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VRE ridership soars again

MARC AND VRE trains pick up commuters at Union Station in Washington, DC on Friday November 19, 2010.
Andrew Harnik/Examiner
A VRE train (Examiner file photo)

Virginia Railway Express logged record ridership last year, as the service celebrates 20 years of shuttling riders from Northern Virginia to D.C. jobs.

The commuter train service's ridership grew by 5.6 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30 from the previous year, jumping from 4.5 million trips to 4.8 million, according to the chief executive officer's monthly report.

The rise is not as big as last year's 12 percent jump but comes after years of steady increases.

VRE ridership gains
Year Riders Change
2008 3.629m NA
2009 3.858m 6.3%
2010 4.033m 4.6%
2011 4.517m 12.0%
2012 4.772m 5.6%
* Each year covers the fiscal calendar, July 1 to June 30 of the listed year.
Source: Virginia Railway Express

And it occurred even as many riders had to pay more of their own fares for the final six months of the period. An estimated two out of three VRE riders use federal transit benefits, some paid for by the government and others as pre-tax payroll deductions. Those benefits were lowered Jan. 1 to a maximum of $125 per month from $230. A monthly VRE pass cost as much as $285.50 until recent fare hikes.

Once the federal benefits dropped, ridership stayed relatively constant, said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber, meaning much of the gains occurred in the first six months. Still, VRE didn't lose riders, showing a committed core.

"This validates the point that even without that full subsidy being in place, reliability is finally the determining factor," Roeber said.

In the past, the service struggled to keep trains on schedule. At its worst, in July 2006, only about half the trains were within five minutes of their scheduled times. Riders left the system for more reliable options.

In 2009, VRE lengthened the published travel time for some trains, padding the schedules. The system also has been upgrading its fleet with newer equipment that is more efficient and less prone to breakdowns. All the locomotives shuttling riders are new. Only 20 of the rail cars are original out of the 91-car fleet, while eight replacement cars are expected to arrive in 2014, said acting CEO Rich Dalton.

Trains now are on time far more often. Last month, 93 percent of trains arrived on time. In April, VRE reached 98 percent, while it logged 97 percent in May.

The added punctuality and ridership, though, means riders are crowding into standing-room only trains. The boom has been so extensive that VRE has tried to find ways of reducing demand, by subsidizing tickets for riders to use Amtrak instead.

"We're at capacity in so many areas that we can't grow the business anymore," Roeber said. "When people get on the train, they want a seat. When they pull into the parking lot, they want a place to park. Otherwise, they'll keep on driving down the road. Oddly, we're a victim of our own success."

It remains to be seen, though, what a 3 percent fare increase enacted July 1 will do. Roeber is optimistic it won't affect ridership much because the service logged its third best ridership day on Tuesday.