VRE plan to oust Amtrak up for vote

Passengers board a VRE train during the evening rush. Amtrak has run the commuter rail service for 17 years.
Passengers board a VRE train during the evening rush. Amtrak has run the commuter rail service for 17 years. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
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By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

Two Virginia transportation commissions voted Thursday night to approve Virginia Railway Express's plan to end its 17-year relationship with Amtrak and give an international company a start in the U.S. transportation industry.

The Northern Virginia and Potomac and Rappahannock transportation commissions each voted unanimously, with one abstention, to award a five-year, $85.7 million contract to Keolis Rail Services America, the U.S. subsidiary of a company based in France.

"One firm went above and beyond," PRTC member Matt Kelly said. "I think Keolis really wanted this contract, and Amtrak expected the contract."

The contract, which the VRE Operations Board approved Oct. 16, has two five-year renewal options and will begin July 1, when Amtrak's contract ends.

VRE selected Keolis because its proposal was the most cost-effective and the strongest, particularly in customer service and its management and operations plan, VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said. Four companies applied for the operations and maintenance contract.

Roeber said that the roughly 80 Amtrak employees who work with VRE can remain on the job and retain their pay and benefits.

Last week, Amtrak challenged the VRE board's decision, saying there might have been some "improper scoring" during the review process.

Amtrak said VRE's request for bids stated that 80 percent of the score would be based on an applicant's "performance and experience." Keolis has no experience operating under U.S. rail safety and security regulations, Amtrak officials said. Amtrak also filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for Keolis's application and score card.

VRE chief executive Dale Zehner reviewed the scoring process and concluded that Amtrak's challenge was without merit, Roeber said.

Amtrak also failed to challenge the VRE board's decision within the period allotted, according to a letter Zehner sent to Amtrak on Monday.

Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said that the denial was expected but that VRE's response did not address Amtrak's safety and security concerns.

"The national capital region is a unique area, and the safety and security plans of potential rail operators deserve special review and scrutiny to ensure they are in compliance with all federal regulations," Kulm said.

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