The new express train on Virginia Railway Express did not deliver the express ride it promised eager commuters on its inaugural run Monday morning, arriving instead about an hour late and packed.
The train that shuttles commuters from Fredericksburg to D.C.'s Union Station was supposed to deliver riders about 20 minutes quicker than regular trains, making it comparable or faster than driving a car, agency officials had pledged.
But the 5:05 a.m. train ran into signal and switch problems on the CSX tracks, forcing it to slow down along a 10-mile section of the trip. It also was so crowded that some riders could not get on -- and those who did faced standing-room only by the second stop.
"I would say that our new train 300 was successful beyond our expectations," said VRE Chairman Paul Milde, who was among those riding the train. "Unfortunately, our inauguration was somewhat less rosy than it could have been."
Amtrak adds Richmond-to-D.C. trains Additional Amtrak service connecting Richmond to Washington is slated to begin Tuesday, giving long-haul commuters or tourists another way to avoid I-95 traffic. An additional morning train will leave Richmond at 7 a.m. and arrive at Union Station at 9:30 a.m. each weekday. An afternoon train leaves Washington at 3:55 p.m. The service supplements other trains on the route. The additional service is part of a three-year pilot program to increase train service in Virginia that includes the Lynchburg-to-D.C. service that began in the fall.
It was the latest challenge for the train service, which depends on getting its riders to their jobs on time -- or faces losing them. Ridership has been growing, reaching more than 17,000 on the two lines, after dropping several years ago following a string of problems.
But the summer heat wave is causing delays as trains are forced to slow down to avoid heat-kinking tracks.
The switch from Amtrak to operating contractor Keolis also ran into problems, forcing VRE officials to extend Amtrak service for two weeks. Last week, the first under the French-owned company, had some hiccups, according to riders.
Neither Keolis nor VRE was directly to blame for Monday's delay. Other trains on those tracks also were delayed by the signal problem.
The issues on the express train began early with the track signal problems. But the three-car train's 425 seats were full by the second stop, with some 100 people left standing, Milde said. Others opted to take a later train.
VRE now plans to run a four-car train Tuesday. The agency plans to monitor upcoming morning ridership.
One solace for express train riders: Those who made it onto the packed express train Monday received free ride vouchers because of the delay.