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VRE conductor Melvin Johnson Jr. (right) talks with a passenger aboard the 5:15 a.m. train from Fredericksburg on its way to Washington for yesterday's inauguration.
BY KELLY HANNON
Before sunrise yesterday, about 150 passengers eagerly awaited the first Virginia Railway Express train pulling into the Fredericksburg station.
When the Washington-bound train chugged into view, a huge cheer rose from the crowd.
It was not your typical workday on the VRE.
Briefcases and lunch coolers stayed at home. Instead, passengers wore fanny packs and clutched small purses that met security requirements. Business suits were replaced by puffy parkas.
An SUV with Texas plates parked outside the station had "Yes, We Did!" chalked on the rear window. And an "O-bam-a!" chant swept through the crowd just before the 5:15 a.m. train boarded.
"This was the simplest route we could take in to the historic inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama," said Marva Boatman, 53, of Ruther Glen, summing up why she rode VRE with her sister and brother-in-law from Huntsville, Ala.
VRE charged $25 for a round-trip ticket, and assigned passengers to specific trains. The system carries between 16,000 and 17,000 passengers on the Fredericksburg Line and Manassas Line on most workdays. More than 18,000 people rode VRE trains yesterday.
VRE staff working the train platforms to help passengers unfamiliar with the system included VRE chief executive officer Dale Zehner, who was spotted loading trains and making announcements yesterday afternoon at L'Enfant Plaza.
VRE trains operated without major delays. This contrasted with long and chaotic lines at Metro stations near the National Mall, where hundreds of people waited just to enter the stations.
There was a minor delay on the last VRE train from Fredericksburg to Washington. The train was just about to leave when three cars in a row pulled up to the station.
The first driver lowered her window and asked Karen Hedelt, Fredericksburg's interim director of economic development and tourism, where to park.
Hedelt blurted out directions to the city parking garage a couple of blocks away, then added, "and hurry."
Most of the cars' occupants--a family of about 15 from Norfolk--piled out immediately, while the drivers went to park.
One of the passengers got a city police officer to ask the conductor to hold the train.
"Grandma's coming, and she's got the tickets!" a kid fretted out loud.
Several slow minutes later, Grandma, whom Hedelt described as "not a spring chicken," came into view.
"We're trying to wait, but come on!" the conductor shouted from the platform.
Grandma hustled. And she made it.
"It was great--they literally held the train," Hedelt said. "There's no sense in somebody missing a piece of history for a couple of extra minutes on the platform."
Fredericksburg-area residents were scattered on the train among out-of-town groups that had heard about VRE on the Internet.
Teresa Pinyon, 44, of Sugarland, Texas, drove 25 hours with a friend to spend the night in a Fredericksburg hotel before taking VRE to Washington.
Pinyon volunteered for Obama's campaign in Texas, going door to door with candidate information.
"It was like a closing for me," Pinyon said of the inauguration. " It's like the final part of completing the circle."
Maureen and Harry Blair of Greensboro, N.C., had tickets for the standing-room-only area on the Capitol grounds. They spent the night in Fredericksburg so they could take VRE.
"It's the only inauguration we've ever been to, and we're glad it's this one," said Harry Blair. "This is the first president I've really been excited about, and I'm 63 years old."
Felix Floyd, 36, of Atlanta spent the night with a friend in the Richmond area before boarding VRE.
"It's an electrifying event," Floyd said. " I think Obama has all the charisma to be the greatest president we've ever had so far. I wanted to say I was there, I voted for him, and I'm here now."
Not everyone on the train had a day off.
Two women from Stafford County, Lani Burnett, 53, and Diane Markham, 42, boarded the 5:15 a.m. train to head to work at the Reserve Officers Association, which was hosting a pre-inauguration breakfast for Medal of Honor recipients.
"We were amazed at how many people were already here at 5 o'clock in the morning and where they all came from," Burnett said.
Their office is on Capitol Hill, around the corner from the swearing-in ceremony, and they figured the road closures would keep their carpool from getting through, so they rode VRE.
They enjoyed the festivity on the train, but said they would not have a chance to see the events for themselves.
"It's kind of ironic our office is right behind the Capitol, and we'll be watching it on TV with the rest of the world!" Markham said.
Staff reporter Laura Moyer contributed to this story.
Kelly Hannon: 540/374-5436