Still reeling from the loss of passengers during the pandemic and the slow return to in-person work across the region, Virginia Railway Express is proposing a budget that would bring new weekend service and a 5% fare increase.
During a livestreamed presentation on October 24, VRE CFO, Mark Schofield, along with budget manager Alex Buchanan, laid out some of the proposals for fiscal year 2025 (which begins in July 2024) that his team hopes to make a reality when VRE operations board votes in December.
Buchanan said that while the proposed fare increases are not primarily motivated by ridership, the costs of the service (number of trains, facilities, labor and equipment) have been greatly inflated since 2020, which was the last time that VRE increased rates.
"The number of trains and the frequency with which we operate those trains does not depend on the number of passengers... but primarily on the number of trains we operate," he said.
Currently, less than 25% of VRE's operating costs are covered by rates. In 2019, before the pandemic, fees accounted for about half of operating costs.
According to Buchanan, the system's operating costs have increased 20% since 2020. Meanwhile, the current number of VRE users is about 6,400 daily users, only about a third of pre-pandemic levels.
To make up for lost revenue, VRE has tapped state and federal pandemic relief funds since 2020. But with those funds likely to run out in the coming years, other forms of revenue will need to be turned to.
According to Schofield, issues are still being discussed about how to handle fare increases for current and future riders using weekly and monthly passes. He also said they are examining different ways to price rides based on zones within the system.
New Saturday trains and shuffling services
Schofield said in the presentation that after years of planning, VRE hopes to offer three trains on Saturdays for its main lines, Manassas and Fredericksburg, in the summer of 2024.
One of the motivations for incorporating Saturday is to encourage large groups and families to use the service for leisure in the region.
To that end, they are also considering a reduced fare for children ages 11 to 18 and free rides for those ages 10 and under.
For weekend service, which VRE hopes to expand to Sunday in the coming years, Schofield said they will have to run the experiment for a while to see what features and benefits appeal most to riders.
Schofield said they have not decided on a final weekend fare schedule for their final proposal.
He also said some of the unnecessary costs during the week could be shifted to help pay for the weekend. For example, trains that previously had eight cars during the week could be reduced to six cars, freeing up some staff, including drivers, and resources for the weekend.