September was shaping up to be a good month for Virginia Railway Express commuters outside the nation’s capital, with the service offering 30 days of free rides to lure motorcyclists lost in the pandemic.
Now, however, a freight rail strike threatens to completely shut down service on the VRE, along with numerous other commuter rail services across the country.
“I don’t really want to have to drive to Crystal City,” said Chris Barbagallo of Bristow, Virginia, as he waited Wednesday afternoon for the train home.
It takes the approximately one-hour train ride from the outer suburbs of Prince William County to avoid the region’s infamous traffic. VRE said it will be forced to shut down if a strike begins and there are few viable mass transit alternatives for long-distance commuters.
The threat to the service stems from a potential strike by freight rail workers across the country. US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh met with both sides on Wednesday to try to broker a last-minute deal, but a strike could begin as early as Friday.
Some commuter lines would be affected; others do not. It largely depends on whether the commuter line owns its own tracks or uses tracks owned by freight companies.
The largest commuter rail systems, all on the New York City subway, are not affected, but Chicago’s Metra system has outages on at least four of its 11 lines and has said they could begin after Thursday afternoon rush hour. .
Commuter rail services in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas will also be affected. The Sounder system in the Seattle area would be forced to shut down. Around 5,000 people travel on Sounder trains every day, down from around 20,000 before the pandemic. In greater Minneapolis, transportation agencies plan to offer a bus service to replace the commuter rail service that would have been forced to suspend the smaller Northstar service.
The Association of American Railroads, which represents the rail freight industry, has estimated that half of the commuter rail systems in the country depend at least in part on the tracks owned by the affected freight railways.
John Cline, director of government relations for the Commuter Rail Coalition, an industry trade group, said there are 36 commuter rail lines in the United States and the impact on each ranged from “potentially catastrophic” to negligible.
He said it’s at least possible that commuter lines who own their own tracks could be affected if strikers set up pickets at commuter sites and workers decide to honor them.
Cline said so far there has been no indication of secondary picket plans, but “anything and nothing can work” if a strike is indeed called.
Meanwhile, commuter systems can do little but wait to see how it turns out.
“We’re kind of innocent bystanders,” he said. “We don’t have a seat at the table. We are not negotiating these contracts. “
At the Virginia Railway Express, the potential strike comes at a time when the service offers free rides during the month of September in an effort to increase passengers who have never recovered from the pandemic. It also comes at a time when motorcyclists are using VRE as a replacement for six stations in northern Virginia that are temporarily closed on the larger Metrorail system.
VRE spokesperson Karen Finucan Clarkson said preliminary data from September shows an average number of daily users approaching 10,000 one-way trips during the freeride promotion. That’s almost double the average of 5,125 trips in August, but still well below the pre-pandemic passenger number of more than 18,000 trips.
Across the Potomac, the Maryland Transit Administration has informed users of the MARC commuter rail service that service will be suspended on its Brunswick and Camden lines in the event of a strike, but service on the Penn line can continue.
At the Crystal City station on the VRE, Woodbridge commuter Thomas Good said he enjoyed free rides in September on a service that runs to the expensive side – a one-day pass costs nearly $ 25 on longer rides. He can’t wait to drive, but he’s ready to adapt.
“Flexibility has been the watchword” in recent years, he said. “I think we can understand it.”
Associated Press writer Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland; Roger Schneider in Steve LeBlanc in Boston; Gene Johnson in Seattle; Roger Schneider in Chicago; Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco and Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this report.