VRE Addresses 'Capacity Issues'
Virginia Railway Express CEO Dale Zehner tackles the issues that affect Manassas VRE riders most.
In two messages to riders, Virginia Railway Express CEO Dale Zehner said staffing changes are being implemented in the wake of recent mechanical problems that affected service. Zehner's hope is that changes to the communication channels between engineers, technicians and passengers will improve service.
In a column printed in January's VRE newsletter, Zehner writes that "November and December were some of the toughest months that we have had, mechanically speaking."
"It became very clear that what we were doing was not working, both with Keolis and with VRE. Immediate changes needed to be made. To that end, Keolis has made some staffing changes on the mechanical side of the house. They have brought in experts, both from France and from the U.S. to revamp their processes and procedures. I have also asked VRE’s Director of Rail Equipment and Services to take a more active role overseeing the mechanical portion of the contract," wrote Zehner in his column.
Zehner says that he has instructed Keolis to improve troubleshooting training for their engineers and conductors. VRE has also made changes to procedures for mechanical crews dealing with an en-route mechanical problem. The goal is to get technicians to the scene more quickly. Engineers will also be put in contact with mechanics over cell phones until the problem is resolved or technicians arrive on the scene.
Another issue facing Manassas VRE riders: overcrowding. At a special town hall meeting held in Manassas City by local delegates on January 5th, one week prior to the general session conveneing, a Manassas VRE rider spoke out about the overcrowding issues on the trains heading out of the Manassas stations.
In another message entitled "Capacity Issues," which was emailed to VRE riders early Thursday, Zehner writes that the system is facing a serious challenge in dealing with the growing popularity of VRE service.
"Over the last several months, ridership has been growing by leaps and bounds," wrote Zehner. "As I look at the top ten ridership days that VRE has ever had, all of them are over 19,000 trips a day. One is just shy of 20,000 by about 88 trips. All of our top ten days have occurred October 2010 or later, with half of them occurring this January."
Zehner says that limitations on rail yard space in Washington, D.C. are the biggest obstacles to increasing either the length or number of trains in service.
"First, and perhaps easiest to implement, is to take a train set and send it back to Broad Run after its morning run. The train would then head back to D.C. in the afternoon to operate as an afternoon rush hour train," wrote Zehner. "Unfortunately for us, because of the physical layout of our daytime storage yard, taking a six-car train set out of D.C. does not mean that we can add six cars to our current service."
Zehner say that, working with those options, the best VRE could do would be to add two cars to Manassas Line train 326/329, the most crowded train on the system. This would also allow one car to be added to a Fredericksburg Line Train.
Zehner says that he has permission from VRE's Operations Board to implement this plan, however CSX is concerned about VRE's reliability.
"Once we have restored our service to an acceptable on-time performance, I think we'll be in a better position to implement this option," wrote Zehner.
Another option for VRE, says Zehner, is to use a storage track at L'Enfant plaza to handle additional capacity.
"Ideally, I would like to do this when we can also add more service so that the new service terminates/originates at L’Enfant, rather than eliminating Union Station service from current trains," writes Zehner. "Another possibility is to add a switch on the north end of the track. This way a train could go into Union Station and then slip back into the storage track."
A third option would be to add a switch to the north end of the track so that a train could enter Union Station and then return to the storage track. Zehner reports that his staff is examining that option with CSX.
"The difficulty with this, especially if we add more service, is having enough rail cars to provide the service," wrote Zehner. "If I can cobble together enough money to create a 5-car base order with options, I think we’ll be in business."