HILL: Requiem for commuter rail 

Commuters wait to board an arriving Virginia Railway Express commuter train Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022 at the Crystal City station in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)

We recently visited Washington, D.C., and explored the art museums since we haven’t been to them since we left Northern Virginia in 2007 and they were all free. We got to visit with our oldest son in Fredericksburg, Virginia, as an added bonus. 

One of the reasons I was dying to leave Northern Virginia was the oppressive, life-sucking traffic. It used to take 1½ to two hours to travel one-way 16 miles from Annandale to Capitol Hill and back every day. There was no way I was going to drive through that traffic again and get stuck in 100-degree heat for three hours each way, which is what it could have been if a couple of wrecks spoiled everyone’s commute. 

As an alternative, we decided to try to cover the 53 miles from Fredericksburg to D.C. by rail on the VRE, the Virginia Railway Express. We could walk to the VRE station from my son’s house. It was all too perfect — or so we thought. 

Once we figured out how to order tickets online (the VRE website was horrible and very confusing), we waited on the platform for the 8:30 a.m. VRE train headed north. Since there was no clear explanation of the numbers designating each train, we presumed the one we got on was VRE No. 314. 

It was not. It was Amtrak. The website seemed to indicate that VRE riders could board Amtrak trains, but once we got on board, the conductor said we were mistaken. 

“But you can stay on nonetheless. Just remember this for future reference,” he offered nicely. 

We were somewhat surprised. The Amtrak train was pretty clean and not overly packed. Perhaps COVID has done what no other traffic mitigation scheme has ever done, which was take 25% of all gas-guzzling cars off of I-95 North and I-395, the infamously over-burdened Shirley Highway, heading past the Pentagon to Capitol Hill. 

We had three brief stops along the way. It took about 50 minutes — or about the same amount of time it would take to drive to D.C. with no traffic whatsoever. Except we experienced no white-knuckle traffic behind the wheel and no annoying fender-benders. 

So far, so good. 

We enjoyed our visits to the National Gallery of Art, the Renwick and The National Portrait Gallery, all of which are must-sees if you go to D.C. on a trip or business-related matter. It was as hot as hell’s front porch, as some describe North Carolina weather in July, but we survived nonetheless. 

And then ― we went back to Union Station to board a VRE train home.  

This time, we got the right tickets, although I was unable to get half-price tickets for being a senior citizen because the VRE ticket system was so hard to navigate. 

The on-boarding track number suddenly changed and no one seemed to know if it was a VRE or Amtrak train coming in. It was Amtrak, and as we learned from our previous conductor, “Don’t get on Amtrak the next time!” so we didn’t. 

After a considerable delay, we got on the right VRE train ― No. 305 scheduled for 3:30 p.m. but we loaded up about 20 minutes later at 3:50 p.m. ― and proceeded to literally creep out of Union Station heading south back to Fredericksburg. I figured we had to go slow to get out of D.C. and make one stop in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, and then we would be on our speedy way back to Fredericksburg. 

Or so we thought. 

We stopped 10 times or roughly every five miles to pick up passengers. I thought I could have ridden a bike faster between stations than we went on VRE. We stopped at the following stations in a 50-mile journey: L’Enfant, Crystal City, Alexandria, Franconia/Springfield, Lorton, Woodbridge, Rippon, Quantico, Brooke, Leeland Road and finally, thankfully, Fredericksburg. 

It took a good 105 minutes to get home. One hour and 45 minutes. 

The next day, we drove into D.C. to see some more museums — and then back out all the way to North Carolina later in the afternoon before the real traffic crush hit at 3:30 p.m. We were not going to use VRE again. 

We have nothing against rail service. We traveled on a 150-mph passenger train from Venice to Florence in Italy last year. 

At 150 mph, we would have been able to leave D.C. and get to Fredericksburg in 20 minutes.  

Commuter rail advocates: You have your work cut out for you. Let us know when high-speed rail service becomes a reality, not a dream.