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Virginia rail system looks to rebound from pandemic ridership nosedive

An Amtrak train passes the Burke station (staff photo by David Taube)

(Updated April 1) Empty parking spaces have been common sights near Fairfax County’s five Virginia Railway Express stations over the last two years.

Like those of other transit agencies nationwide, the commuter railway service’s woes during the COVID-19 pandemic have been well-documented, but a new ad campaign airing this month and next is looking to regain riders.

VRE hoped that the introduction of vaccines would mark a turning point in the pandemic, but the emergence of new Covid variants and the rise of remote work has stymied efforts to bring ridership levels back up.

“We’ve been at this and have just stayed focused and tried to keep it all in front of us,” VRE CEO Rich Dalton said at a board meeting on March 18.

While there were typically over 18,000 daily riders in 2019 and the first two months of 2020, VRE saw 1,532 daily passengers on average in the first half of 2021 and around 2,747 daily passengers in the second half.

This year, the average daily ridership was 2,083 in January, 2,785 in February, and 3,666 from March 1 through March 18 — the highest average since March 2020, according to data provided to FFXnow.

“We are trending up…pretty quickly,” Chris Henry, VRE’s director of rail operations, said at the meeting. “Our goal is to try and figure out what is that new baseline gonna be.”

VRE plans ad campaign

In an effort to attract returning and new riders, VRE plans to launch a marketing blitz that will include radio and mobile app ads.

VRE expects to spend no more than $50,000 on digital advertising campaigns for the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

Public affairs administrator Karen Finucan Clarkson said VRE will also try to engage riders through real estate and leasing agents as well as community events, such as farmers markets, festivals and fairs.

She said VRE plans to hand out information with a QR code that shows people how to ride, along with free coupons to ride.

The rail service is also working with businesses, chambers of commerce, and other organizations to pass along information to employees and new hires.

“VRE is…an important asset for the region and its strong economic growth, providing benefits whether their employees ride VRE or not,” Joe Swartz, director of government and community affairs, said. “Giving workers transportation alternatives leads to vibrant communities and economic growth.”

VRE will also participate in a statewide campaign called Re-Discover Your Ride. Set to launch on June 1, the campaign aims to help public transit agencies regain riders and is being funded by federal COVID-19 relief money.

VRE Planning Program Manager Nick Ruiz noted that other rail services have seen similar declines.

The Tri-Rail system in South Florida has returned to around half of its pre-pandemic levels, but its service operates in both directions throughout the day with major employment destinations along its route, according to Ruiz.

“I think that’s allowed them to see much more of a resilience,” Ruiz said.

To determine its new baseline, VRE is monitoring shifts in telecommuting, hybrid work schedules, and the federal government’s return-to-office plans. A 2019 survey indicated that most VRE passengers work federal jobs.

In his State of the Union address on March 1, President Joe Biden called for most federal workers to return to in-person work. He later released a plan to expand public-facing services starting in April.

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