One of the most appealing things about the Fredericksburg area is, or should be, the Virginia Railway Express. A resident who works inside the Capital Beltway can live this far from D.C. without having to deal with a stretch of Interstate-95 that is as congested as any highway in the United States.

We write “should be” because things haven’t been working out so well lately at VRE.

VRE is implementing a safety feature called Positive Train Control, and some rail commuters are positive that it’s making their lives harder instead of easier.

The $15 million PTC system has led to enough delays that some commuters are getting back behind the wheel, car-pooling or slugging in order to reach their workplaces on time.

VRE trains have dropped from an on-time average in the 90th percentile to the 40th percentile, meaning more than half the trains are late.

It’s never going to be a perfect system as long as VRE has to compete with Amtrak and freight trains on tracks owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern. With the advent of PTC, though, it has become more imperfect. Passengers are experiencing delays of 10 to 45 minutes. Bosses grow weary of hearing that the train made employees late yet again.

The chairman of the VRE operations board says, “We’re confident we have a plan in place to improve the system over the next few weeks.”

Riders sure hope so.

It’s not like VRE is arbitrarily foisting more safety on its passengers. The federal Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated that rail systems put this safety feature into play. It’s taken this long to get it implemented.

Making matters worse for rail commuters, Washington’s Metro system is shutting down some stations for overdue repairs this summer. Expectations were that VRE would pick up some of the slack there. So the forecast seems to be for trains that are more crowded, probably making them even later.

VRE says it’s modifying its rollout plan for PTC until problems can be dealt with. A software change on the Fredericksburg line that is being implemented on some trains has reportedly had a positive effect. But there’s still a long way to go before the trains reliably run on time.

We wish VRE all the luck in the world, for its sake and ours. Mass transit between our area and the land inside the Beltway is essential to regional commuters’ quality of life.

Please fix this problem quickly, VRE. Once some of your 20,000 daily passengers give up on this relatively painless way to get to the D.C. area, it will be hard to get them back, and we’ll all be poorer for it.

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