A Commuter’s History of VRE, Part 4: A 15-Year-Old Railroad with 30-Year-Old Trains

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By 2002, Virginia Railway Express operations were fairly routine: just what a commuter wants. Delays of more than 10 minutes were pretty rare, as were breakdowns.

By the end of 2003, however, delays of 20, 30, or 60 minutes or more were not so unusual, and canceled VRE trains were all too common. In that year, on five workdays VRE had canceled all service and offered no alternatives. It glibly told passengers, “Seek alternate transportation.”

That “alternate transportation”—what little of it there was—could get pretty expensive: $20 for a round trip on the National Coach bus, $28.50 for a round trip to Springfield on Greyhound, plus Metro fare to get from those buses’ terminals to my office. The cost was in addition to what I had already paid for a month of unlimited rides on VRE.

I didn’t have a spare car to drive to work on the days when VRE failed to run. Even if I’d had one, where would I have driven to? Like many other workers, I had a choice between subsidized parking and subsidized mass transit. I had chosen transit, so I didn’t have a parking permit for the garage at work.

Sometimes I could do some work at home when VRE didn’t run, but much of my work had to be done in the office. When VRE failed to operate, often I ended up using vacation time for the hours I didn’t work.

In the last two weeks of December, my usual morning train, the 7:15 out of Fredericksburg, operated only once. Twice, because of engine failures, it couldn’t leave the yard in Spotsylvania.

Meanwhile, VRE’s plain-talking leader, Pete Sklannik, was apparently rubbing some officials’ fur the wrong way, because in 2003 he resigned after an investigation (the results were not publicly released) that said he misspent $17,000 over the course of three years. Dale Zehner, VRE’s Chief of Staff, became Chief Operating Officer in 2003 and Chief Executive Officer in 2004.

VRE faced another problem: limited by available storage space in Washington, DC, VRE needed to fit more passengers into trains of the same length, and so it moved toward a fleet of bilevel passenger cars only. In 2004, it sold its original 1992 single-level Mafersa cars and relied entirely on the 13 Kawaski bilevels built in 1999, a pair of bilevel trains leased from Sound Transit in Washington State, and the gallery cars from Illinois, which now were about 40 years old. VRE faced a financial crunch too, so it raised fares.

The next year, 2005, VRE’s engines were aging poorly; seven trains I rode broke down or had to push another train that broke down, my normal evening train was canceled at least three times, and failures of electric power from the diesels to the coaches started cropping up more often, depriving passengers of lights, ventilation, and heating or cooling. And VRE raised its fares again.

It got worse in 2006. VRE got off to a bad start with a January derailment at Possum Point, just north of Quantico. Those of us on the trains behind the derailment were taken back to our starting stations and told, “Seek alternate transportation.”

That year, I experienced 6 broken-down VRE trains; in 2007 it was 13. On one occasion, the train I was riding broke down and the train behind it was supposed to push it the rest of the way to Washington, but that train broke down too. And VRE raised its fares for the third year in a row.

“Virginia Railway Express has the ominous distinction of being the only commuter [rail]road that is suffering a decline in ridership during a time of unprecedented gasoline prices when most commuter lines and Amtrak corridors are experiencing record patronage,” wrote Lee Gregory in the September 2006 issue of Railpace Newsmagazine in his “Allegheny Observer” column.

VRE had concentrated on attracting riders who have another choice. Its mission of “traffic mitigation” meant that the people it wanted on board would have a car and otherwise would drive.

Although I like trains and hate driving, the only thing keeping me on VRE that summer was the high cost of driving. Riding VRE was so frustrating and time consuming (my commuting time was sometimes six hours a day or even more) that driving didn’t seem so bad, only more expensive. Then gas prices started to fall. I kept riding VRE, but a lot of people did not.

By 2006, the average age of VRE’s locomotives was about 33 years. The RP39’s and GP40’s had originally been built in the late 1960s and early 1970s and had been rebuilt for VRE. The F40’s dated to the 1980s and late 1970s. The locomotives were scheduled for heavy overhauls, but frequent breakdowns continued. However, VRE’s next rolling stock investment was not new locomotives but new gallery cars from Nippon Sharyo.

In 2006 VRE got the first of its new coaches and returned the Sounders, and in 2008 it sold its nine-year-old Kawasaki bilevels. I wished VRE had been buying new locomotives instead of new coaches. I’d rather commute in an old coach pulled by a new locomotive than in a brand-new coach pulled by an old engine. Maybe the engine overhauls helped, because trains broke down less often in 2008 and 2009, but still it happened often enough that if I had an important appointment or had to go to the airport I would leave an hour early in case the VRE train broke down.

Other persistent problems were VRE’s unreliable ticket machines, train-status displays that often were blank, and other poor communications. Those who chose to ride VRE had ample reason to frequently question their decision.