Amtrak ends role as VRE operator; Keolis to start Monday

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010

Amtrak's 18-year reign over Virginia Railway Express ended Friday as the commuter-rail agency's new operator takes over its first American transportation service.

Keolis Rail Services America, a subsidiary of a company based in France, will assume operations of VRE trains Monday, almost nine months after it was awarded an $85 million, five-year operations and maintenance contract.

"I don't expect anything but a smooth transition Monday," said Steve Townsend, executive vice president of Keolis's local operation. "We have a very committed group of conductors and engineers who are excited to work on the system."

Keolis, which originally was scheduled to take over June 28, did a practice run July 5 with approximately 80 employees hired from across the country. The new staff has gone through training and will soon become part of the unions representing engineers and conductors, Townsend said, noting that although the unions agreed to represent Keolis employees, contract negotiations are ongoing.

All except one of VRE's conductors, engineers and maintenance workers stayed with Amtrak, which found new positions for them within the company, Amtrak and VRE officials said.

"We've been helpful to provide a smooth transition and have been true to our word," Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said. "We appreciate the opportunity we had to serve VRE passengers over the years."

VRE and Keolis officials said the only changes riders will notice Monday are fresh faces, new uniforms and enhanced customer service. Members of the Federal Railroad Administration, along with officials from Norfolk Southern and CSX, will ride trains all week to monitor the transition, VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said. Amtrak officials will also observe.

"A host of people will be in place to monitor and make sure service is as seamless and effective as it can be for commuters," Roeber said. "It is unprecedented that the FRA has reached out . . . to put people on every train, and we embrace that because it will give us continuous feedback."

Townsend said Keolis will have more dedicated management monitoring the system than what had been in place. Keolis officials will be at the ends of each line and at Union Station daily to ensure a smooth operation, he said.

Monday's changeover marks the end of a somewhat turbulent transition that started in October, when Amtrak challenged VRE's decision to choose an international company. Amtrak quickly lost its battle. The tension among VRE, Amtrak and Keolis, however, remained throughout the process, as officials in all parties butted heads on various aspects of the transition.

"Though it has taken us longer to get here than we anticipated or wanted, we are glad that the day is here, and we look forward to making the experience even better for our riders," Roeber said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company