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DALE CITY--Though ridership figures were down slightly in April, the Virginia Railway Express is planning for future expansion.
Overall, the number of commuters taking the trains is up over last year and passenger cars are overcrowded during peak runs.
"We've probably outgrown the original model of VRE," Dale Zehner, the commuter rail service's CEO, told the Operations Board Friday. "We're pushing at the edges, let's put it that way."
During the meeting, Zehner detailed short- and long-term plans for handling expected passenger increases, especially with the Spotsylvania station set to open, possibly by the end of 2013. Those plans include adding rail cars and possibly a new train to handle Fredericksburg-area passengers.
April's ridership figures fell 1.3 percent compared with April 2011, according to VRE's statistics. But so far this fiscal year ridership has increased 6.9 percent over last year.
And 2011 was a banner year for VRE, when the commuter rail service to Washington set all of its top-10 ridership days.
One of those top-10 marks fell last month, though. On April 17, VRE tallied 20,914 ridership trips. Ridership figures are based on trips per day, so the actual riders is half the total.
Zehner told the board that ridership demand stands at 19,600 and that VRE's capacity is 21,000.
And, he said, VRE expects demand to grow, so they need to plan for it.
He and other members also noted that crowding is an issue already, especially on Fredericksburg-area trains during peak runs.
In an interview after the meeting, Susan Stimpson, a member of the VRE board and chairman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, agreed.
"I think it already is needed," she said of added capacity for area VRE trains.
She said the express trains added to the area last year are constantly full.
Zehner detailed some of the things VRE could do to expand.
VRE could increase the "step-up" option, where VRE riders pay an extra $5 to take Amtrak trains. VRE sells 7,500 of these tickets a month, more than they expected, Zehner said.
He suggested that VRE could lower the step-up price to $2 per ticket. VRE would have to subsidize the cost of doing that, which would amount to $950,000 annually, Zehner said.
Another option would be to add a rail car to train 303, which runs from the Fredericksburg area. That would add 260 seats. This would cost VRE an estimated $120,000 annually. VRE could also add two cars to Manassas trains.
The biggest and most expensive move would be to add another VRE train, which could coincide with the opening of the Spotsylvania station.
Such a move would add an estimated 2,200 seats a day. It would cost an estimated $20 million in capital costs and $1.3 million a year in operating costs.
"When Spotsylvania opens," he said, "we'll probably need another train."
Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436