By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009; B04
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.
Addressing the concern about operating on U.S. rail lines, Steve Townsend, executive vice president of Keolis America, said the four managers of his company have almost 100 years of experience working under Federal Railroad Administration regulations. Any new employees, he said, will probably come from Northern Virginia.
Railroad agency spokesman Warren Flatau said the agency will work with whatever company the commissions select and make sure it complies with safety standards.
Officials with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, however, remain apprehensive about changing to a new operator.
"Northern Virginia is a densely populated and congested intermodal transportation region and home to two of the busiest rail corridors in the United States," said Herbert Harris Jr., chairman of the union's D.C. legislative board. "This is not a territory for upstarts."
Harris said several factors, including a lack of federal funding, have strained Amtrak's relationship with VRE and other commuter carriers in recent years.
But circumstances have changed, he said. The Obama administration has directed more funding to rail activities, and Amtrak is under new management. It is being led by former Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph Boardman.
"There may have very well been moments when management was not as responsive as VRE would have liked, but it was nothing that impacted the safety of the passengers or the efficiency of the service," Harris said.
VRE's Zehner said he thought customers will be satisfied with Keolis's service.
"My goal is, they will see the level of customer service rise," he said. "Their experience on the train, cleanliness of the train . . . should rise up. That's my expectation."