An effort to thin out crowds on Virginia Railway Express trains is working.

VRE riders bought about 8,700 "step-up" tickets in March so they could ditch crowded VRE trains and take roomier Amtrak trains instead -- a 37 percent increase over March 2012 -- a report from the railway's CEO Doug Allen said.

"[The increase allowed] 2,000 plus riders access to a seat, which has helped alleviate some of our capacity and customer service issues," Allen noted in his report to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission last week.

The commuter train service that shuttles workers Washington from as far away as Fredericksburg and Manassas has faced crowding problems for years. To encourage people to upgrade to Amtrak, the commonwealth started subsidizing the $10 "step-up" tickets, charging riders $5 in May 2011 and lowering that to $3 March 1. Riders who want to get the "step-up" must buy the special ticket in addition to their regular VRE fare.

"We're trying to take advantage of a train that's already running and has plenty of capacity by making it more affordable," Paul Milde, vice chairman of the VRE board, said recently. "We know by lowering that rate we'll eliminate the congestion on some of our regular VRE trains."

The measure may become even more important as more people crowd trains on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, choosing to telework on Fridays -- a phenomenon Allen noted in his March report.

"The glaring statistic is Friday service," the report said. "There is no doubt that the increase in teleworking and telecommuting have directly affected this particular day."

Officials from the train service have noted in the past that they need to add more trains. VRE is paying to have eight more rail cars made in Japan, but they won't be running on the tracks until 2014. Until then, officials are hoping more riders upgrade to Amtrak.

VRE had more good news for March. About 98 percent of its trains were on time that month -- tying two months in 2012 for the best performance the service has had.