The Virginia Railway Express
Many Northern Virginia commuters use the Washington DC metro to travel to the District of Columbia. However, the blue, yellow, and orange metro lines reach only the tip of Northern Virginia, leaving remaining commuters from areas in Virginia like Manassas, Quantico, or Fredericksburg, to either take the bus (which is a very convenient and widely used alternative in the Washington, DC metropolitan area) or brave local traffic alone and drive into downtown DC to a nearby metro stop. The VRE travels much further south than the metro and has only two main rail lines: the Manassas line and Fredericksburg line. Both lines end at Union Station after crossing through stations in Alexandria, VA, Crystal City, VA, and L’Enfant in Washington, DC.
For all of the convenience it offers, the VRE does come with its own share of less positive points. First, again unlike Maryland’s MARC train system, the VRE does not operate outside of the workday commuter rush hour Monday through Friday. It operates generally from 5am to 9am and 1pm to 7pm, but the schedule itself is irregular. The time between your next train if you miss one can be anywhere from several minutes to several hours. To offset these erratic running times, VRE has a crossover agreement with Amtrak that allows VRE ticket holders to ride on pre-designated trains to their destination when the VRE is not running. This supplement only bandages the problem, however, because the schedule is still erratic and difficult to predict.
The VRE also suffers frequently from mechanical failure. This is a huge problem first if you miss a train and the next one isn’t scheduled for another several hours. It is also a disaster of a problem if you miss the last train on a Friday evening due to mechanical failure and the next train out isn’t until Monday. That is what happened to a friend of mine. The very last train leaving on a Friday evening from Union Station had mechanical failure, and there were no Amtrak trains available to honor the crossover agreement. What were he and all the other travelers who missed the train to do?
Their options were to either spend the weekend in DC until the next train out Monday or take a Greyhound bus. Unfortunately, my friend did not realize the bus option was available until the very last Greyhound for the day had already left. The next Greyhound was set for early the next morning. My friend was fortunate because he was departing from Union Station, a travel hub for the Washington, DC metro, Amtrak, VRE, charter bus lines, and taxis. My friend had a number of options available because they were nearby. Other travelers departing from other stations, however, were out of luck if they were unaware of their options or in too remote of an area to use any of the options they had.
I do not recommend the VRE for travelers. Daytrippers, weekenders, and other vacationers from out of town will be much better served by Amtrak, the Washington, DC metro, or charter bus lines to the remote areas of Northern Virginia. The VRE system really has too many quirks to use and still allow you to have an enjoyable, hassle-free vacation. Driving to Northern Virginia is also an option, but doing so during rush hour (6am to 9am and 3pm to 7pm in the Northern Virginia and Washington, DC metropolitan area) will have the same effect.
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