorist. New Jersey Transit wanted to forbid anyone to take pictures of its property. This was before every smartphone had a built-in camera. However, I never heard of VRE discouraging responsible railfans. Still, when taking pictures of public transportation, I expected to be challenged, though I never was.

As the new Transportation Security Administration began telling passenger railroads and transit agencies to use bomb-sniffing dogs and screen passengers, it seemed unaware that such antiterrorism measures on U.S. passenger railways had been increasing since 1995, when the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. VRE had had a stronger focus on security ever since Pete Sklannik arrived there in the summer of 2000. When he was with the Long Island Rail Road, Sklannik had served on a committee of Metropolitan (New York) Transportation Authority managers in response to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and at VRE he told his staff, “Let’s start thinking like a terrorist.” VRE often carried out exercises with the military and with emergency responders.

VRE did not attempt the impossible task of screening all passengers who board its trains (as some security people thought it should do), but it did have police with bomb-sniffing dogs walk the aisles of randomly selected trains—a good practice. The security effort with the most apparent and immediate impact for New Jersey Transit at this time was canine bomb-detection teams, according to Mary Rabadeau, the agency’s police chief at the time.

Later, VRE invited the Transportation Security Administration to have heavily armed VIPR (“Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response”) teams stand on station platforms at rush hours to, in the words of VRE, deter “potential issues.”

From 2001 onwards, it seemed to be an article of faith among many security practitioners that the threat from terrorism was increasing every year. Bombings of commuter trains in Spain in 2004 and subway trains in London in 2005 showed that the threat continued and was real but not that it was always getting worse. During these years I often researched and wrote about transportation security and attended conferences on rail security; there was a threat, and agencies were responding, but I do not agree that the threat was continually increasing. Yet as late as 2013, VRE was claiming “increases in terror threats” but did not tell its passengers what the threats were or how much the threats had increased. Maybe passengers could have been watching for the threats if the threats were still real.

The 2001 attacks affected VRE in another way too: the Defense Department decided to remove many of its offices from Crystal City to locations it considered more defensible, usually miles from any VRE station. My commute changed in 2001 too: seeking lower rent, my employer moved from Crystal City to Shirlington (in Arlington). Now my office wasn’t near a VRE station, it was a half-hour bus ride away. Driving 55 miles each way was out of the question, but my car-train-bus commuting time was up to about 5 hours a day.

Steve Dunham has been riding VRE since the first day of service on the Fredericksburg line in 1992, and he commuted on VRE from 1996 to 2017. He has been on the board of directors of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons (a volunteer nonprofit group) since 1998 and chairman of the board since 2000.