VRE Advances I-66 Corridor Improvements with GHX Project

If you’re in the Northern Virginia region, you know that travelling in the I-66 corridor is a challenge, day or night. The good news is that we’re closer than ever to having new transportation choices. Over the past few years, several regional initiatives have sought to identify and advance improvements in this critical transportation corridor. A good overview is available at www.transform66.org.

VRE has also continued to evaluate potential service improvements. The VRE System Plan 2040, which outlines VRE’s long-range vision, supports the provision of more frequent service and the expansion of VRE system capacity to maintain VRE’s high level of service reliability and on-time performance. The VRE Gainesville-Haymarket Extension (VRE GHX) Project is one step towards realizing that vision in the I-66 corridor. VRE is now conducting the VRE GHX study to define the infrastructure improvements and station locations needed to extend the Manassas Line by about 11 miles to Gainesville and Haymarket.

Meet the VRE GHX team and learn more about the GHX Project at the upcoming I-66 Outside the Beltway public meeting on October 21st from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM at Piney Branch Elementary School, 8301 Linton Hall Road, Bristow, VA 20136. VDOT will host additional I-66 Outside the Beltway public meetings on October 19th in Vienna and October 20th in Fairfax. See the meeting schedule for complete details. For more information about the VRE GHX project, visit www.vre.org/ghx and follow us on Twitter @VRE_GHX and Facebook. #VREGHX

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Annual VRE Events

While we are mainly a commuter rail service operating during the morning and evening rush hours, we are also part of the greater D.C. community and, in such, often participate in various annual local events.

Clifton Day:

The annual Clifton Day is a non-profit event, raising funds for a variety of local organizations. The festival is like an old time country fair with over 150 arts, crafts, and antique vendors lining this historic town’s bustling streets. Town parks come alive with horseback rides, Civil War reenactments, craft demonstrations, children’s activities, live music, and historic displays. This is also the only time during the year the VRE stops at historic Devereaux Station, in the heart of the Town of Clifton.

Clifton Day is on the Sunday before Columbus Day (usually the second Sunday of the month).

Check out http://www.cliftonday.com.

Santa Trains:

Santa trains is VRE’s yearly event designed to help welcome in the holiday season and to promote rail safety through Operation Lifesaver ’s “Look, Listen and Live” campaign. The event usually takes place the 2nd Saturday in December and tickets usually go on sale the Monday after Thanksgiving. And boy, do those tickets go quickly. On board each excursion train will be Mr. and Mrs. Claus and “friends”. Rider’s are encouraged to bring new, unwrapped toys to drop off before they board in support of the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots campaign. Drop-off boxes will be posted at all of the participating stations the morning of the event.

Santa Trains couldn’t be possible without the broad support of countless individuals in the metro area. VRE extends special thanks to Norfolk Southern, CSX, the City of Fredericksburg Police Department, and the Manassas City Police for their assistance in making this special event possible.

National Train Day:

Each May, at Amtrak’s Union Station in D.C., VRE displays a locomotive and car to the viewing public…and we are not the only ones, Amtrak, MARC and Norfolk Southern, among others, all featured equipment displays on the upper platforms at Union Station. National Train Day is a pseudo-holiday that was created by Amtrak in 2008 to remind the public that commuting, and shipping freight by rail remains one of the most viable, cost effective and environmentally friendly modes of transportation.  Inside the great halls of the D.C. terminal are booths demonstrating the history and future of travelling and dining on trains, important messages about safety around trains from Operation Lifesaver and live acts such as singing and dancing.

We hope to see you next year at Washington for another exciting National Train Day.

Manassas Rail Festival:

The City of Manassas is a railway town, with ties going back as far as the Civil War. It played a key role in delivering supplies to both Union and Confederate Armies. History aside, the Manassas depot is alive with VRE and Amtrak customers alike—its heritage in the city is as seamless as the rails themselves.

This heritage is celebrated every first Saturday in June. This event draws over 30,000 railway enthusiasts to Manassas. The family friendly event offers something for everyone—from the train novice to the seasoned buff, we have elaborate train displays, speeders, antique farm equipment on the museum lawn, over twenty vendors, and activities that celebrate one of the greatest transportation contributions made to our country.

By far, the most alluring attractions are the scenic VRE excursion rides to Clifton and back.

For more information, visit www.visitmanassas.org.

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Burke Centre Station


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VRE’s Ticket Exchange Policy

Ten-Trip, Five-Day, Round-Trip, Step-Up and Single-Ride Tickets are non refundable. However, in some cases, we can make exchanges.

Amtrak Step-Up tickets (valid or expired) CANNOT be exchanged.

All tickets expire one year from the date of purchase. Once a ticket expires, it CANNOT be exchanged (this includes Free Ride Certificates).

Non-expired tickets will be considered for an exchange on a case by case basis. No refunds will be given for exchanges that result in a lower priced ticket.

Tickets can only be exchanged one time. All new tickets from an exchange must be used within one year. Those tickets that have been exchanged CANNOT be exchanged again.

Please include the Ticket Exchange Form along with your exchange request (http://www.vre.org/service/pdf/tix_exchange.pdf)

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Woodbridge Station


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For Instant Train Delay Notifications:

Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/VaRailXpress

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Brooke Station


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Let’s Get Mechanical!

For those of the more mechanically minded we occasionally feature articles in our onboard magazine about some of the equipment that is used on our trains. Here are a few of those articles:


adawheelThe Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 was passed to serve those who are disabled, and since the inception of the Virginia Railway Express we have worked to exceed the ADA requirement for wheelchair lifts by having one wheelchair lift operated by hydraulics on all of our cab cars, thus ensuring that persons with disabilities are able to easily gain access to the VRE commuter rail system. Continue reading

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Crystal City Station


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A Call for RIDE Magazine Suggestions

sepJust a year ago we introduced the new “fancy” (as some riders have called it) RIDE magazine. This new version of what used to be a mere newsletter has been expanded to be more than simply an on-board communications tool for our riders, but it is also now being used as a marketing tool. For the first time, we are using the publication outside of the train (at public offices, coffee shops and other destinations in Northern Virginia) to spotlight VRE to others who may not be aware of our service and expand the appeal of VRE.

januaryArticles consist of informative pieces about VRE and its service (with intro from our CEO and articles about our board members, crews and your fellow riders), local community related articles from local excursions, local restaurant reviews, local concerts, farmer’s markets and/or other community related events. For rail fans out there, since it is train-centric publication, we include general railroad related information, and to help pass the time on your commute we hope to infuse a bit of fun into the magazine as well.

februarySo now that you’ve had the opportunity to read and, hopefully, enjoy the publication (issues can be found on our website at http://www.vre.org/service/seatnote.htm), we wanted to take the time to reach out to riders and ask what sort of things they would like to see in future issues. So please write in and provide us with your suggestions and ideas.

RIDE Mag march 2014And, as an FYI to those of a more cynical nature, the RIDE magazine is not being paid for by riders’ fares. The cost for producing the magazine is achieved through advertising revenue. Currently, we are revenue neutral, but our goal is to eventually make the magazine revenue positive so that we can provide additional customer benefits to our riders.



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Union Station


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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About VRE Step-Up Tickets

A step-up ticket is a ticket that VRE riders can purchase (in conjunction with a TLC Ticket, Monthly Ticket, Five Day Pass or Ten-Trip ticket) that allows one the ability to ride a designated Amtrak train.

Step-Up tickets are valid one year from the date of purchase and are not refundable or cannot be exchanged once expired.

Amtrak charges VRE $10 for every step-up ticket collected on their trains. The current cost of an Amtrak step-up ticket for riders is $3.00. VDOT is temporarily subsidizing step-up tickets $2 to help take drivers off the roads during the construction of the I-95 Express Lanes Project and VRE subsidizes the last $5 to help reduce crowding on some of our  trains by allowing riders to take an Amtrak train instead.

Official policy for holidays is that if VRE doesn’t run then Amtrak doesn’t allow step-ups to be used. That said, every Amtrak conductor is different and some may allow one to ride with a step-up while another may not. VRE does not run on weekends and step-up tickets are not accepted on weekends by Amtrak.

Originally Amtrak wanted to eliminate all step-ups, however, we were able to compromise with them by keeping the step-ups available for just the most heavily utilized trains.

If you do not have a Step-Up ticket accompanied by a valid VRE ticket and you board an Amtrak train, you will be asked to pay the standard rate for an Amtrak ticket to your destination.

Step-Up tickets can only be used in our service area. From points beyond our service area, you would need a separate Amtrak ticket.

Step-Up tickets may be purchased on the platform at one of the ticket vending machines with a credit or debit card only, or, these tickets may be purchased in bulk from one of our vendors. Please visit our vendor page for the vendor closest to you.

Before boarding the Amtrak train, validate your multi-fare card (if needed) and present your tickets to the conductor (the Step-Up ticket does not need to be validated). The conductor will then collect your Step-Up ticket and you will keep your VRE ticket.


VRE is not responsible for the on time performance of Amtrak trains.

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L’Enfant Station


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Some questions occur more often than others. Here are 10 of our more frequently asked questions (with answers):

1. When will you ban smoking on the platforms?
We gathered public comment about designating our platforms as non-smoking back in 2012 and presented it to our board members. While our Operations Board was interested in getting smoking banned, they had to make sure it lined up with their respective jurisdictions codes and laws. The end result, however, was that our Operations Board decided not to ban smoking from our stations at this time. Although they may revisit this sometime in the future. You may wish to contact your jurisdictions representative regarding this matter.

2. When do Santa Train Tickets go on sale?
Santa Train tickets typically go on sale after Thanksgiving and the event is usually held the second weekend in December. We will be posting more information on our website at http://www.vre.org.

3. Why do you give Free Ride Certificates to Monthly Riders? Why not discount our tickets instead?
Monthly tickets are already discounted (34% discount off single ride fare) and riders only actually pay for 13 service days, not for a full month. Many riders have told us that they save their Free Ride Certificates for when they want to take vacations and then use the FRCs along with a Ten-Trip ticket so they do not have to pay for the cost of a full Monthly ticket.

4. My credit card was charged but my ticket wouldn’t print. How do I get a refund?
If your ticket does not print you will usually not be charged. Your bank will show a pending transaction but it will drop off in a few days. If it does not drop off, please contact us again and we can issue a refund. Continue reading

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Leeland Road Station


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Mobile ticketing provides a secure and convenient way of purchasing and validating VRE tickets right from a smartphone

mobileticketingThe VRE Mobile Ticket app, powered by GlobeSherpa, is coming in 2015!

VRE has always been committed to its improvement on behalf of passenger comfort and convenience. However, as our track, stations and rail equipment have all gone through major upgrades, purchasing and validating tickets through the mail and at vending machines located on our platforms has been one static element of our service—until now. Enter mobile ticketing, a concept that is sweeping public transit and taking the hassle out of its users’ lives.

VRE has identified mobile ticketing as an excellent way to improve the commute for its passengers. The system will be designed to be very user-friendly and utilize standard terminology and design that most passengers are already comfortable with when making mobile or online purchases. With one simple tool, passengers will be able to purchase and activate tickets, utilize their SmartBenefits funds for fare purchases, display reduced-fare eligibility and receive communications regarding their tickets, trains and trips. Best of all, passengers will now carry the Ticket Vending Machine (TVM) in their pockets.

Through mobile ticketing, VRE will be able to provide passengers who receive SmartBenefits administered through WMATA’s SmarTrip program direct access to their benefits accounts for the purchase of VRE fare media. Passengers will be able to link their mobile account to their SmartBenefits account and purchase tickets directly through their smart phone. Passengers who choose mobile ticketing will no longer be required to physically go to a vendor location or order their tickets for mail delivery.

The Mobile Ticketing Process: How will it work? Continue reading

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Lorton Station


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Meet the VRE Operation Board Members

The two Commissions (NVTC and PRTC) entered into the Virginia Railway Express Master Agreement which, among other things, established an Operations Board to coordinate the creation, development, and operation of the Virginia Railway Express. The Operations Board consists of members from each of the jurisdictions that supports VRE.

Serving as the advisory body to the NVTC and PRTC commissioners, the Operations Board is responsible for making recommendations to the commissions with respect to VRE’s management, financing, and acquisition of property.

Scroll through and read about your jurisdiction’s Board Member and what their views are for the future of VRE.


Paul Smedberg

marchWhen the opportunity arose in 2007 to get involved with the Virginia Railway Express, Alexandria City Council member Paul Smedberg said he jumped at the opportunity. Smedberg, who has lived in the area 25-plus years, saw that the region’s transportation problems were mounting and he wanted to be involved in an organization he thought could be part of the solution. “I was on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and would hear monthly reports about VRE,” Continue reading

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Rolling Road Station


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Twitter & Facebook

VRE embraces the world of social networking sites to both communicate and interact with our riders. Twitter allows short 140-character messages that can be received via the Twitter website, via text messages on a cell phone, or via one’s PDA. However, people must opt in to “follow” individuals or organizations in order to receive “tweets” from them. For us, we mostly use Twitter to help update riders of train delays, remind them of upcoming events (such as a Meet the Management event), or relay other important information. If you are interested in following VRE on Twitter, you’ll first need to register by visiting http://www.twitter.com/VaRailXpress, and clicking on “join today” if you’re not already a Twitter user. During the registration process, you’ll be asked to set up any type of profile you’d like to make for yourself, as well as select which type of device you’d like the updates sent to. Once you opt in to start receiving VRE’s “tweets,” you’ll begin receiving them as we send them out.

Twitter is useful to us in several ways. For one, tweets often let us know when we are in error:

It can be our extended “eyes and ears”:

And it can be used to address questions and concerns:

Facebook is also utilized in a similar way, although it has the ability to provide longer more in depth information. VRE’s Facebook page provides info about upcoming events, such as board meetings, Meet the Management schedules and on-line chats with VRE management. Facebook also allows us to share photos and Youtube links.

To access VRE’s Facebook page, please visit https://www.facebook.com/pages/Virginia-Railway-Express/53836370185#!/pages/Virginia-Railway-Express/53836370185

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Backlick Station


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Online Forum Follow-Up

Our online forum takes place the first Wednesday of each month at noon. In it VRE management fields questions for one hour from VRE riders. Within that period, management does its best to answer as many questions as possible, but they can’t always get to each one, usually because they either run out of time, or the questions are repeats of ones addressed earlier. Follow up questions or unanswered online questions then usually are sent to our gotrains email address. Below are some of the past rider questions generated from the online forum session with VRE’s responses:

RIDER QUESTION: I noticed that the 1:15 PM train leaving Union Station on the Friday before Memorial day had at least one car at the rear of the train that was blocked from being entered. Why is that? You are pulling it anyway, why not let people sit in it? If it’s an air conditioning issue, let people decide if they want to sit in the non-air conditioned car. Does the Federal Government, or host railroad, (or anyone else for that matter) require some minimum crew to passenger ratio? If so why?  What is that ratio?  Is it a “crew to passenger” or “crew to car” ratio (or something else)?

VRE ANSWER: The number of crews that we have on board a train are the current railroad industry standard (based on safety needs, ticket inspection needs and union contract agreements). If we ran 1 car we would have 1 crew member. For 2 to 6 cars we Continue reading

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Broad Run Station


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The ABC’s of VRE

We have a lot of information on our website. So much so that it is often easy to overlook some of the basic info. Here is a quick ABC guide to some of the things that can be found on our homepage at www.vre.org:

Amtrak/MARC Cross Honor Agreement: Did you know that your VRE ticket can be used in conjunction with Amtrak or MARC? To find out more, please visit http://www.vre.org/service/crosshonor.html.

Board Meeting Agenda & Minutes: The Virginia Railway Express Operations Board meets the third Friday of each month to discuss and decide upon items of importance to the ongoing operation of VRE. Meetings are held at our parent company ’s headquarters (PRTC). Agenda items are posted a week prior to the meeting at http://www.vre.org/about/board_items.htm.

Contacting Us: Whatever your concern, there is a way to contact us. We have feedback forms concerning lost and found, train personnel compliments and complaints, vandalism, as well as train, station or ticket machine concerns. Also, you can call us at 703-684-1001, Monday through Friday, between the hours of 7am and 7pm or email us at gotrains@vre.org. Forms and contact information can be found online at http://www.vre.org/feedback/index.htm.

Daily Download: VRE posts delay information online daily. This information includes the total length of the delay, a brief description of the reason, any FRC distribution or other information that you may need. This information will be updated daily by noon the following day and can be found online at http://www.vre.org/service/daily-download.html.

Expired Tickets: are not able to be exchanged or refunded. Continue reading

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Manassas Park Station


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Station Histories

Alexandria Union Station

masonictempleAlexandria Union Station opened on September 15, 1905. The train station is directly adjacent to the King Street metro station and faces the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

Though not as grandiose as its nearby Washington, D.C. counterpart, this “other Union Station” has a unique style of its own. The station is a one-story brick building consisting of the original main passenger depot and baggage building separated by a 20-foot wide open gateway passage and covered by a covered terrace. The designer used the Federal Revival Style: a 20th century mixture of Neoclassical architecture borrowed from buildings constructed just after the American Revolution, fitting for its location. Both original buildings are still in use. Though many minor renovations have taken place, including the slightly more extensive renovations that occurred in 1982 and the mid-1990s, the original buildings remain essentially unchanged. The limestone and granite Veterans of Foreign Wars memorial was constructed at the station in 1942.

The Alexandria Union Station is located in Old Town, a 17th century seaport town home to George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Market Square in Old Town is the oldest continuously operating marketplace in the United States. The area is also home to the Torpedo Factory art studio complex, Gadsby’s Tavern, the Jones Point Lighthouse, and Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home.

The city of Alexandria was first settled in 1695 in what was then the British Colony of Virginia. The town grew quickly through its tobacco warehouses, and was named Alexandria in honor of its original owner,  John Alexandria, who purchased the land in 1669 for “six thousand pounds of tobacco and cask.”

In 1791, Alexandria was included in the area chosen by George Washington to become the District of Columbia. It was later ceded to Virginia by the federal government in 1846, when the District of Columbia was reduced in size. Continue reading

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Rippon Station


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Lost and Found

It sometimes seems impossible to believe that a lost umbrella or cell phone could ever find its way back to us, but at VRE, thousands of “lost” items have been reunited with their owners over the years thanks to our Lost & Found program, which has an 85-90 percent return rate.

If you’ve misplaced an item, the process for making a claim is simple, just fill out VRE’s online Lost Item Report at http://www.vre.org/feedback/lostitems.php, or, call (703) 684-1001 as soon as you realize an item is missing. Please be sure to provide as much detail as possible to help distinguish your property from similar items.

In the meantime, VRE staff collects and tags items that are found on the trains every day. It can sometimes take up to 48 hours for an item to make it off the trains and through the proper channels to end up at our office in Alexandria, so please plan accordingly if you want to pick up an item. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. You must have a photo ID to recover your item from Lost & Found, and items are only kept for 30 days, except for keys, which will now be held for six months. (Food items must be claimed by 6:30 p.m. on the day that they arrive at VRE. All food items left after that time will be discarded.) Unclaimed items (except keys and food) are all donated to charity.

We ask that everyone coming to our offices to retrieve a lost item have a photo ID and please don’t come until you have filed a report. Arriving unannounced without a report on file slows the whole process down and will likely result in more frustration for the customer. We’re here to help, and we’ll welcome anyone to come in to take a look at keys, umbrellas, glasses, but if you give us a heads up us that you’re coming, everything can be processed more smoothly.

If you lose your ticket or ID, the procedure is similar: except you use the on-line Lost Ticket Report at http://www.vre.org/feedback/losttickets.php. If your ticket is found, we will contact you and make arrangements to return it to you. Ten-Trip and Single-Ride tickets will be mailed to your home address and Monthly tickets and Five Day Passes can be picked up at our Alexandria office between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. If you lose a Monthly ticket that is not found within 48 hours of reporting it missing, you may be eligible for a replacement ticket.

If you lose a TLC ticket that is not found within 48 hours of reporting it missing, you are eligible for a replacement for the portion of the ticket that provides travel on the VRE.

Please see our VRETLC page at http://www.vre.org/service/vretlc.htm for details. (Proof of purchase is required, so please retain your receipt when purchasing your VRE ticket.)

While we will do our absolute best to recover lost items and tickets, we are not ultimately responsible for them. In the case of a lost ticket, it is your responsibility to be in possession of a valid ticket when riding on trains until the missing ticket surfaces and is returned. To help ensure your ticket is returned, follow these simple suggestions:

1) Always print your name and daytime telephone number on the front of your ticket,

2) Try not to keep other people’s business cards in your ticket holder, and

3) Do not keep other valuables, like IDs or other tickets inside your ticket pouches. The higher its value, the more tempting it maybe for someone to take your ticket/pouch rather than to turn it in.

One final suggestion: A number of lost items and tickets go unclaimed. Please make sure to file a report even if you think your lost item or ticket(s) may not be of value.

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Alexandria Station


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Types of Common Rail Systems

Rail transportation has been around since the early nineteenth century. It replaced America’s network of canals, inland water steam navigation and other early forms of transportation. However, it has yet to be replaced as a key facet in America’s transportation portfolio. Given rail transport’s tremendous efficiency and cost effectiveness, there are many different forms of rail in use today. Ranging from small to large, they all serve a basic purpose: to move people and freight. Here is a basic overview of the railroad industry’s main components.

Class I Freight Carrier: Generally focused on moving freight, a Class I railroad is defined by the Surface Transportation board as having in excess of $250 million dollars in annual revenue. Class I railroad companies own and maintain a huge network of routes connecting different locations and mainline tracks spanning several states. They possess a large fleet of locomotives and railcars suited to shipping many different kinds of materials. The Class I carriers are Canadian Pacific Railway, Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX, Union Pacific, BNSF, Canadian National and Kansas City Southern. Collectively, these companies make up a large majority ownership of all operable tracks in the United States.

Class II or “Regional” Freight Carriers: These railroads are smaller than their Class I brethren in both track-miles and revenue. A regional railroad is classified as earning less than $250 million but more than $20.5 million in annual revenue. Regional railroads often own mainline track routes to move goods long distances but often have a network of slower speed secondary tracks that branch out and connect with factories and mills that may not generate or receive as many shipments as industries on a Class I system might. Regional railroads play an important role by providing small companies with access to the major rail infrastructures across America and generating traffic for Class I railroads. Some examples of Regional carriers in America are the Reading & Northern Railroad, Wheeling & Lake Erie and the Maine, Montreal & Atlantic System.

Class III or “Shortline” Freight Carriers:  Short-line railroads are often the smallest of the point-to-point rail systems in America. Their trackage territory can range from only a few miles and upward. Their official classification is contingent upon annual revenues being less than $20 million dollars annually. A large percentage of American short-line railroads are slower speed “branch line” tracks that were sold off by larger railroads. Short-lines often only have a few locomotives but can provide greater levels of attention to customers on its lines than a larger railroad carrier with many customers and lines. Some examples of short-line railroads in America are Lehigh Railway (56 track miles), Towanda Monroeton Shippers Lifeline (6 track miles), and Delaware-Lackawanna (85 track miles).

Class I National Passenger Carrier: After most railroads were permitted to abandon passenger service in the mid twentieth century, Amtrak was formed by the US Government to preserve passenger service with federal funding given its unprofitable nature. Today, Amtrak officially qualifies as a Class I carrier due to the level of revenue it receives. It utilizes a network of its own tracks and over track usage rights on other railroads to provide service in most regions across the country.

Regional Commuter Carrier: Also known as Commuter Rail, Virginia Railway Express finds itself in this category. These carriers can either operate on a network of privately held right-of-way or can operate over host railroad territory. Regional Commuter carriers are generally found around dense urban areas. Regional carriers generally own or lease their own fleet of specially built passenger equipment capable of speeds of up to 79 mph and most often operate under partnerships with a transportation authority or government agency. Some other examples of Regional Commuter carriers would be the Trinity Railway Express, based in Texas, SEPTA Regional Rail Division, based outside of Philadelphia, and New Jersey Transit Regional Rail, based in Northern New Jersey.

Closed System Rapid Transit: This system will most often operate on its own network of trackage within a city or connecting two major population centers. The defining difference between this system and other previously listed systems is train frequency. Within a rapid transit network, there are generally a large amount of connection options and routine train arrivals and departures without interference from other types of trains (closed system). The equipment is generally electrically propelled, versus conventional diesel-electric locomotive use. An example of this type of system, locally, is Metro. Nationally, another example is New York’s MTA.

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Quantico Station


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Rail Jargon 101

Ballast – Selected rock material placed on the roadbed for the purpose of holding the track in line.

Cab – The space in the locomotive unit containing the operating controls and seats for the engine crew. Cab can also be located in select passenger cars, known as cab cars.

Conductor – Railroad employee in charge of the train.

Continuous rail – Rails of standard length which are welded together at the ends to form a single rail of a considerable length.

Coupler – A device located at both ends of all cars in a standard location to provide a means for connecting one rail car to another.

Deadhead – Train going from one location to another without taking on passengers.

Dispatcher – Employee responsible for directing and controlling the movement of trains.

Engineer – Operator of a locomotive.

Extra board – A list of unassigned employees available to work, normally in the place of the regularly assigned crew.

Continue reading

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Manassas Station


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The Juice Train

tropicanaIf you served up a tall glass of Tropicana O.J. this morning for breakfast, you’re not alone … millions of gallons of Tropicana’s most famous juice travels from Florida up the East Coast five days a week, and the company doesn’t call upon trucks to do it. Rather, trains have been the preferred mode of transportation ever since 1970, with the so-called “Juice Trains” becoming the object of huge affection, with fan clubs, photography collections and even online discussion groups created to celebrate the big orange and white cars that help deliver one of  America’s favorite drinks.

But before 1970, getting Tropicana juice into the hands of its thirsty customers was no easy feat. When the company was first founded in 1947, it depended on hand-delivery to nearby Floridian homes, but as demand grew—particularly in the Northeast—a ship named the S.S. Tropicana was called into service in the 1950s, taking 1.5 million gallons of juice to New York each week. (One of Tropicana’s first Manhattan customers, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, had a standing order for 1,000 gallons of juice and fruit jars each week.)

By 1970, Tropicana realized it needed even faster and more frequent service. So in 1961, the S.S. Tropicana made its final voyage, and the concept of using a “juice train” to carry Tropicana’s product was born. Originally a single, insulated boxcar that carried orange juice in bulk once a week from Florida to Kearney, N.J., the Juice Train expanded quickly. By the following year, the company was operating two 60-car unit trains a week, each carrying about one million gallons of juice. On June 7, 1971, the “Great White Juice Train” (the first unit train in the food industry, consisting of 150 100-ton insulated boxcars fabricated in the Alexandria, Va. Shops of Fruit Growers Express) commenced service over the 1,250-mile route. An additional 100 cars were soon incorporated into the fleet, and small mechanical refrigeration units were installed to keep temperatures constant on hot days. As a result of its focus on rail, Tropicana saved $40 million in fuel costs alone during the Juice Train’s first 10 years in operation.

Today, the Juice Train, cooled to 34 degrees, departs five days a week, carrying juice from more than 400 Florida groves to your glass with as much speed as possible. (Incidentally, the first “Great White Juice Train” is still in operation today.) The look of Tropicana’s rolling stock has also changed over the years, including orange, white, and blue cars, all designed to better advertise its famous cargo.

A reliable and economically viable transportation mode, the Juice Trains now also run 10 trips each week to Jersey City, N.J., and Cincinnati, Ohio, while additional shipments with specially equipped refrigerated cars now travel 3,000 miles by rail to California, as well.

Not surprisingly, the Tropicana-CSX Juice Trains have been the focus of countless efficiency studies and have received numerous awards, primarily because the Juice Trains are a great example of how modern rail transportation can compete successfully with trucking and other modes to carry perishable products.

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Franconia/Springfield Station


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Safety Concerns

As we’ve said before, at VRE, our top priority is your safety. Here are some examples of things that you the rider can do to keep yourself safe.

Crossing the Tracks/Trespassing

Remember that you should only cross the railroad tracks at designated railroad crossing locations. Do NOT walk on the railroad at any time. It’s an extremely dangerous situation, and it’s illegal, too—in the Commonwealth of Virginia it is illegal to cross a railroad track outside of a marked crosswalk. Doing so is considered trespassing and puts you at risk of citation and fine up to $250.

Railroad tracks are not only inherently dangerous because of passenger and freight trains traveling as fast as 60 to 80 miles per hour, but also because the ballast and the oil residue from diesel locomotives make it a prime environment for slips and falls.

Some choose to cross at sharp curves in the track with zero sight warnings of an approaching train, and because there’s no road crossing there either, there’s no whistle warning.

Unfortunately, examples of tragic accidents are not hard to find and pedestrians have been struck and killed while crossing the tracks at marked crosswalks by what is commonly referred to as the “second train,” i.e., a train on a second track that can be moving in either direction at substantial speed.

The ‘second train’ is a real issue now at our Quantico, Fredericksburg, Alexandria and Woodbridge stations. Track improvements there have allowed track speeds to increase, so approaching trains are coming at a much faster pace. People tend to walk around the end of a stopped train, not realizing a second train is approaching or, they’ll see one train pass and start to cross, oblivious to a second approaching train because they’re so focused on the one they see right in front of them. It all leads to tragedy. Continue reading

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VRE and Security

VRE’s security strategy takes a system wide approach and considers the following as our security assets: passengers, train crews, VRE staff, law enforcement partners, host railroads, special programs and community. All of these facets combine to create one community dedicated to the safety of VRE as a rail system.


At VRE, our top priority is your safety. This is an issue we take very seriously and we take every step we can to make your commute safe. However, as with everything, in life there are things that you, as a passenger, can and should do to keep one’s self out of harm’s way.

On an average weekday there are about 20,000 passenger trips on VRE. This means 20,000 pairs of eyes. VRE reminds our passengers to contact a VRE conductor if they notice:

  • Unattended packages
  • Suspicious behavior
  • People in bulky, seasonally inappropriate clothing
  • Exposed wiring or other irregularities on luggage
  • Anyone tampering with surveillance cameras or entering unauthorized areas
  • Trust your INSTINCTS – If SOMETHING DOES NOT SEEM RIGHT – Alert a VRE Conductor!

If you see a practice that you feel may be unsafe, please report it to your conductor or to VRE. All safety and security concerns are sent directly to our Manager of Safety and Security.

You’re our eyes and ears and we want to know what you see!

Train Crews

VRE Conductors and Engineers operate across our tracks in virtually the same manner every day. Continue reading

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Fredericksburg Station


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Courtesy on VRE

Today, we are focusing on one of the issues that can turn a pleasurable commute into an annoying commute: common courtesy, or lack thereof. Courtesy is something that we constantly seek to educate and remind riders about. We state the same things over and over again about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior while onboard VRE’s trains. Now we are now using this blog format to do so again.

The Golden Rule  

If you treat fellow passengers with respect and kindness everyone’s commute will be more enjoyable. Here are a few things that tend to get people’s ire up, so please take note that you’re not guilty of any of the following:

1) Please don’t queue. Standing in the aisles two or more stations before your stop can mean that others can’t detrain at their station. Imagine how you’d feel if you weren’t able to get off at your stop and then had to make arrangements to be transported back. Trust us—it’s not fun!

2) Unless you’ve paid for two seats, you only get to use one. That means purses, laptops, brief-cases, umbrellas and jackets don’t belong in the seat next to you.

3) If you’re on your cell phone, please speak quietly.

4) By all means, listen to your head phones, but please keep the volume low enough so that the people three rows up don’t have to listen to the same thing you are.

5) Please keep your feet on the floor … not on another seat, and not on the upper level railing so that the dirt and muck from your shoes falls on the people below you.

6) When you’re driving in the parking lot, please remember that there are just as many pedestrians as there are drivers. Drive slowly and carefully; you’ll get home far more quickly if you don’t get in a fender bender.

7) And finally, always remember The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

It’s So Nice to be Nice

When VRE first began service, we didn’t have a huge problem with discourteous behavior because our parking lots weren’t full and our trains often had more than enough seats for everyone. But over the past few years, as ridership has increased and the general population has grown more crowded, the increase in complaints has become substantial. We get emails and phone calls all the time from passengers who are tired of other passengers’ discourteous behavior, and we’re really hoping that more reminders and a targeted focus on several key problem behaviors will help make the commute on VRE more pleasurable for everyone. Here is a small sampling of rider complaints from our Online Forum:

Eric from Burke says: Continue reading

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Skipping Stops

Skipping stops…we know some of you don’t like it, especially the folks who get by-passed, but sometimes – for operational reasons – it has to be done.

We have said many times that our top priorities are getting you to work and home safely and on-time. If delays must happen, we’d rather they be only a few minutes so that the inconvenience to our riders is minimal. Unfortunately, there will be times when our trains become significantly delayed. When these delays happen before a train leaves its first station, a domino effect to all of the following trains often occurs.

This is where the idea of “skipping stops” comes into play. First, a train must be delayed at least 30 minutes. Second, the train behind it must be on-time with no foreseeable potential for delays. This way, the riders at the stations that are skipped only have to wait another five to ten minutes for the following train.

In the morning on the Fredericksburg Line, these stations are usually Leeland Road and Brooke. On the Manassas Line, the Manassas and Manassas Park stations are usually skipped. Evenings are bit more difficult to implement because the following train is not normally on the same line. However, there have been times when this occurs, and depending on the circumstances, the L’Enfant, Crystal City and Alexandria stations have all been skipped over (usually due to extreme crowding).

Because of the complexity, only morning service will be discussed here.

The two underlying reasons for skip stops are to maintain the total trip length and to ease crowding concerns.

Total Trip Time: Under normal operations, most VRE trains have a station dwell time of about 2 minutes or less. Second, trains are normally spaced about 20-30 minutes apart on each line.

Skip Stopping When Delays Exceed 30 Minutes: Railroad signal systems are designed to separate trains. The system determines where a train is and provides the signal indication to the blocks behind the train. Only one train can occupy one “block” at a time, usually an average distance of 2 miles (keep in mind that the system has to keep freight trains in mind which can be at least one mile long). Trains in the 2 to 3 blocks behind a train receive signal indications that force them to slow down below the maximum authorized speed for that area.


By skipping stations, we can open up that space between the two trains. If spaced too close together, a train that normally operates at 70 mph must operate at 30 to 45 mph, when following a delayed train.

By skipping stations at the beginning of the line, we can usually save about 10-15 minutes on the first delayed train, but the second train’s savings are much more significant. By operating at a faster speed, we are likely to reduce the delay to the second train by about 30 minutes.   

When Skip Stopping Is Not Employed: There are times when skip stopping is not feasible.

In order for skip stopping to be effective, the following VRE train must be close behind the first VRE train. If the problem is one that affects all trains, like a switch problem, then skipping stops is not used. Also if an Amtrak or freight train is operating between the two VRE trains, then skip stopping would not be employed.

Crowding: Most VRE trains are assigned train sets that roughly match their ridership. On both lines, the heaviest passenger loads are at the first three stations.

Without Skip Stopping: With the ridership demand for the delayed train at each station equaling two train loads of riders, dwell time increases. It not only increases because of the numbers of people trying to get on, but it also becomes harder for those who are trying to get off amidst the crush load of riders, causing further delays. This is especially true on the Fredericksburg Line for riders detraining in the morning at Quantico, Woodbridge, Lorton and Franconia/Springfield.

Using the Fredericksburg Line, if a train is over 30 minutes late, it can have a demand of up to 956 riders at Fredericksburg, Leeland, and Brooke (two train loads of passengers).

However, the train has a capacity of 798. A rider at Brooke may not be able to board the train because the capacity could be exceeded. Riders further up the line, who are equally delayed, would be even less likely to be able to board. In addition, the following train will likely pick up only about 15 riders at Fredericksburg, Leeland, and Brooke, and will be mostly empty.

Using the previous example, with skip stopping the train loads roughly 485 riders at Fredericksburg. The train then can handle the 367 riders at Quantico, Rippon, Woodbridge, and Lorton, for a total of 852 riders. Although over capacity, it can handle the load with standees. The following train picks up 471 riders at Leeland and Brooke and makes all following stops. The train is more likely to remain on schedule and has no crowding.

So what is the bottom line? With skip stopping, the delays to both trains are minimized. Without skip stopping, a delayed train’s dwell times doubles as the train becomes overloaded. Skipping stops becomes especially important if significant delays occur at the beginning of the morning. Experience has shown that when the first delayed VRE train does not skip stops, it can create a domino effect delaying all rush hour VRE trains. When we skip a few stations, we are normally able to limit the delays to only two VRE trains.

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The Quiet Car

quietcar2Ever since the debut of VRE’s Quiet Cars, we’ve intended for them to be restful, peaceful and quiet, but not necessarily tombs of complete silence.  We urge everyone who plans to ride in a Quiet Car to please review the guidelines and respect your fellow quiet-seeking passengers.

Please do:

1) Set your cell phone to vibrate, or turn it off. (And, kindly move to another car if you must make or take an incoming call.)

2) Whisper—briefly—to your neighbor.

3) Send text messages from your PDA or cell phone.

4) Listen to music using headphones (but quietly enough that your seatmate doesn’t have to hear it).

5) Type on your computer quietly.

Please don’t:

1) Converse with your neighbor.

2) Talk on your cell phone, even at low volume.

3) Set the volume so high that others can hear what you’re listening to through your headphones.

4) Use electronic games or other devices that cannot be silenced.

The Quiet Car is the car located closest to the locomotive, normally, the southernmost car on the train. It can be easily identified by Quiet Car signs.

Seating in this car is provided on a first-come, first-served basis.

Should a passenger have an issue with another rider’s noise making, please see a conductor to have the issue resolved.

Below are some answers to a few of the most frequently asked questions about Quiet Cars:

Why the Car Behind the Engine?
We needed to choose an easily identifiable car. With this in mind, we decided that it either had to be the cab car or the car behind the engine. It was decided that the cab car is generally louder, so the car behind the locomotive was chosen. Because the bathroom is generally found in the cab car, the flow of passengers to and from this car in generally greater.

How is Quiet Enforced?

Those seated in the Quiet Car are expected to be polite at all times. Should there be a problem, please see a conductor.

What If I Need to Make or Receive a Call on My Cellphone?
Please don’t use cellphones while in the Quiet Car. If you must leave your cellphone on, switch it to the vibrate function so that its ring won’t disturb others. Kindly move to another car if you must make or take an incoming call.

What If My Seatmate’s Music is Too Loud?
Quiet does not mean implicit silence. A certain amount of tolerance of noise is necessary. If needed, politely remind your seatmate that they are riding in a Quiet Car and ask that they monitor the volume of their music. We have experienced instances when passengers are more aggressive in confronting their fellow riders. Certainly, we do not condone this behavior.

Can I Chat with Fellow Riders If I Whisper?
If you must communicate with a seatmate, please whisper quietly. If you find yourself needing to whisper the entire ride, it might make more sense to ride in the non-quiet cars.

There is a bathroom on the Quiet Car, doesn’t this defeat the purpose of quiet?
We place bathrooms on board the train so that riders never have to walk more than 2 or 3 cars. Unfortunately, we cannot always guarantee where the exact placement of a car with a restroom will be since cars often get switched out for maintenance. This will only be a temporary change and the Quiet Car will eventually go back to being bathroom free, but only after these periodic maintenance checks are completed.

Can the Conductor Turn Off His Radio When in the Quiet Car?
We want to preserve a quiet atmosphere for the comfort of our riders. However, we cannot request that our conductors silence their radios while in this car. Instead, we ask our crews to temporarily lower the volume of their radios as they walk through this car and to station themselves in another car. This helps to reduce the disruption of quiet for our passengers.

What Should I do If a Fellow Rider Continues to Cough or Sneeze?
Obviously your seatmate is not intending to be discourteous. So, if those around you have to cough or sneeze, there’s no need to glare or complain. Offer them a throat lozenge or cough drop.

Again the Quiet Car is meant to be relaxing but not necessarily completely silent. If the occasional ruffle of a paper is still too much noise for you then you may wish to invest in noise cancelling head phones. Otherwise, we hope you enjoy the Quiet Car.

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Free Ride Certificates (aka: FRCs)

Virginia Railway Express is one of only a few transit agencies that GUARANTEES its on-time performance. If a VRE train enters a station 30 minutes or more behind schedule, passengers detraining from that point forward are entitled to receive one “Free Ride Certificate” good for a FREE one-way trip on VRE.

“Free Ride Certificates” are only distributed on the affected train the same service day of the delay. Like a Single-Ride or Ten-Ride ticket, FRCs MUST be validated in the platform ticket vending machines prior to boarding. Once validated, FRCs should then be displayed on the train for inspection by a conductor.

I’m a Monthly ticket holder, what good are FRCs to me?

Many monthly riders have told us that they save their FRCs for when they want to take vacations and then use the FRCs along with a Ten-Trip ticket so they do not have to pay for the cost of a full Monthly ticket. Hopefully, this strategy works for some riders.

Can expired FRCs be exchanged for new ones?

No. Be sure to check out your FRCs expiration date. If you don’t use them up by this date, they will no longer be valid.

My train was late but I didn’t get an FRC, what do I do?

If a train is late and FRCs are not distributed on the train for any reason (often the train is too crowded for crews to get through the cars and distribute FRCs) you are still entitled to a Free Ride. You can request your FRC from our office using an FRC Request Form.

My train was cancelled, am I still entitled to a Free Ride Certificate?

Yes. Please send us an FRC Request Form along with a copy of your valid ticket.

As much as we want to run a perfect service, we know that sometimes delays are going to happen and this is our token of apology. FRCs are just another measure that VRE takes to try to provide our riders with the most pleasant, consistent and reliable service possible.

(P.S. if you know of another transit agency out there that guarantees its on time performance, please let us know…we’re curious).

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Train Delays

Now that the warm weather is here, you have probably noticed that it is accompanied by speed restrictions most often related to heat and flooding. These restrictions are necessary for safety, but inevitably, cause delays. There are many reasons for delays and below, we try to highlight some of the major ones:

Heat related speed restrictions:

What exactly is a heat restriction? In short, heat restrictions are orders given to railroad engineers to reduce their speed over a given section of track between the hours of 1:00 pm and 7:00 pm when the ambient temperature is predicted to be 90 degrees. Passenger trains must operate 20 mph slower than their maximum operating speed.

For all practical purposes, that usually means VRE’s trains can run at 50 mph during a heat order. But why impose these heat restrictions?

Trains ride upon two ribbons of steel. This steel has been metallurgically engineered to be incredibly strong and stable, yet incredibly flexible. This flexibility, which serves well in the creation of curved track and during periods of exceptional cold (when rail remains strong) can be a double edged sword. When many miles of rail are subjected to intense heat, the rail becomes incredibly hot. The stone track-bed and the consistent lack of shade do nothing to help this problem either. Since the rail is firmly anchored into the wooden railroad ties, it has little room to move, which helps to keep trains moving at great speeds stable. As we all learned in elementary school, heat causes expansion and the superheated rail can increase in length measuring in several inches over a great distance. Since there cannot be any gaps in a rail to allow for this expansion, pressure builds up in the rail as it tries to expand lengthwise but can’t. With no room to expand, the rail can bow outward like a plastic ruler squeezed at each end between your fingers. It pulls the wooden ties right out of the stone track-bed with it and creates a sharp curve. When this occurs, the track has what is known as a “sun kink” or “heat kink”.metrosunkink

These occur without warning and if unchecked, can create a very unstable operating situation for a train.

When railroad maintenance officials see that conditions may be right for such a situation, they issue heat warnings and our trains end up travelling slower, because higher speeds add to the friction which adds to the heat. When trains slow down, there is less friction and therefore less heat which reduces the bending of the rail.

In the grand scheme of things, heat restrictions do not really count for that great of delay (8 to 10 minutes at the most which can often be made up). However, when it is hot enough for heat restrictions to be needed, it is also hot enough for the temperatures to affect mechanical equipment and signals and switches along the tracks. The combination of these two factors, mechanical breakdowns and slow speeds can, unfortunately, result in delays.

While no one likes to be delayed, even if it is only 8 to 10 minutes, the use of speed restrictions is definitely a case of being “better safe than sorry”.

Flood related speed restrictions:

The most common delay during stormy weather is caused by wind and heavy rain, with both CSX and Norfolk Southern having policies in place that deal with severe weather. If the National Weather Service puts out a flash flood warning, for example, CSX’s policy states that trains can go no faster than 40 mph; NS’s policy states that no train can go faster than 20 mph.Tropical Storm Lee Train Ride Home 1

Both policies follow the same theory most of us do when driving in heavy rain: slowing down enables the engineers to more safely navigate through areas with limited visibility. Most importantly, should deep water cover the tracks, or if a section of track is washed out, a  slower rate of speed will allow the engineer to slow or stop the train before it is too late.

Train Track WashoutSpeed restrictions during flash flood warnings, like heat restrictions, are put into effect for safety reasons. This rule is put into effect because heavy rains can wash away parts of the ballast (the rocks that support the tracks). The Manassas line is especially prone to this since the conditions that cause flooding are more prevalent in this area.

Once imposed, flood related speed restrictions will remain in place until the tracks can be properly inspected. So even though it may be sunny outside, if the tracks haven’t been fully inspected yet after a storm the speed restrictions will remain.

Other delays associated with rain storms can be the delays caused by fallen trees. Tracks covered by fallen trees require railroad crews to come via hi-rail vehicles (vehicles that can run on both road and rail) in order to cut and clear the tracks as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, VRE’s bottom line is safety, a focus shared by both CSX and NS. If severe weather is in the forecast, please keep in mind that your commute may be delayed, but rest assured, those commuting by car are likely sitting in far worse backups!

Track work related speed restrictions:

Like delays on the interstate due to yearly road construction and maintenance, railroads also experience delays due to yearly maintenance, track upgrades and tie replacements to keep the railroad in safe working order.

CSX and Norfolk Southern, the host railroads who own and maintain the tracks we operate on, frequently run geometry cars to test the rails to make sure that everything is safe and stabilized. When they find a problem, they fix the tracks and rail-bed. After the work is complete, speed restrictions are placed along the repaired track until proper train tonnage passes over to make sure the ties, rail and/or rail-bed has settled properly.

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Track work and tie replacement

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National Transportation Safety Board video analyzing a derailment due to a sun kink

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Track ballast washes out due to flooding

Warning: this video does contain explicit language.

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History of the Railroader’s Timepiece

watchEver since the first train departed, the question has been asked “what time did it leave?” or “what time will it arrive?”

Keeping time on the railroad began as an imperfect science. Timepieces of the very early 1800’s were notorious for losing as much as ten minutes a day. As more and more trains began to operate on the same track, risks of confusion arose with many different trains operating on a non-standardized time schedule. As automatic signaling had not yet been developed, railroad operations were coordinated around timing.

This lack of precision finally resulted in the fatal collision of two trains outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Following this incident, railroad investigations revealed that the accident was due solely to the fact that the engineer was using a timepiece that was defective and had not been displaying the correct time.

But what was the correct time? Each railroad had its own opinion and each station along the way did too. The railroads operating in America sat down following the findings of the investigations and agreed to establish standard times and to create a standard clock.

Railroads would also establish requirements for what an acceptable time piece was. Among several highly technical internal specifications, the early requirements for a railroad approved timepiece was that it must be open faced (pocket watches without a closing cover), engineered to keep accurate set time within 30 seconds per week, as well as have a plain white dial with black Arabic numerals.

Railroads installed clock stations at central points where train crews were assigned and rules went into effect stating that all crewmembers were to set their watches to the standard time as displayed by the central clock and coordinate time with each other prior to their tour of duty.

This advancement proved to be very beneficial and exponentially improved the railroad’s operating efficiency and drastically reduced the number of near-miss incidents or actual rail collisions resulting from poor timekeeping.

Secondary benefits from these changes in how time was viewed created a renewed interest in timekeeping and accuracy. Companies like Ball, Waltham and Hamilton in America and the newly formed Hans Wilsdorf Watchmakers (later designated as Rolex) and the Louis Brant watch company (later renamed as today’s Omega S.A.) of Europe began manufacturing pocket-watches that were capable of withstanding extreme temperatures, moisture, as well as being bumped and dropped, perfect for the demanding environment incumbent on the railroad.

Although much has changed since those days, time is a very crucial element to railroad operations. All railroads operating in North America, including Norfolk Southern and CSXT (our host railroads) continue to have watch construction and time keeping specifications. As watch making is vastly superior to the early days of timekeeping, the technical requirements for a watch’s movement are less technical or in some cases, absent.

However, the requirement of no greater loss of 30 seconds is acceptable and all numbers must be displayed as Arabic numerals. United States Naval Observatory time is statistically one of the most precise clocks on earth and is established as the “standard clock” given today’s relative absence of large centralized train crewing locations. VRE crews coordinate their personal timepieces with the timing on the USNO clock daily to ensure you arrive to and from your destination on time.

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Bell Versus Horn

Two very symbolic and perhaps widely known components of the locomotive are the bell and the horn. Both are vital safety features, however, the bell’s use predates the locomotive to the days of horse-drawn street cars and carriages. Quite simply, it alerts those nearby to the fact that the vehicle in which it is affixed is moving.

As the horn is very loud and used for widespread alert, the bell, being quieter is more practical for a constant reminder when the locomotive is nearby.

Originally, locomotives in America were very primitive. As they were steam powered, the horn was generally a brass whistle activated by steam releasing from the boiler and the bell was mounted on the top of the locomotive and connected to a long rope that allowed locomotive engineer or fireman to pull on it to ring it manually.

These days, the technology has advanced significantly. The bells are sounded by activating a pneumatic valve fed by the locomotive’s compressed air reservoir.

Another significant development in the locomotive bell completely eliminates the bell altogether. New generation locomotives such as the ones at VRE use electronic recordings of a ringing bell that projects from a high volume sound projector affixed to the locomotive.

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History of Railroad Signaling

signalblogSince its birth, the railroad has employed a variety of signaling methods to communicate with locomotive crews as to what course of action they must take, mile by mile, in order to safeguard themselves from possible collision.

In the early years, when railroading was in its infancy, one train might be the only one running on a specific track for a day or more. During this time, rail signaling reflected the form being used in England and parts of Western Europe. These countries were using steam power, a copper ball and a flagpole. The copper ball was raised when a train was fueled up, passengers and freight were loaded, and the track was properly switched. This “highball” was the “ready to go” signal.

As rail traffic increased, however, multiple trains began to use the same track. As a result, there became a sudden need for more stringent traffic control, and the concept of a “block” was developed.

The blocking system broke a line of track into smaller segments able to be controlled with signals. This meant, that at a certain interval along a given track, these early chain and ball signals would be placed to secure a section of track along with an operator to maintain the signal. While one train cleared a section of track, another train waited at the signal for it to clear. Then when everything was cleared, the ball signal was raised and the train proceeded.

The dawning of reliable electricity led to the invention of a coded track circuit which used common principles of conductivity. A box of circuits and electromagnets called a “relay” was placed at each end of a section of track. Each rail was then electrified by a supplied current. At the ends of each section of track, or “block”, a strip of insulation was placed between the rails so that the next block could have its own circuit and not interfere with the circuits of surrounding blocks.

When a train passed into an electrified block, the circuit from one rail would travel over the steel axles of the train to the other rail and create a connection. The relays would then detect this loss of electricity and a series of electromagnets would become demagnetized. This created a new circuit that then directed power to the railroad signal which rotated a pivot and illuminated a lens from green to the red. Thus creating electrified block territories that are still used today.

Some track territory featured more than one track, with some tracks going in all different directions, such as yards, crossings with other railroads, or high traffic regions. This was where manned signal operators remained necessary. Manned interlocking towers were used on the railroad to control these points. Each tower was given two letters to identify itself on the telegraph wire. The letters usually involved some relation to the name of the town but were ordered so they weren’t confused with other letter codes used on the telegraph. For example, the tower at Alexandria positioned to control movement to Fredericksburg was identified as “AF”, or Alexandria-Fredericksburg (currently the dividing point between Manassas and Fredericksburg lines). Each tower operator was responsible for switching the appropriate tracks by hand and telegraphing the dispatcher when a certain train had passed.

In the mid 20th-century, Centralized Traffic Control system (or CTC) was developed. This was a large console with a series of lines depicting tracks, switches and other miscellaneous track structures. At each track switch depicted on the console, there was a small light bulb and a small lever. When the light bulb was lit, that meant a train was occupying that “block” and if the train’s destination required transfer to another track, the operator, miles away could simply turn the lever or push a button and instantly a signal created an impulse in a relay box that then in turn operated a motor and switched the track. With this amazing new technology, manned signal towers were no longer needed, and the railroad companies began to demolish some of these towers and installed traffic control consoles in centralized locations.

With some technological advances in the signal systems themselves, this is largely how our trains are dispatched today.

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Standing Means Detraining (or, Please Don’t Queue)

queuingIt seems we’ve been talking about queuing for as long as we’ve been in operation. When it has become an issue, we have asked passengers to please remain seated until their train has left the station stop prior to their own, but sometimes people insist on queuing in the aisles two and even three stations early. The result is crowded aisle ways that make it impossible for others to detrain and often causes riders to completely miss their stop.

If queuing is deemed an issue on a particular train and seats are available onboard that train our crews can invoke our “Standing Means Detraining” policy, which basically allows crews to stop a train or refuse to open train doors until all those riders standing have either detrained or have found a seat.

Certainly, we understand that some riders like to stand, and, with the exception of standing in the vestibule, standing is allowed onboard VRE trains (crowding does occur and trains are designed to hold standing passengers). However, the conductor is the sole authority onboard the train and we rely upon them to determine how best to run the train in the safest most efficient manner. If they feel that available seating will help reduce crowding thus making it easier for them to patrol a train, or to clear the aisles for detraining passengers then they have the right to move passengers from one car to another and ask riders to find a seat. (Note: sitting on the stairs to the upper level is not allowed for safety reasons).

What we really want is to allow detraining passengers an easy exit, and since you can still stand just before your stop, you’ll still manage to get off your train in a timely manner. So if the conductor asks you to find a seat, please do so.

This system was put into place on a few trains with particularly bad queuing issues with excellent results: when people stayed in their seats until their train had physically left the station one prior to the one where they detrain, the trains ran on time.

When people queued and the trains were held as a result, the passengers ultimately created their own delay, and the incentive to remain seated quickly outweighed the desire to queue.

From past experience, we know that this policy will sometimes delay a train, but for the non-queuers on the train, rest assured it will quickly resolve itself and you should never have to elbow your way past another queuer again. And for those who like to stand, as long as we stop getting complaints from riders having to fight through crowds to detrain, you’ll be able to stretch those legs again.

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