Part 2: Growing Pains

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When I began commuting on VRE, the service was only four years old, three of them under the direction of Steve Roberts, and it was clearly catering to its customers. Besides the four VRE rush-hour trains each way, we could ride some Amtrak trains using multiple-ride VRE tickets; we could transfer without charge to Metrobus, Alexandria Transit, and other local bus services; and on the rare occasions when VRE could not operate, it chartered buses to take us to Northern Virginia and the Metro (later, this would change to VRE’s notorious directive to its passengers, “Seek alternate transportation”).

For my first 10 months of commuting on VRE, I didn’t record a single late train in my rail travel log. This commuter’s honeymoon ended in 1997, with my first ride on a delayed VRE train: it was an hour and 14 minutes late. Around the same time, a CSX freight train derailed at AF Junction in Alexandria, where the Norfolk Southern line from Manassas joins the CSX mainline. After the wreck was cleared up, VRE cut its service in half, with trains on each line running about once an hour. This greatly extended my commute, because I was working fixed hours and now had to arrive in Arlington, Virginia, half an hour early and wait an extra half hour in the evening for a train to Fredericksburg. I spent a lot of time sitting in the water park adjacent to the Crystal City VRE station. Then, in July, a CSX freight train derailed in Crystal City, and for the rest of the month more than half the VRE trains I rode were late—anywhere from 6 minutes to 102 minutes; three of the delays were more than an hour. VRE gives its riders free ride certificates if they are riding a train that is half an hour or more late. I earned 11 of these in July 1997, and in one respect they were welcome: I was working temporary assignments with low pay, so I could use a reduction in my commuting costs.

August was worse: only three VRE trains I rode in the first three weeks of August were on time.

VRE restored full service, though, and late VRE trains became rare again. Ridership grew, and in 1998 VRE started running some former Budd Rail Diesel Cars (now without engines in them) to expand capacity. I liked these cars; I had ridden them many times when I lived in Massachusetts, and the seats were more comfortable for me than the seats in the Mafersa coaches. In 1998 I got a full-time job in Crystal City a short walk from the VRE station, so except for the 9-mile drive at the south end of the trip (I lived in Spotsylvania, not Fredericksburg), my commute became fairly comfortable.

In 1999, delayed VRE trains became more common in my experience, crowned by 2½ hours spent sitting in Alexandria (but not at the station) after the CSX dispatching center in Florida lost power; the signals and communications went dead. I had an informal competition with my friend Dick Peacock, another board member of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons, who also worked in Crystal City and who rode the Manassas line, for the record of longest delay on a VRE train. My 2½ hours didn’t win.

In 1999, VRE got 13 Kawasaki bilevel coaches, a welcome addition to passenger-carrying capacity. I liked them, though they lasted only a few years; they were sold to Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) and replaced by 40-year-old gallery cars obtained second-hand from the Chicago-area commuter rail organization, Metra.

VRE also got hold of a few F40s and for a while ran some surplus MARC cars that had come from the Baltimore & Ohio many years before. They had old, comfortable seats but were not always warm. When riding in one of the cars one winter morning, a fellow passenger asked me, “Is this all the heat we’re going to get?”

“Until the sun comes up, yes,” I answered.

Despite occasional breakdowns and delays and failure of the heat or air-conditioning, the commute was tolerable and often enjoyable. The crews were Amtrak personnel, and they were unfailingly friendly, helpful, and polite.

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.