Virginia Railway Express (VRE)

the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is a commuter railroad carrying workers from houses in the Virginia suburbs to jobs in the urban core
the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is a commuter railroad carrying workers from houses in the Virginia suburbs to jobs in the urban core
Source: Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Executive Summary and 2019 Mid-term Transportation Needs for Northern Virginia Construction District

Virginia has one commuter rail system, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE).

Commuter rail is not a new concept in Virginia. In 1860, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) railroad offered a special commuter fare between Ashland and Richmond. On the south side of the James River, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad offered a discount for commuters travelling between Chester and Richmond.1

The first railroads in Northern Virginia provided passenger rail service into Alexandria for people living in the surrounding countryside, starting in the 1850's with the Orange and Alexandria (O&A) and Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire (AL&H) railroads.

What is now the I-95 corridor was not the first route to be developed. Travel into Alexandria from the south was difficult until after the Civil War.

The stretch of railroad track that connects Alexandria to Fredericksburg, now owned by CSX, was not built until 1872. Until then, the northern end of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad was a wharf at Aquia Creek. Passengers and freight took a steamboat via the Potomac River to Washington DC. The Alexandria and Washington Railroad linked Alexandria to the southern end of Long Bridge (now the 14th Street Bridge) in 1857.

The railroad constructed more track on the northern end of the bridge to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station in DC, but the Virginia General Assembly prohibited connecting the two ends. The direct rail connection across the Potomac River from Virginia into the District of Columbia was not established until the Civil War. Once the Union Army crossed the Potomac River and occupied Northern Virginia in 1861, it needed a more efficient supply system. The concerns of the Virginia General Assembly were ignored and railroad track was installed on Long Bridge.

A new railroad bridge strong enough to handle the locomotives of the time was completed in 1863. It was replaced by the current Long Bridge, built in 1904.2

The Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad and the Southern Railroad provided passenger service in Northern Virginia after World War II, connecting to the Pennsylvania Railroad (and briefly the Penn Central) at Potomac Yard. The development of highways after World War II and ready access to cars shifted transportation patterns, and for railroads carrying passengers was no longer profitable. The Interstate Commerce Commission, a Federal agency, steadily allowed US railroads to cancel passenger service on different routes until the creation of Amtrak.

In 1971, Amtrak took over passenger rail service from the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad and Penn Central on the current VRE Fredericksburg Line. In 1979, Amtrak replaced the Southern Railroad on the current VRE Manassas Line. Amtrak was organized to provide long-distance passenger service, and its limited service was not frequent enough to satisfy the increasing number of commuters in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

In 1964, the General Assembly created the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC). It included the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church and the counties of Arlington and Fairfax.

The NVTC jurisdictions planned the Metrorail system in Northern Virginia. Operations were funded with an extra 2% gas tax authorized by the General Assembly, collected just in the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission jurisdictions. Traffic flow to and from the District of Columbia from jurisdictions further away from the urban core, such as Loudoun and Prince William counties, was too light to justify further extension of the new transit system.

In 1965, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission proposed a study of RF&P commuter train service from Franconia to DC. NVTC lost the battle to preserve the Washington and Old Dominion right-of-way for a future commuter rail line, and it was converted into I-66 and a pedestrian/bike trail.3

a 1967 study examined the potential of commuter rail service by the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) railroad between Union Station and Franconia, with trains stored at Woodbridge and used for weekend trips to Richmond
a 1967 study examined the potential of commuter rail service by the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) railroad between Union Station and Franconia, with trains stored at Woodbridge and used for weekend trips to Richmond
Source: Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, Proposed Washington-Alexandria-Franconia Commuter Train Service (Exhibit 1)

In 1974, Prince William County officials proposed creating new commuter rail lines from Fredericksburg and Manassas. Commuter trains would inevitably delay freight trains, cutting into revenue and profits. The private companies which owned the railroad tracks made clear during the studies that they prioritized freight traffic. The RF&P Railroad was reported to be "totally disinterested."4

VRE trains compete with Norfolk Southern freight traffic on the Manassas Line, and CSX freight traffic on the Fredericksburg Line
VRE trains compete with Norfolk Southern freight traffic on the Manassas Line, and CSX freight traffic on the Fredericksburg Line
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Virginia Rail Map (2012)

Despite the railroads' resistance, the NVTC began studying the potential of separate commuter lines from Manassas to DC and Fredericksburg to DC again in 1984. The jurisdictions of Prince William and Stafford County, plus the City of Fredericksburg, desired commuter rail service but had no interest in joining the NVTC itself. The outer suburbs did not participate in funding the Metro rail and bus system operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and were not authorized to impose an extra 2% tax on gasoline sales to finance Metrorail/Metrobus operations.

To solve that problem, the 1990 General Assembly created the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) with Prince William and Stafford counties and the cities of Manassas, Manassas Park and Fredericksburg. The PRTC members were authorized to impose an extra 2% tax on gasoline to fund transportation projects within the district, just like NVTC jurisdictions paying Metrorail/Metrobus costs.

PRTC and NVTC created a third management layer to launch and manage the Virginia Railway Express (VRE). The VRE Operations Board includes members from both commissions, plus state officials.

VRE is managed by two commissions, composed primarily of elected local/state officials
VRE is managed by two commissions, composed primarily of elected local/state officials
Source: Virginia Railway Express Transit Development Plan (FY2013-FY2018), VRE Relationship to NVTC and PRTC (Figure 1)

The VRE Master Agreement enables both commissions to shape the decisions at VRE, but the management structure complicates routine administrative operations such as audits. At times, the two commissions have even been competitive. NVCT and PRTC both recruited Loudoun County to join their organizations. In 1990, Loudoun chose to join NVTC, while Fredericksburg and Manassas Park joined PRTC.5

Loudoun County has joined NVTC (in green), and Spotsylvania County has joined PRTC (in yellow)
Loudoun County has joined the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC, in green) and Spotsylvania County has joined the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC, in yellow)

Transportation-related decisions have long-term impacts, and require long-term vision and planning. In 1990 there was no obvious potential for Loudoun to get a VRE commuter rail station, since the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) railroad line had been converted into I-66 and a regional trail.

Joining PRTC made little sense for Loudoun County, but the benefits of joining NVTC was also speculative. County officials needed a long-range vision in 1990, when the potential for a Metrorail extension to Loudoun may have seemed almost as visionary as a VRE connection.

Had Loudoun joined PRTC or declined to join NVTC, then 25 years later the inner jurisdictions of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church and the counties of Arlington and Fairfax would have had little reason to support building two additional Silver Line Metrorail stations in Loudoun County past Dulles Airport.

by 1990, the former Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad route had been converted into the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) bike trail
by 1990, the former Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad route had been converted into the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) bike trail
Source: NOVA Parks, Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park

Virginia Railway Express (VRE) started commuter rail service in 1992. It was soon carrying nearly 6,000 passengers/day, but getting the commuter rail system started was unusually challenging. As described colorfully in the official VRE chronology:6

VRE provides Northern Virginia commuters an alternative to driving on I-95 or I-66, with fares based on nine zones extending out from the District of Columbia
VRE provides Northern Virginia commuters an alternative to driving on I-95 or I-66, with fares based on nine zones extending out from the District of Columbia
Source: Virginia Railway Express, System Map

Amtrak operated the trains for VRE for the first 18 years of commuter rail service. In 2010, VRE put the contract out for competition and chose Keolis Rail Services. Amtrak did not expect to lose the contract, and its bid included a $2.2 million charge for first-year transition costs. Since Amtrak was the incumbent operator, transition costs should have been minimal.7

Rippon Station, on the Fredericksburg Line of the Virginia Railway Express
Rippon Station, on the Fredericksburg Line of the Virginia Railway Express

Also in 2010, Spotsylvania County joined the PRTC. A new end-of-line station for the Fredericksburg Line opened in 2013, six miles south of Fredericksburg in Spotsylvania County.

By 2012, after 20 years of operation, VRE ridership had grown to 19,000/day. More customers did not translate into more profits, however. VRE, like other public bus and rail transportation systems, makes no profits. VRE requires annual subsidies from government agencies to stay in business.

Fares paid by VRE's customers cover only 50% of operations and maintenance (O&M), and local jurisdictions pay a subsidy to support the other 50% of O&M costs. State/Federal grants are used to pay capital costs, such as purchase of locomotives or adding stretches of third track to the Fredericksburg line.

Costs for each jurisdiction are based on ridership coming from that jurisdiction. Ridership, and thus the relative percentage for each jurisdiction of the total annual subsidy, is determined through an annual ridership survey.

Prince William County provides the greatest subsidy for VRE
Prince William County provides the greatest subsidy for VRE
Source: Virginia Railway Express, Recommended Budget for Fiscal Year 2017 (p.5)

The VRE Master Agreement was modified in 2007 to alter the subsidy sharing formula. Arlington and Alexandria paid a fixed amount that increased 5% annually independent of ridership. For other jurisdictions, the original subsidy formula was based 90% on ridership and 10% on the jurisdiction's population. Fairfax County objected to basing 10% of the formula on total population, after that high-population county ended up paying 44% of the subsidy but had only 21% of the VRE riders.8

Initially, PRTC jurisdictions collected more revenue from the 2% gas tax than they spent to subsidize VRE. The surplus could be used for road projects, to support bus operations, or for other transportation purposes. In 2010, the 2% retail tax collected at the pump from customers was revised to a 2.1% wholesale tax collected from gasoline distributors. The change simplified collection costs without changing the amount generated for the local governments.

Joining PRTC did create a risk that the extra gas tax revenues would be inadequate in the future, and general tax revenues would have to be used to maintain VRE operations. That became the case by 2016. When the price of gasoline was near $4.00/gallon, the extra gas tax revenue poured in. When the price dropped to $2.00/gallon, that revenue dried up. In addition, more fuel-efficient cars reduced the total amount of gasoline sold.9

Prince William County decided to use its gas tax funds to support its bus services, and funded VRE with $6 million from the new revenue that it received from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. That new revenue was the 30% share of new taxes dedicated for transportation, which were passed by the General Assembly in 2013.10

Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax already used their general funds to subsidize VRE operations, since the subsidy for their Metro bus/rail operations consumed their revenue from the 2% gas tax.

Costs for each jurisdiction are based on ridership coming from that jurisdiction. Ridership, and thus the relative percentage for each jurisdiction of the total annual subsidy, is determined through an annual ridership survey.

declining gas tax revenues are forcing PRTC and NVTC jurisdictions to fund transit operations with general revenue funds or revenues intended for other transportation projects
declining gas tax revenues are forcing PRTC and NVTC jurisdictions to fund transit operations with general revenue funds or revenues intended for other transportation projects
Source: Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, Fuels Tax Floor Would Stabilize Regional Transit Funding (p.5)

The jurisdictional boundaries between Virginia and Maryland affect VRE operations. The Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) system brings commuters into DC in the morning, and has little demand in the morning for return traffic to MARC's suburban stations. When commuters from bedroom communities such as Loudoun and Prince William counties drive their cars into DC, the cars spend the day parked in a garage - but where are commuter trains parked during the day?

Both commuter rail systems have struggled to find adequate storage space near Union Station, or "Washington Terminal," until the trains are needed again in the afternoon for the return rush hour. VRE stores its train sets overnight for the Manassas line at the end-of-the-line Broad Run station, and for the Fredericksburg Line at Crossroads in Spotsylvania County.

VRE offers service to DC roughly every 30 minutes for three hours in the morning and three hours at night. Scheduling permits one train to return from Union Station to Manassas each morning to carry a second load of commuters, and one train goes from DC goes back to Fredericksburg and Manassas in the middle of the day, but otherwise the train sets are used for just two trips/day and sit idle for the rest of the time. Amtrak also provides additional service on both the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines, with special deals for VRE ticketholders.11

Train 301, the mid-day train heading south towards Spotsylvania at 12:55pm, has the lowest number of customers
Train 301, the mid-day train heading south towards Spotsylvania at 12:55pm, has the lowest number of customers
Source: Virginia Railway Express, CEO Report, 1 February 2018 (p.8)

both Amtrak and VRE offered service between Manassas-DC and Spotsylvania-DC in 2023
both Amtrak and VRE offered service between Manassas-DC and Spotsylvania-DC in 2023
Source: Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, VPRA's Relationships with Passenger Rail Operators (December 6, 2023)

One option for VRE and MARC is to establish run-through service, integrating the commuter rail systems so MARC trains would continue through DC into Virginia each morning and VRE trains would run through DC to MARC stations. Run-through service would allow MARC trains to get back to some VRE commuter stations (and VRE trains to MARC stations in Maryland), in time to provide more service at the end of the morning rush. "Runthrough" service between Rockville, Maryland and Franconia, Virginia had been proposed as early as 1966, when the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) and the Southern were still operating passenger rail trains.12

MARC services Maryland, VRE services Virginia - but the two could integrate schedules to run trains more often in each jurisdiction
MARC services Maryland, VRE services Virginia - but the two could integrate schedules to run trains more often in each jurisdiction
Source: Maryland Transit Administration, MARC System Map

Continued operations throughout the day, expanding beyond the current one-way commuter rail service, would minimize the number of trains to be stored in DC. Perhaps most significantly, run-through service with continuous train service every 30 minutes/hour throughout the day could significantly increase the value of real estate near those VRE stations.

The opportunity to take the train to work makes houses near VRE stations more attractive to some buyers. In theory, the value of real estate should be higher if a commuter rail stop is nearby, especially within 1/4 mile walking distance.

The geographic area where prices of real estate could be affected by commuter rail is large. Advertising for homes within several miles of a VRE station often highlight that benefit, but it is difficult to pinpoint a specific increase in value associated with access to commuter rail.

In 1993, a study by the Northern Virginia Planning District Commission revealed that 84% of people familiar with VRE thought a house within a 15-minute drive of a VRE station was near commuter rail. In the same study, 34% thought a place within two miles was near, while another 36% thought that adjective was appropriate for places within 5 miles. The conclusion was that most rail ridership would come from people living within 30 minutes of a train station.13

In contrast, real estate near Metrorail stations is clearly more valuable. Metro offers rail service every 10 minutes or so, allowing people great flexibility in catching a train for a quick trip. Constant access to transit makes real estate near a Metro station valuable for offices and retail stores, as well as for housing.

Transit-oriented development (TOD) depends upon reliable, regular, timely transportation. The one-way service and long gaps ("headway") between commuter trains reduce the benefits of living near a VRE station, calling into question whether any project near a VRE station really qualifies as "transit oriented." Manassas Park got a grant in 2007 to develop a "livable, walkable, mixed-use city center" at its VRE station. Consultants provided options for development of nodes along a main street corridor, as well as a new town center.14

The city was able to get housing units next to its VRE station occupied, but was unable to attract businesses to rent its available office and retail space. Instead of creating a mixed use community, Manassas Park maintained a building with an empty ground floor for the next five years. The demand for non-residential development next to VRE stations was not sufficient.

two miles away from Manassas Park, the city of Manassas has been able to capitalize on rail service and increase economic activity (including restaurants) next to its VRE station
two miles away from Manassas Park, the city of Manassas has been able to capitalize on rail service and increase economic activity (including restaurants) next to its VRE station
Source: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, City Core Planning and Development: Strategic Action Plan Near the VRE Rail Station: City of Manassas Park, VA (2007)

Converting the VRE commuter rail service into a two-way transit system, with only 15-30 minute gaps between trains all day, would require substantial funding. In addition to costs for additional train sets and the personnel to operate them, CSX would require infrastructure upgrades on the Fredericksburg Line and north of Alexandria so freight rail would not be delayed. The Manassas Line may also require upgrades, but the Norfolk Southern has minimal freight operations north of Manassas. Because freight traffic interference would be minimal, the best opportunity to implement all-day VRE service would be between Manassas-Alexandria.

VRE proposes to stay a commuter rail system, leaving Amtrak the business of hauling passengers on trips of more than 60 miles and leaving Metro the business of providing transit service with short time gaps between trains. PRTC and NVTC are composed of politicians from all Northern Virginia cities and counties, so in theory VRE could become the key mechanism for creating a regional vision on growth implemented by multiple jurisdictions cooperating in land use and transportation planning. Realistically, governance of VRE is sufficiently complex when dealing with just commuter rail issues, so the agency is likely to stay focused on just transportation services and leave smart growth strategy development/implementation to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments or some other regional organization.

Choosing to stay in the commuter rail niche limits VRE's competition to commuter buses and van pools, plus a passenger ferry proposed to carry commuters by boat up the Potomac River between Prince William - DC. If Metro is extended to Centreville in Fairfax County or Potomac Mills in Prince William County, VRE would lose some customers.15

after the W&OD railroad was abandoned, extending Metrorail via the Silver Line was the only way to provide any form of passenger rail service north of I-66 and south of the Potomac River
after the W&OD railroad was abandoned, extending Metrorail via the Silver Line was the only way to provide any form of passenger rail service north of I-66 and south of the Potomac River
Source: Super NoVa Transit/TDM Vision Plan, Local Transit Service Coverage (Figure 3.2)

VRE fares are based on the distance that customers travel, with nine zones defined out to Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania and Broad Run. Passenger growth is projected to come from more people living in the Northern Virginia suburbs, and from VRE offering the best way for those suburban residents to reach Union Station, L'Enfant, Crystal City and Alexandria stations:16

In VRE's principal travel market - work trips from the Northern Virginia suburbs to destination zones surrounding the four innermost stations - future increases in ridership will be a function of two factors in combination:
• Increasing market size, fueled by population growth in the outlying areas and employment growth in the central business district
• Increasing VRE market share, driven by improvements in the level of service offered by VRE, and the cost of that service, relative to those provided by alternative modes of transportation.

VRE transports suburban commuters to jobs concentrated near four stations at the northern end of the line
VRE transports suburban commuters to jobs concentrated near four stations at the northern end of the line
Source: Virginia Railway Express, Destination Zones (Map 5)

Expanding service south to Caroline County would involve extending the third rail, already constructed between Fredericksburg-Crossroads station in Spotsylvania, to minimize conflicts with CSX's revenue-producing freight trains.

Expanding southwest, providing service deeper into the northern Virginia suburbs, would involve resolving similar freight rail conflicts with Norfolk Southern. VRE has proposed an extension to Gainesville/Haymarket as its first priority, with three stations spread along the 11-mile line controlled by Norfolk Southern.

Commuter traffic reduction from VRE stations is less than the traffic reduction from a Metro station. Metro's Orange Line offers short headway transit service, with connections to many job centers throughout the DC area via Metrorail. VRE offers a different level of service, with very limited ability for commuters to get to job sites other than in offices near the VRE corridor.

"Smart growth" advocates typically champion the expansion of transit services, as an alternative to the expansion of highways, but expanding VRE to Haymarket has been controversial. The debate centers around the cause of traffic congestion. If it is simply a matter of too many cars and too few lanes of highway, then congestion can be cured just by spending the money required to increase the transportation infrastructure. Build more lane miles, build more grade-separate interchanges, and congestion will disappear.

However, if congestion is a symptom of a more fundamental flaw in land use, then the pattern of where we develop needs to be modified.

In Northern Virginia, one growth pattern has been dominant since the Great Depression triggered a massive growth of jobs in the District of Columbia and World War II brought the Pentagon to the Virginia side of the Potomac River. Farmland has been converted into low-cost housing, further and further away from the urban core, and new roads built so workers living in distant houses could get to their jobs. Completion in 1950 of the Shirley Highway (now I-95) as a 4-lane divided highway to the Occoquan River set the pattern: new roads would allow the baby boomer generation to raise children in single family residences located outside of Washington DC, but jobs would remain near the center of the urban area.

As population has grown in the Northern Virginia suburbs, the transportation network has been expanded further and further down what are now the I-95 and I-66 corridors, into areas far from where Metrorail provides mass transit. State taxes have been raised to fund new roads, especially in 1986 under a Democratic legislature/governor and in 2013 under a Republican legislature/governor. Toll roads linked Leesburg and Loudoun County to Tysons, and some of the expansion of I-495 and I-95 also has been funded by tolls, but most commuters use freeways funded by the gas tax, a variety of vehicle-related fees, and sales taxes.

VRE's Manassas Line runs on Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks to Alexandria, then on CSX tracks to Union Station  (where tracks and station are owned by Amtrak)
VRE's Manassas Line runs on Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks to Alexandria, then on CSX tracks to Union Station (where tracks and station are owned by Amtrak)
Source: Virginia Railway Express Strategic Plan, Existing Destinations (Map 3)

People chose to live scattered in the suburbs, but jobs remained concentrated in just a few locations (such as Tysons and DC). That separation of housing/jobs has triggered construction of a road/rail network designed as a hub-and-spoke system, primarily to move commuters from home to work. The Capital Beltway was constructed in 1964, but various efforts to build a concentric ring of "outer beltways" comparable to what the Chinese government built in Beijing and Shanghai have failed.

The basic problem was that too many new residents moved into suburban houses that were built before the roads. Once neighborhoods were established, proposed roads became too controversial to build, because they would bring too much traffic, noise, and pollution. The quality of life - and real estate values - would be lowered in politically-aroused communities. To the dismay of planners and developers, long-range plans were disrupted and key lines on transportation maps were never converted into on-the-ground pavement.

Fragmenting responsibility for making land use decisions at the local level vs. transportation decisions at the state level adds much inertia and delay to proposals for shifting transportation funding from traditional highway construction to investing in expanding commuter rail/transit systems.

The political geography of Northern Virginia also limits the potential to "fix congestion." The outer suburbs belonging to PRTC advocate increasing transportation capacity, such as widening I-395 and I-66 inside the Beltway (I-495), while the inner jurisdictions (especially Arlington) object to the impacts of additional through-traffic.

Broad Run station is the end of the Manassas Line
Broad Run station is the end of the Manassas Line

In 2002, two years after creating the PRTC, the General Assembly had an opportunity to force a higher level of regional coordination for transportation planning in Northern Virginia. When the state legislature passed a regional tax increase in 2002, it could have consolidated the PRTC and NVTC. Instead, the General Assembly created the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, yet another regional body to prioritize spending the new tax dollars.

That body went dormant after the 2002 tax increase was ruled to be unconstitutional, except for production of the long-range TransAction 2030 Plan. The NVTA was revived in 2013 after the General Assembly succeeded in passing a new law generating new taxes for new transportation projects.

One cultural pattern exacerbates the problem. The standard 9:00am-5:00pm work day creates two peaks in demand for transportation capacity, justifying the investment in a VRE system that runs for just several hours a day. Creative approaches have mitigated but not eliminated the rush "hour." Even altering the 9:00am-5:00pm core hours to allow workers to arrive early or leave late has not eliminated the traffic peaks in Northern Virginia. Capacity on I-95 was increased for each rush hour peak by reversing the direction of flow of several lanes, but that option was not implemented for I-66.

population growth exceeds job growth in Gainesville-Haymarket Corridor, spurring demand for commuter rail
population growth exceeds job growth in Gainesville-Haymarket Corridor, spurring demand for commuter rail
Source: Virginia Railway Express Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Implementation Plan (Figure 3)

Perpetual expansion of transportation infrastructure is expensive, and politically controversial. Most Northern Virginia elections require candidates to promise to fix the commuter transportation problem, even if the next promise is to lower taxes.

The primary smart growth alternative to perpetual expansion of transportation infrastructure is a long-term solution, not a quick fix. As a result, even smart growth candidates running for 2-year or 4-year terms of office almost always highlight their support for some expansion of existing roads or transit capacity.

the limited capacity of CSX railroad bridges across Neabsco and other creeks constrain expansion of Virginia Railway Express service
the limited capacity of CSX railroad bridges across Neabsco and other creeks constrain expansion of Virginia Railway Express service
Source: Historic Prince William, Neabsco Marina - #133

From a "smart growth" land use planner's perspective, the long-term solution to traffic congestion is to co-locate jobs and housing. Instead of treating transportation as just an issue of supply, it is also possible to address the demand created by housing patterns.

If people lived near where they work, then they would drive fewer miles to work, or even walk, bike, and take a short bus/rail ride. VRE's plans for the Gainesville-Haymarket extension reflected an understanding that frequent, all-day transportation is key to creating mixed use communities with office buildings and shopping, rather than encourage residential-only subdivisions along its rail corridor:17

VRE envisions providing reverse-peak service on the Gainesville-Haymarket branch to workplaces in the corridor for inner suburban and city residents, as well as off-peak and weekend service, which would open up the service and stations to users other than commuters. The long-term vision is for bi-directional service throughout the day at hourly or bi-hourly intervals, perhaps provided by a combination of trains and buses.

why would the competing jurisdictions that manage VRE support extra funding for extra service in the Gainesville/Haymarket corridor, if transit-oriented development benefits would flow to just Prince William County?
why would the competing jurisdictions that manage VRE support extra funding for extra service in the Gainesville/Haymarket corridor, if transit-oriented development benefits would flow to just Prince William County?
Source: Virginia Railway Express Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Implementation Plan (Figure 4)

Arlington County's use of Metro's Orange Line to spur redevelopment of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is a world-class case study of how smart growth can reduce traffic congestion, over a 20-year period. That corridor has demonstrated how co-locating housing and jobs (and providing mass transit services) can reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and increase land values dramatically. The redevelopment of Tysons, now underway, is the most obvious example of public-private commitment in Virginia to incentivize new residents to live near job centers, reducing the requirement to widen highways.

Traditionally, expansion of transit is recommended as a smart growth tool to minimize commuter traffic on highways. The Silver Line was designed to encourage high-density, transit-oriented development even in the suburbs of Loudoun County. Adding two-way service on VRE by trains throughout the day and on weekends could encourage dense development around high-capacity train stations, creating walkable live-work-play "activity centers" with transit service to other job centers.

In contrast, the proposed extension of VRE to Gainesville/Haymarket would have incentivized sprawl development deeper into Fauquier County. A station at Haymarket would increase pressure to shift the boundaries of the Rural Area designated in 1998 in Prince William or alter zoning in that area to permit more development. Extending VRE's "catchment area" west towards Warren County and southwest to Culpeper was not a "smart growth" strategy.

As VRE noted when it proposed the extension to Haymarket:18

Haymarket is the logical end of the line for VRE service. Immediately west of Haymarket lies the Rural Crescent of Prince William County, an area where the County's long-range plan and zoning prohibit dense development, and where the County is focused on protection of the environment and existing agricultural uses...

This will be the location that captures commuters from residential developments along the western edge of Prince William County's development zone, as well as from the north, west and southwest.

the now-cancelled Gainesville/Haymarket Extension planned to intercept commuters on Route 29 first at Gainesville/Haymarket in Prince William County, then at Remington in Fauquier County (once Fauquier joined PRTC)
the now-cancelled Gainesville/Haymarket Extension planned to intercept commuters on Route 29 first at Gainesville/Haymarket in Prince William County, then at Remington in Fauquier County (once Fauquier joined PRTC)
Source: Virginia Railway Express Strategic Plan, Phase 2 report, Potential VRE Service Extensions West of Manassas (Figure 5-1)

Those words were cited by some land use planers as the key reason to avoid building a VRE station at Haymarket, the very edge of the area planned for low density development. Inviting Shenandoah Valley residents to drive I-66 to Haymarket did not address the current congestion nightmare east of Haymarket. Building a VRE station at Haymarket did not encourage future residents in Northern Virginia to live near job centers in the urban core.

Extending VRE service further away from the already-developed urban core would have facilitated more low-density residential development deeper in the rural countryside. A train station at Haymarket might create a new demand by far-to-the-west commuters for widening I-66 west of Haymarket. Since Fauquier, Culpeper, and Warren counties were not members of the Potomac-Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC), the extension increase the number of "freeloading" VRE users who lived in jurisdictions that did not contribute to the VRE operational subsidy.

Any new capability to haul commuters by rail will be highlighted by stuck-in-traffic residents as a short-term solution to congestion. However, making it easier for people to live far away from their jobs by expanding VRE to Haymarket might perpetuate the long-term problem, the fundamental cause of sprawl development and clogged highways - the disconnect between the locations of houses and jobs.

boundaries of VRE's catchment area shows how far it expects customers to drive to reach end-of-line stations
boundaries of VRE's catchment area shows how far it expects customers to drive to reach end-of-line stations
Source: Virginia Railway Express Strategic Plan, Phase 2 report, Origin Catchment (Map 4)

Straight-line projections of the future based on the development pattern of the past 60 years could be wrong. Cultural changes could radically alter long-range plans for development and transportation, putting at risk the return on investment in VRE.

Commuter bus systems have the flexibility to use the many options provided by the road network, in order to change where buses stop to pick up and discharge passengers. In contrast, commuter rail systems are locked into fixed routes. Other than adding or reducing the number of scheduled trains, VRE has minimal capability to adapt. VRE can not change the location of its stations if development occurs in unexpected locations.

Two of the greatest threats to VRE ridership in 2020 were: - urban revitalization, where Millennials and future generations choose to live and raise children in the urban core rather than the exurbs and suburbs
- telecommuting, as spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020

If telecommuting became a standard alternative and workers of the future only need to drive to the office twice a week for face-to-face meetings, rush hour congestion could diminish. If the demand for expanding commuter rail deeper into exurbia disappeared, capital costs for commuter rail could be minimized to just replacement equipment. However, since the users of commuter rail pay less than 100% of the operating and maintenance costs, public support for $100 million in annual subsidies could drop. If users are required to pay more per trip, then feer peoiple will ride VRE, revenues could drop, and the system could end up in a death spiral.

VRE ridership has grown since 1992, but could be affected by improvements on I-66, gas prices, telecommuting, and self-driving cars
VRE ridership has grown since 1992, but could be affected by improvements on I-66, gas prices, telecommuting, and self-driving cars
Source: Virginia Railway Express Virginia Railway Express 2040 System Plan (Figure 1-2)

In 2013, VRE's long-range vision included establishing strategic partnerships and expanding the system deeper into Prince William County:19

VRE can then take steps towards extending service to Gainesville/Haymarket and other projects such as extending service into Fauquier and Spotsylvania Counties, instituting run-through service with MARC at Washington, and perhaps expanding VRE's role in serving the longer-distance travel markets in the Washington-Richmond and Washington-Charlottesville corridors.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated in 2020 that hypothetical "black swan" disasters occasionally occur in the real world. Restrictions on public gatherings during the pandemic, both at offices and in train cars headed to those offices, dramatically reduced the number of VRE passengers. T

VRE had 4.4 million passengers in 2019, and average daily ridership in January 2020 was 18,400. By August, 2021, traffic was only about 2,600 riders per day, and there were only 1.2 million passengers in 2022. By February 2024, ridership had climbed back, but only to 6,900 average daily riders.

Systemwide, 88% of seats in VRE cars had no passengers in February 2024. Only 12% were occupied, compared to 75% occupied seats systemwide just before the pandemic.20

COVID caused an extraordinary drop in VRE ridership (the justification for public subsidies), and recovery was very slow
COVID caused an extraordinary drop in VRE ridership (the justification for public subsidies), and recovery was very slow
Source: Virginia Railway Express (VRE), 2030 Service Alternatives Development

In 2022 VRE began to developed a replacement for its old long-range 2014 System Plan. Surveying the existing and potential user community revealed that customers prioritized faster service, including express service where some stations were bypassed. Also desired were weekend service and weekday reverse flow service, allowing people to get from the District of Columbia back towards stations in Prince William and Spotsylvania County

The System Plan 2050 reflected changing assumptions regarding the need for the commuter rail system due to the:21

...rise of telework and non-traditional work schedules, changing regional housing and employment demographics, as well as a major commitment by the Commonwealth of Virginia to grow and improve rail service through Transforming Rail in Virginia.

projected ridership in 2030 was still lower than the pre-COVID numbers
projected ridership in 2030 was still lower than the pre-COVID numbers
Source: Virginia Railway Express (VRE), 2030 Service Alternatives Development

The first step in developing System Plan 2050 was to define four alternatives for 2030 service. The options were based upon the assumption that telecommuting triggered by COVID had created a structural change in the pattern of commuting; ridership by 2030 would not reach the average numbers in 2019.

VRE scheduled platform improvements at 12 stations plus the opening of a new station at Potomac Shores, but anticipated that most capital investment for expansion of rail capacity would come from the Transforming Rail in Virginia initiative of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority. VRE ridership recovery was based on future operational changes facilitated by additional tracks parallel to the existing track, including completion of a new Long Bridge over the Potomac River, rather than building new stations further away from Washington DC.

The market for recruiting new riders was largely on the Fredericksburg Line. The Travel Time Ratio (TTR), comparing the door-to-door travel time of transit to driving, was high in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties. By 2050, VRE planned for 28,100 riders/day during the week and 10,820 on the weekends.

VRE antcipated recruiting new riders from targeted markets, including North Stafford - Spotsylvania Between VA-3 and VA-208 and Spotsylvania Between VA-3 and VA-208
VRE antcipated recruiting new riders from targeted markets, including North Stafford - Spotsylvania Between VA-3 and VA-208 and Spotsylvania Between VA-3 and VA-208
Source: Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Ridership Trends and Market Analysis

The 2030 Service Alternatives answer to the question "What can we do by (or before) 2030?" was:22


Source: Virginia Railway Express, VRE System Plan 2050

In 2024, Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) agreed to renew the MARC/VRE Cross-Honor Agreement. The agreement allowed passengers with a valid ticket on either commuter rail system to extend their trip, at no extra cost, and ride on the other system's "reverse flow" trains going back from Union Station. MARC had cancelled the agreement in 2015, but both systems decided to adopt a regional service approach in 2024.

The Virginia Railway Express already had a cross-honor agreement with Amtrak. It authorized VRE passengers wth a multi-ride ticket to use thse Amtrak trains listed on the VRE schedule.23

Amtrak in Virginia

Expanding the Virginia Railroad Express (VRE) Rail Network

Historic and Modern Railroads in Virginia

Long Bridge Over the Potomac River

Northern Virginia

Virginia Passenger Rail Authority

Links

VRE helped fund construction of a new bridge over Quantico Creek in 2007, adding two additional tracks and eliminating the last remaining single-track section on the entire 110-mile Washington, D.C. to Richmond corridor
VRE helped fund construction of a new bridge over Quantico Creek in 2007, adding two additional tracks and eliminating the last remaining single-track section on the entire 110-mile Washington, D.C. to Richmond corridor
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, 2009 Statewide Rail Plan Technical Data Update (p.9-7)

the 2011 VRE Passenger Survey showed few riders catching VRE at Rolling Road or Backlick Road stations
the 2011 VRE Passenger Survey showed few riders catching VRE at Rolling Road or Backlick Road stations
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement and Tier 1 Record of Decision (Figure 2-3, Transit Service along I-66 Corridor)

References

1. Charles W. Turner, "Railroad Service to Virginia Farmers, 1828-1860," Agricultural History, Vol. 22, No. 4 (October 1948), p.242, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3739521 (last checked August 18, 2013)
2. "Long Bridge History," Long Bridge Study, District of Columbia Department of Transportation, http://ddot.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ddot/page_content/attachments/Long%20Bridge%20History.pdf; Robert Cohen, "History of the Long Railroad Bridge Crossing Across the Potomac River," District of Columbia National Railway Historical Society chapter, 2003, http://www.dcnrhs.org/learn/washington-d-c-railroad-history/history-of-the-long-bridge (last checked October 4, 2016)
3. E.L. Tennyson, "Proposed Washington-Alexandria-Franconia Commuter Train Service," March 1967, http://www.thinkoutsidethecar.org/pdfs/1967%20Proposed%20Commuter%20Train%20Service.pdf; NVCT Newsletter, November 1965, http://www.thinkoutsidethecar.org/nvtc/photos/1965_nvtc_newsletter_multi.jpg(last checked August 7, 2013)
4. "Commuter Rail Funds Sought," The Free Lance-Star, November 20, 1974, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1298&dat=19741120&id=RslHAAAAIBAJ&sjid=gYsDAAAAIBAJ&pg=2889,1680493; NVTC Handbook, "Appendix I: Chronology Of NVCT Actions (1964 - 2013)," Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, p.I-9, http://www.thinkoutsidethecar.org/nvtc/handbook.asp (last checked August 7, 2013)
5. NVTC Handbook, "Appendix I: Chronology Of NVCT Actions (1964 - 2013)," Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, pp.I-15/17, http://www.thinkoutsidethecar.org/nvtc/handbook.asp (last checked August 7, 2013)
6. Richard K. Taube, "Chronology Of The Virginia Railway Express, 1964 to Present," Virginia Railway Express, August 11, 2008, p.6, http://www.vre.org/about/company/VRE-Chronology.pdf (last checked August 8, 2013)
7. "Amtrak ends role as VRE operator; Keolis to start Monday," Washington Post, July 10, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/AR2010070903289.html; "Amtrak objects to VRE decision," Free Lance-Star, October 31, 2009, http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2009/102009/10312009/504503 (last checked August 7, 2013); "Minutes," VRE Operations Board Meeting, December 21, 2012, http://www.vre.org/about/Ops_board_items/2012/December/minutes.pdf (last checked August 7, 2013)
8. "Our Company," Virginia Railway Express, http://www.vre.org/about/company.html; "Fund 100 County Transit Systems," 2008 Lines of Business - Vol. 1, Fairfax County Budget, http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb/lobs/2008/100.pdf (last checked August 8, 2013)
9. "Community Development-Transit Subsidy," Prince William County FY2017 Budget, pp.116-119, http://www.pwcgov.org/government/dept/budget/Documents/08-09-Community_Development--Transit--FY17.pdf (last checked October 10, 2016)
10. Alfred Harf, "Public Transportation Service Prospects in Fauquier County," Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, January 2005, http://www.fauquiercounty.gov/government/departments/BOS/pastagendas/01-13-05/PRTC/PRTC_files/frame.htm (last checked August 8, 2013)
11. "General Schedule Information," Virginia Railway Express, http://www.vre.org/service/schedule.htm (last checked August 8, 2013)
12. "History of the Virginia Railway Express," Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, April 1994, p.2, http://www.thinkoutsidethecar.org/pdfs/History%20of%20VRE.pdf (last checked August 8, 2013)
13. "Findings, Implications, and Issues for Comparison in Phase II," in Impact Assessment of the Virginia Railway Express Commuter Rail on Land Use Development Patterns in Northern Virginia, Base Line Phase 1984-Mid 1992, Northern Virginia Planning District Commission, August 1993," p.XIII-1, p.XIII-5, http://www.novatransit.org/resources/completed-studies-archive/virginia-railway-express-studies/; "8 New-Home Communities by Metro, VRE, and MARC Stations," Washingtonian, June 10, 2011, http://www.washingtonian.com/blogs/openhouse/luxury-homes/8-new-home-communities-by-metro-vre-and-marc-stations.php (last checked August 8, 2013)
14. "Transportation/Land Use Connections Program - Technical Assistance Projects," Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, http://www.mwcog.org/transportation/activities/tlc/program/tod.asp (last checked August 8, 2013)
15. "Ferry Boat Feasibility Study," Virginia Department of Transportation, http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/studynova-ferry.asp (last checked August 8, 2013)
16. "Virginia Railway Express Strategic Plan 2005-2025," Virginia Railway Express, May 2004, p.vii, http://www.vre.org/about/strategic/strategic_plan.htm (last checked August 8, 2013)
17. "Virginia Railway Express Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Implementation Plan," Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, December 1, 2005, p.6, http://vre.org/about/G-H/PDF/Gainesville-Haymarket.pdf (last checked August 9, 2013)
18. "Virginia Railway Express Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Implementation Plan," Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, December 1, 2005, pp.11-12, http://vre.org/about/G-H/PDF/Gainesville-Haymarket.pdf (last checked August 9, 2013)
19. "Virginia Railway Express Strategic Plan 2005-2025," Virginia Railway Express, May 2004, p.33, http://www.vre.org/about/strategic/strategic_plan.htm; CEO Report," Virginia Railway Express, February 2020, p.7, https://www.potomaclocal.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/2020-CEO-Report_Feb.pdf (last checked March 19, 2024)
20. "VRE ridership continues to be off nearly 90%," Potomac Local, August 21, 2021, https://potomaclocal.com/2021/08/21/while-state-continues-spending-on-rail-vre-ridership-continues-to-be-off-nearly-90/; "VRE unveils ambitious expansion plans to meet projected 2050 Demand," Potomac Local, March 18, 2024, https://www.potomaclocal.com/2024/03/18/vre-unveils-ambitious-expansion-plans-to-meet-projected-2050-demand/; "Despite current travails, VRE looks to an expansive future," GazetteLeader, April 6, 2024, https://www.gazetteleader.com/fairfax/news/despite-current-travails-vre-looks-to-an-expansive-future-8551872 (last checked April 6, 2024)
21. "System Plan 2050 Update," Virginia Railway Express, https://system-plan-2050-update-vrexpress.hub.arcgis.com/ (last checked March 19, 2024)
22. "Ridership Trends and Market Analysis," Virginia Railway Express, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/9d657cbf77d94132939436bf66abc89b; "2030 Service Alternatives Development," Virginia Railway Express, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/3b32f1d3e5c94d2780ff0e89ba54b1a5; "VRE unveils ambitious expansion plans to meet projected 2050 Demand," Potomac Local, March 18, 2024, https://www.potomaclocal.com/2024/03/18/vre-unveils-ambitious-expansion-plans-to-meet-projected-2050-demand/ (last checked March 20, 2024)
23. "Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Commuter Train Services," Virginia Navigator, https://virginianavigator.org/program/30426/virginia-railway-express-vre-commuter-train-services; "VRE getting cozier with Maryland’s MARC trains; to Reinstate Cross-Honor Agreement," Potomac Local, June 18, 2024, https://www.potomaclocal.com/2024/06/18/vre-getting-cozier-with-marylands-marc-trains-to-reinstate-cross-honor-agreement/ (last checked June 18, 2024)

a bridge crosses above the tracks to reach the Rippon Station platform
a bridge crosses above the tracks to reach the Rippon Station platform

expansion of the Broad Run station included building a third track to minimize conflicts with Norfolk Southern freight traffic
expansion of the Broad Run station included building a third track to minimize conflicts with Norfolk Southern freight traffic
Source: Virginia Railway Express (VRE), VRE Broad Run Expansion Project

conductors may ask to see tickets after passengers board a VRE train
conductors may ask to see tickets after passengers board a VRE train


Railroads of Virginia
Virginia Places