Va. commuter rail operation rejects contract challenge

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

Virginia Railway Express officials have denied Amtrak's challenge to a plan to have an international company operate the commuter rail service's trains.

On Oct. 30, Amtrak sent a letter to VRE officials contesting their plan to award a five-year, $85 million contract to Keolis Rail Services America, a U.S subsidiary of a French company. Amtrak has operated VRE trains for 17 years.

Amtrak said that there might have been some "improper scoring" when VRE reviewed the four applications for the operation and maintenance contract that VRE put out to bid in May.

VRE Chief Executive Dale Zehner reviewed the procurement process and found Amtrak's challenge to have no merit, VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said.

Amtrak also failed to challenge the Oct. 16 decision within the 10 days allotted in VRE's request for bids, according to a letter Zehner's sent to Amtrak on Nov. 2.

The contract with Keolis, which needs the approval of the Northern Virginia and Potomac and Rappahannock transportation commissions, would give the company its first foothold in the U.S. transportation industry. Keolis would take over in July.

On Wednesday, the Federal Railroad Administration weighed in on the issue.

In a letter to commission members and other Virginia officials, the FRA's chief counsel said that, although the agency has no opinion on the suitability of Keolis, it is concerned about maintaining safety. It said the company selected for the contract must be able to communicate not only with Amtrak, which dispatches trains in and out of Union Station, but also with Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX, the two freight lines that own the rails that VRE uses.

In addition to challenging VRE's scoring process, Amtrak filed a Freedom of Information Act request last month asking VRE to turn over copies of Keolis's proposal and evaluators' notes and score sheets. Zehner said in his letter that the request would be met once the two commissions vote on the contract Thursday.

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