A Commuter’s History of VRE, part 5: VRE Turns a Corner

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By Steve Dunham

Some of this part appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star and is reproduced with permission.

The lowest point of VRE service for me came in February 2010. After a snowstorm pummeled northern Virginia, VRE announced that it would not run trains on the following Monday “as a result of power outages and concerns about treacherous road conditions leading to” its stations. It also said there might be lengthy delays on the railroad. Difficulty operating trains is one thing, but not all VRE riders drive to the stations, and even those who do can decide for themselves whether it’s safe rather than let VRE decide that they’re better off not going to work. I couldn’t work from home, and I couldn’t afford to take three or four days of vacation, so I was in the office that week, never mind the snow and cancellation of train service. VRE’s concern about the danger of driving rang hollow as I drove to work.

More snow on Tuesday and Wednesday was enough to keep the federal offices closed, but even as the railroad recovered, each evening the federal government’s announcement that it would be closed the next day was followed a few minutes later by VRE’s announcement that it would not be open for business either. If VRE had been unable to run trains, it needn’t have waited for the federal announcement. Later VRE said that it can’t afford to run trains when the federal government is closed. Yet monthly ticket holders—65% of VRE riders—had already paid for VRE service; why could VRE not afford to run even one train for the 32% of its passengers who were not federal employees?

When the federal offices finally reopened that Friday, VRE ran four trains each way instead of the usual six on the Fredericksburg line. With a lot of other VRE passengers that evening, I stood for almost an hour because there weren’t enough seats. VRE should have been able to provide train service to people who had paid for it and provide seats for them all.

Later, I was present when a passenger complained to VRE CEO Dale Zehner about buying a five-day VRE ticket and then having service canceled for four of the days. Zehner told that passenger that VRE didn’t owe him anything.

Sometimes it seemed that VRE’s basic preference was not to run trains. It certainly was reluctant to commit to providing service. Too many times to count, VRE told us commuters to call VRE after 4 the next morning to find out whether VRE would run any trains. Five years later, on March 5, 2015, a VRE sign at Fredericksburg said that all service was canceled because of inclement weather. The sky was cloudy, and the platform was wet, but Amtrak was running, so I rode Amtrak that day. We got a few inches of snow that afternoon and evening—more than enough to stop VRE.

I submitted a comment to the VRE monthly online chat saying that VRE would not be a reliable form of transportation until it could promise to get us to work and back. VRE omitted my comment because it was “inappropriate.”

Another problem for passengers started in 2010: a plague of wrong automated announcements by what one conductor called “Automated Annie”: wrong station announcements, wrong track announcements, wrong train number announcements, all growing more frequent till they happened on almost every trip. We were sometimes, because of alleged delays ahead, advised to transfer to Metro at the next station, even when the next station was in Stafford (Metro has no stations in Stafford). We would often hear that the quiet car was at the rear of the train when it wasn’t. We would hear almost every day that step boxes would be available at the conductors’ locations in Alexandria, but they hardly ever were.

Other bogus automated announcements said to watch out for high-speed trains in Quantico and Manassas (where the railroad speed limits were 55 mph and 25 mph respectively) and to turn off “all available electronic devices” in the quiet car. In an online VRE chat in 2013, a passenger commented, “I’m sure the computer meant ‘audible’ not ‘available,’” to which VRE replied, “We will look at it next time we update the system.” In 2016, another passenger complained about “the hilariously clueless” announcement about “available electronic devices.” In 2017, the last year I commuted on VRE, passengers were still being assaulted twice a day by the ridiculous announcements about high-speed trains and available electronic devices.

But the title of this part of my history is “VRE Turns a Corner,” not “VRE Goes Over a Cliff.” For me, VRE did hit bottom in 2010, but one major improvement moved the commuter railroad toward reliability: VRE got its first brand-new engines. The first of these MP36’s arrived that year, and once they replaced all the other engines on VRE’s roster, locomotive failures—a big cause of VRE delays—virtually disappeared. (Sadly, 11 years later as I write this, I routinely see VRE alerts about broken-down trains, all powered by the MP36’s, which, by railroad standards, are not old.)

VRE made another change in 2010: it took the operating contract away from Amtrak and gave it to Keolis. VRE told its passengers that the only difference we would notice would be an improvement in service. In the first few weeks after Keolis took over VRE train operations and maintenance on July 12, I rode 14 VRE trains that were on time. The other 24 were anywhere from 5 to 58 minutes late. This was somewhat worse than my experience in the previous three weeks, when Amtrak was still operating VRE trains and exactly half of the 26 trains I rode were on time. Some of the dismal on-time performance was outside the control of VRE or Keolis: CSX signal problems and heat restrictions, for example, and an incident that VRE described as a “track fire.” Other delays were clearly Keolis’s responsibility: I was on three broken-down trains in three weeks, and I witnessed several incidents of trains either overshooting a station or having to stop twice because the train was not properly positioned at the platform.

Although not clearly an improvement over having Amtrak running VRE trains, the Keolis operations got better until they were at least tolerable. Once the old locomotives had been retired, riders who were new to VRE seemed pleased with the service. And having gotten a taste of decent, if limited, commuter rail service, they wanted more. More than 600 people signed a petition asking for weekend VRE service. VRE said that there wasn’t enough demand to justify weekend service. In 2015, the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons asked VRE, through Virginia Delegate Bobby Orrock, how the demand had been measured. VRE (under CEO Doug Allen since 2013) did not give a straight answer. It mentioned the obstacles to weekend service but did not say how demand had been measured, if indeed it had.

Strangely, that same year, VRE’s Thomas Hickey addressed the Railway Patrons’ annual meeting, and he said that VRE expected to expand service to run all day and weekends by 2040. Population growth and demand would enable the change. But that would have been 25 years in the future—a long time to wait for a train.

On the plus side, VRE did add a station in 2015. After 23 years of running empty trains between Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, VRE opened the Spotsylvania station just north of the Crossroads yard, where Fredericksburg line trains spend nights and weekends. Unlike most VRE stations, it had a waiting room with a rest room. I began using it if I didn’t need to go anywhere in Fredericksburg before or after work. It was still a long way from my house (seven miles versus nine miles to Fredericksburg).

In 2017 I moved to Alexandria and stopped commuting on VRE. I kept getting VRE’s alerts, though, so I could still be a knowledgeable rail advocate. No longer a VRE commuter, I didn’t miss the uncertainty of whether VRE would even run when bad weather or another problem came up, nor did I miss the loud, wrong announcements that had become part of every trip. (On my most recent VRE ride, from Alexandria to Washington in May 2020, the computer announced the L’Enfant station after we had left it, so apparently nothing had changed in that regard.)

In 2020 VRE got a new CEO, Rich Dalton, and the bottom fell out of the Washington, DC, commuting market. With federal assistance, VRE kept running half its standard service for the benefit of the small minority of people who still had to go to work. Gaps of more than an hour between some trains kept some people from using the service, though, and in June 2021, VRE resumed its previous, mainly rush-hour, schedule. Whether the demand for that service pattern will resume is unknown, and if the market changes, will VRE adapt?

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.