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Rails Delayed By Weather

In Springfield, the Thompson family daily routine was disrupted Thursday, March 20, by the delay in train schedules due to the rain. Kevin Thompson and six-year-old son Kyle Thompson usually pick up Christina Thompson at the Rolling Road Virginia Railway Express (VRE) station, but Christina Thompson caught them just before they left home with the news that she had to wait 30-45 minutes on the platform in D.C.

"They have signs on the platform," Christina Thompson said. "Right when I got on, they lifted the speed. The CSX trains, about three of them, went by. They were moving along."

The torrential rains of early March slowed the VRE trains, causing delays all over, while the CSX trains continued to plug on at higher speeds, angering local officials to the extent that federal government intervention was considered. Diplomacy paid off in the end, but emotions were high on the passenger side.

Pete Sklannik, chief operating officer at VRE, demanded answers.

"Freights were allowed to run at 40 miles per hour, while passenger trains were at 15 [mph]. Rush hours were a disaster," said Sklannik.

One line at VRE runs north to south to Fredericksburg, while the other line goes east to west to Manassas.

The Fredericksburg line incurred more delays then Manassas, but neither had a good day on Thursday, March 20.

"Passenger trains need to be treated better," Sklannik said.

Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) is on the VRE board. She wasn't happy either and questioned what would happen in a potential of a state of emergency. When people were evacuating Washington, D.C., on 9/11, the VRE played a key role.

"To evacuate people, we ought to make sure the federal government could intervene," McConnell said. "In case of a national emergency, the federal [government] could come in and take control of the tracks."

Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) has a stop in his district as well at the Springfield-Franconia Metro station. He was ready to go to higher levels of the government as well. He thought it was a matter of money. CSX makes more money on freight than it does from the amount of user fees that VRE pays.

"We have raised the issue in Richmond," Kauffman said. "We've gone to [U.S.] Sen. [John] Warner [R-Va.] in the past. He's a strong railroad supporter."

Through the years, the CSX and VRE haven't had the best relationship. After a meeting with CSX officials on Tuesday, March 25, Sklannik was satisfied with their response.

"They moved quickly to come up with a remedy," he said. "It's a pleasant surprise. We're hoping this is a new beginning."

Christina Thompson is a regular passenger on VRE's Manassas line and she wasn't upset by the glitch.

"It's so easy," she said. "That was the first time there was an incident."

In extreme weather, CSX has agreed to allow passenger trains to operate at a 'controlled speed' of up to 50 mph," as well. "Controlled speed" is defined by visible deficiencies, according to information released by VRE.

IN ADDITION to resolving the situation, VRE and Amtrak expanded their partnership, in case such a situation arises again. Currently, VRE passengers can ride certain Amtrak lines with a VRE pass. Now a Springfield-Franconia stop will be included in that program.

"It gives VRE customers flexibility," Sklannik said.

At the stations, information was posted about snowfall schedules, "if the weather report is calling for 8 inches or more." At the Burke Station, for instance, the last train comes in at 6:45 p.m. instead of 7:29 p.m. Both sides agreed their official forecast would be from Weather Bank "to provide more succinct and definitive information of impending and current weather conditions," according to VRE information provided by Sklannik.