By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; B04
The company set to take over operation of Virginia Railway Express trains is about a dozen employees short of having a full staff in place when Amtrak's 17-year reign with the commuter-rail service ends next month.
Keolis Rail Services America, which needed to fill 80 positions, has hired 15 conductors, 15 engineers and all of its maintenance staff, which represents about 40 people, said Steve Townsend, executive vice president of Keolis's local operation. One Amtrak employee from the current service has joined Keolis, while the rest are recruits, mostly from the region and New Jersey Transit, which has furloughed several employees as it cuts service, Townsend said.
"We feel it is a positive reflection on Keolis that they have had such outstanding success bringing in top-flight candidates for employment," VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said. "I think it bodes well for VRE and particularly for VRE customers as we move forward, knowing that Keolis is committed to helping us continue to improve the quality of service."
Townsend said that he is surprised more Amtrak employees did not join Keolis but that it received a surplus of applications from interested candidates and has more than enough candidates to fill the rest of the positions.
Amtrak employees, who may still apply for the remaining positions, have been guaranteed their spots through the end of April and offered a package that allows them to maintain all benefits and wages. Townsend said that it is almost unprecedented to have people not want to stay on a service but that he has also never seen a company fight so hard to retain its employees.
"The importance of maintaining our people is something we have said for months," Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said. "We highly value our employees. . . . They are all trained and good people."
The news Thursday dispels rumors that Keolis, the U.S. subsidiary of a France-based firm that won VRE's operating and maintenance contract, does not have a staff in place and is ill-prepared to begin operations on June 28.
Townsend said Keolis began training employees last week and will continue for the next few weeks to ensure that they know the territory and are qualified to be on Amtrak's property, which includes Union Station. Everything will be in place for a smooth transition next month, Townsend said.