Manassas Journal Messenger | Webb: VRE can win Hill funding

Virginia Railway Express, with its $9-a-day tickets and free parking, is a mass transit system with the right incentives to attract congressional funding, said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

And it’s done just that – Webb recently pushed to appropriate $5 million toward VRE’s $80 million locomotive replacement program, which officials hope will increase reliability and attract customers.

Webb visited the Woodbridge VRE station Thursday afternoon to ride the commuter rail system, which has a shopping list for 20 new locomotives. VRE still needs $57 million to make that purchase.

“When you’re spending a trillion dollars on the war in Iraq, and gas has gone from $24 to $80 a barrel, we have created a system where our whole national infrastructure is at risk,” Webb said during a press conference in the atrium of the commuter rail station.

“I feel confident that with a Democratic Congress we will start to see more emphasis on projects like this,” he said.

VRE officials are anticipating a future strong with increasing numbers of riders – in October they experienced numbers higher than they’ve seen in the past two years, said Mark Roeber, VRE spokesman.

During the first days of October, VRE carried 15,987 passengers.

Last month they saw a 6 percent increase in the number of riders over the same period in 2006. That’s 749 more customers.

Roeber said those numbers are connected to on-time trains.

Recently most of their delays have been caused by minor problems with the aging locomotive fleet, he said.

“In our world, when a 5 minute delay means being late, any little hiccup like a loose hose doesn’t take much to make a delay that gets put on the board,” he said.

That’s why the locomotive replacement program is important, he said.

The Virginia General Assembly implemented a transportation funding program for the region, which includes an annual $25 million payment to VRE, Roeber said. If the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority begins collecting taxes in January, VRE could put some of that money toward new locomotives, he said.

One year ago, the picture wasn’t as rosy.

In the summer of 2006, thousands of riders ditched VRE as heat restrictions, switch problems and a massive railroad tie replacement program caused delays on the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines, said Jennifer Straub, deputy CEO of VRE.

“We are beginning the next phase in further improving our service. What is critical to our success is on-time performance,” Straub said.

Rider comfort is also on the rise.

VRE is replacing the 30-year-old train cars with sleek, bright ones that have cup holders on the seats.

Eleven new cars are already in service and five new ones will be introduced to the fleet every month until there are 61 new cars, Roeber said. The new locomotives will be able to pull longer trains, which means more passengers can take the train.

“At that point we’ll have the state of the art system that we had when we started [VRE],” said Straub.

Passengers have been asking for an earlier morning train from Fredericksburg and a later morning train from Manassas, Straub said.

Costs for adding service to both lines will be included in next year’s budget, which officials are working on right now.

“We’ll see where things pan out,” she said. “We’re just starting the budget process.”


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