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Keolis Rail still recruiting engineers, conductors as VRE takeover nears

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The company that will soon take over operation of Virginia Railway Express trains from Amtrak wrapped up its first month of nationwide recruitment efforts as it prepares for the June transition, VRE officials said.

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The mechanical staff is in place, which equates to about half of the 80-employee workforce, VRE officials said. Keolis Rail Services America, the U.S. subsidiary of a France-based firm that won VRE's operating and maintenance contract in the fall, is still recruiting engineers and conductors. One employee from Amtrak has come over.

Keolis, which ousted Amtrak after its 17-year run with VRE, finalized contracts last month with the unions representing engineers and conductors, VRE officials said. Keolis offered all Amtrak employees positions first, extending an economic package that was better than Amtrak's, said Steve Townsend, executive vice president of Keolis's local operation. Townsend said Amtrak workers would also be able to keep their seniority and other benefits.

Steve Kulm, spokesman for Amtrak, said Amtrak wants its employees to stay with the company and has jobs for everyone who does. Kulm also said he doesn't think the union contracts are in place, but representatives of the engineer and conductor unions could not be reached for comment.

"We understand VRE is working hard to make this transition a success, but they chose Keolis, and six weeks before the transition time, they seem to have little workforce," Kulm said. "It seems apparent the Keolis plan has not panned out. . . . I think there is some question to their ability to start" on time.

VRE officials said they cannot divulge which agencies new employees are coming from because recruiting efforts are still underway. Those who are new to the commuter rail system will work several trips on non-passenger trains to become familiar with VRE. Funding for the training is in Keolis's $85.7 million contract, and the training will be completed in time for the June 28 switch, VRE officials said.

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