Amtrak to keep running VRE trains for two weeks longer

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

Virginia Railway Express has crafted a contingency plan that asks Amtrak to continue service for two additional weeks, as the new operator for the commuter-rail service might not be prepared to begin service this month.

The Federal Railroad Administration mandated that VRE devise the plan in case Keolis Rail Services America is not ready when Amtrak's 17-year relationship with VRE is scheduled to end June 28. Although VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said the commuter rail agency thinks Keolis could be ready, it was important to have a plan in place to ensure continuity in service. Amtrak had requested to see the plan by Wednesday.

Keolis is a subsidiary of a French company, and the VRE contract marks its debut in the U.S. market. VRE awarded Keolis the five-year, $85.7 million contract in October, describing its offer as the best among four.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Amtrak President Joe Boardman, VRE chief executive Dale Zehner said that Keolis will assume maintenance responsibilities by June 25 but that it is unclear whether Keolis employees will complete "the rigorous qualification process" Amtrak has required for operations in and around Union Station.

In a response to Zehner's letter, Boardman said Amtrak will operate VRE trains through July 9. Although Zehner said he preferred to have a soft rollout in which Amtrak would operate the Manassas Line and Keolis the Fredericksburg Line, Amtrak rejected that proposal.

"Amtrak thinks it is not a good idea to have a unionized and non-unionized workforce entering into Union Station," Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said. "We think it's cleaner . . . for Amtrak to operate both services as Keolis finally gets themselves ready to take over."

The estimated price tag to extend Amtrak's contract is $335,000, VRE officials said, noting that they have asked Keolis to cover the cost.

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