Delays from new safety system are easing, VRE promises frustrated riders

Every day for the last month, delay after delay has left many Virginia Railway Express riders frustrated. But the agency is confident it has now worked out most of the kinks with a new safety system.

“We think we’ve gotten over the hump of the worst of it,” said Joe Swartz, VRE chief of staff.

The consistent delays have been tied to crews getting used to positive train control, or PTC, systems, which are meant to automatically prevent or reduce the damage from collisions between trains, and to automatically slow down trains that are going at an unsafe speed on a curve or near workers.

That implementation has caused slowdowns for Manassas Line trains as they moved between tracks owned by Norfolk Southern and tracks owned by CSX; incorrect slower speed limits in the system; and an unexpectedly long process to turn trains around.

VRE expected the reinitialization of the system to take two or three minutes, but it initially took about 10 minutes, causing rippling delays.

“Whenever you put something new out there, and start during revenue operations, you find things that just didn’t come up prior,” Swartz said. “It’s just a matter of a rollout of a very complicated system. We have made a lot of progress in fixing the issues that we found when we started rolling it out.”

A system demo on a CSX simulator — used during a freight rail industry event Tuesday on Capitol Hill — shows how it automatically cuts speeds.

VRE first activated PTC on a Fredericksburg Line train with riders on Feb. 14. Rollout on the Manassas Line began April 1.

For the first time in weeks, VRE had no PTC-related delays for consecutive rush hours Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. It could still be two months before every issue is ironed out, but those should be less significant for riders. 

“We really think that the worst is behind us,” Swartz said. “April was not good, and we understand the frustration of our riders, but we also thank them for hanging with us, and we think the worst is over and they should see the system back to normal.”

In mid-March, on-time performance dropped to near 60%.

“If not this month, in the near future, we will certainly plan on hitting our 90% on-time performance goals,” Swartz said.

The fixes now are especially important, because VRE is a crucial option for many commuters this summer during the major shutdown of six Metro stations on the Blue and Yellow lines.

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