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Holocaust group faults VRE contract

VRE passengers board a train.
VRE passengers board a train. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
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He added, "We believe that the record of SNCF, when it's fully disclosed, will result in SNCF being a welcomed partner in America."

Michael R. Marrus, a University of Toronto law and history professor who has written extensively about Jewish persecution in Vichy France, said SNCF "became part of the Nazi war machine" after Germany defeated France in 1940.

Marrus said the French government took responsibility for the crimes of its World War II-era Vichy government in the mid-1990s and has paid reparations to survivors and victims' families. Those payments have been slow to come and in many cases had to be forced by lawsuits, Marrus said. However, he said, he believes continuing to "stigmatize" SNCF more than 60 years after the atrocities were committed is "nonsensical."

"No one in the SNCF now was making decisions back then," Marrus said.

He said the controversy raises the same complicated historical questions as those surrounding whether the U.S. government owes reparations to African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved.

"At what point should one say there's been an appropriate recognition of historical responsibility?" Marrus said. "There has to be a turning of the page at some point. I think we've reached that with SNCF."

VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said the commuter rail system was unaware of any Holocaust connection before awarding the contract to Keolis. However, he said the information would have had little impact because Keolis's bid was "head and shoulders above the others" in providing the best value under Virginia and federal procurement laws. He noted that Keolis is also owned by two other companies, a Canadian asset management company and a Paris-based private equity firm.

'It's a stretch'

"We're doing business with a multinational corporation, not one just owned by the French" railway, Roeber said. Though Holocaust survivors "may have a legitimate beef with the French government," he said, Keolis "has a proven record in public transportation. . . . I think it's a stretch to say Keolis has some tie-in to what the French railroad may have done in World War II."

Keolis began maintaining VRE trains June 26. Its conductors and engineers will take over July 12. VRE trains were previously operated and maintained for 17 years by Amtrak, which placed third in the bid competition, Roeber said.

The contract is renewable for two additional five-year terms if both VRE and Keolis choose to extend it, he added.

Maryland Transit spokesman Terry Owens said procurement law prohibits him from discussing the MARC contract or any possible bidders while the contract is pending.

But Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) said she has asked Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley to consider SNCF's record when the state evaluates Keolis's MARC bid.

"I don't think we in good conscience can have Maryland survivors of this tragedy subsidizing their prosecutors, which would be the case if this contract were awarded," Mizeur said. "I get that Keolis itself was not involved in World War II activities, but its 60 percent majority owner was."

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