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VRE says goodbye to Amtrak

By Potomac Local July 12, 2010 12:00 am

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A Virginia Railway Express train pulls into the Woodbridge station. (Photo: Mary Davidson)

WOODBRIDGE, Va. – It seemed like a long time coming but a French company is now in charge of operating of Virginia’s commuter railroad.

Keolis Rail Services of America began operating Virginia Railway Express trains on the system’s Fredericksburg and Manassas lines today as part of a five year, $85 million contract. After months of wrangling between VRE, Federal Rail Administration officials and Amtrak managers - who did not want their employees persuaded to work for the French firm – Keolis hired more than 80 new conductors, assistant conductors and engineers in May to facilitate train operations.

Offers were made to Amtrak employees to stay, but only one Amtrak worker decided to join the French firm that has never operated in the U.S. before now.

One week ago today, while many enjoyed a day off because of the observed July 4 holiday, Keolis crews made their first full test runs on the VRE system.

“The test run went remarkably well. The crews missed a few of the announcements that they are supposed to make when the trains pull into their respective stations, but they worked on it and fixed the problem later into the day,” said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber.

In addition operating the trains, Keolis has also taken over the task of maintaining locomotives.

The change ends a 17-year-old relationship with Amtrak, which operated VRE trains since the commuter railroad began.

Today’s milestone comes after allegations were made by Amtrak two months ago stating that Keolis employees were not ready for the scheduled June 28 transition.

VRE officials blamed Amtrak for a delay in training new Keolis employees, saying Amtrak routinely changed qualifications standards on written test for new Keolis employees – all of whom must be certified by Amtrak to operate VRE trains on Amtrak-owned rail lines in Washington.

While the maintenance crews took over operations as scheduled on June 28, after it was asked by VRE, Amtrak allowed their crews to operate VRE trains for an additional two weeks as new Keolis employees remained in the certification process.

The Keolis contract has two five-year renewal options, and because Keolis was the lowest bidder when the contract was awarded in November, it is expected to save VRE $1.2 million per year.

Photo: Mary Davidson

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