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Virginia Railway Express says month of free rides helped lure pre-pandemic riders back, but didn’t draw new crowds

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) said in a report that the fare-free ride program created a noticeable bump in ridership during September, though it’s unknown how much that will linger post-promotion.

In a report (page 60) prepared for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), the VRE said the commuter rail service offering free rides in September caused a 21% increase in ridership. The promotion continued into October for Alexandria and areas further south during the ongoing Metro shutdown.

“VRE offered Fare Free September, which allowed for fare-free travel during the month of September, to promote VRE service and build ridership, as well as a thank you to those riders who stayed with VRE throughout the pandemic,” the report said. “Additionally, the free fare promotion allowed VRE to serve as a major contributor to the regional mitigation efforts during the Metrorail Blue and Yellow Lines shutdown south of Reagan National Airport. VRE continued to provide free fares during October for riders traveling between Zones 1, 2 and 3 until Metrorail service south of the airport reopens.”

The shutdown of the Metro lines was originally scheduled to conclude in October, but with the Potomac Yard Metro station delay that was pushed to November and the fare-free program is recommended by VRE staff to continue until services resume.

The report provided some numbers behind how the fare-free month impacted ridership, with the uptick mainly among riders who has ridden the train before the pandemic but had not resumed VRE travel since.

“For the month of September, ridership increased by 21% compared to the previous month,” the report said. “The rider survey showed that the Fare Free September promotion was especially successful in getting riders who took VRE pre-pandemic back on the service.”

The rail system is also currently in the middle of a study looking at what commuter train demand looks like in a post-pandemic era with many of the office jobs having transitioned to work-from-home.

“The market analysis and baseline 2030 and 2050 ridership forecasts by line and station, using the currently adopted Transforming Rail in Virginia (TRV) Phase II service plan, will be completed in November 2022,” the report said. “VRE staff plans to return to the Operations Board prior to the end of the calendar year to provide the results of the market analysis, ridership forecasts, and to request authorization to initiate Phase II of the System Plan 2050 update process. The 2025 System Plan will be brought to the Commission for action in 2023.”

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