- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Virginia Railway Express yesterday gave Amtrak an Aug. 1 deadline to respond to concerns about quality of service or lose the contract to operate Northern Virginia’s commuter rail service.

VRE is paying Amtrak $14.4 million this year to lease track, operate trains and maintain equipment.

If Amtrak fails to respond adequately to VRE’s concerns about management of the contract, “[A request for proposals] will be issued for carrier contract services,” VRE spokesman Mark Rober said. “We’re getting to the point where they’re going to have to tell us how they’re going to take care of our services or we’ll have to look elsewhere.”

VRE’s transportation commissioners set the Aug. 1 deadline during a Thursday evening meeting.

The deadline is the latest in a yearlong reconsideration of the contract. VRE’s skepticism started last summer, when Amtrak threatened to shut down its nationwide rail system as it ran out of money.

The shutdown was averted by a $200 million, last-minute bailout by the federal government.

VRE trains carry about 14,000 riders daily between Northern Virginia and Union Station in the District. The agency’s ridership has grown about 18 percent per year since 2000. Service began in 1992.

Alternative operators could include short-line railroads in the Mid-Atlantic or staffing companies for the transportation industry, such as Massachusetts-based Connex North America Inc. or Florida’s Herzog Transit Services Inc.

VRE officials have put together a 25-page business plan that outlines the agency’s growth goals. However, reaching its goals would require greater cooperation from Amtrak on issues such as management, track access and storage of equipment, VRE has said.

Currently, an Amtrak management team is shared between VRE and Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC), Maryland’s commuter rail service. VRE wants a separate management team dedicated only to the VRE contract.

“We don’t have definitive answers, on access, storage, maintenance or operation,” Mr. Rober said. “We’ve grown into a mature system that requires a committed management team from Amtrak.”

In addition, Amtrak has been downsizing some of its facilities in the Washington area as it tries to cut expenses. The downsizing includes moving some maintenance services out of Amtrak’s Ivy City facility in Northeast at Brentwood Road and New York Avenue.

VRE officials want better answers on how Amtrak will replace the Ivy City maintenance services.

They also want to know how Amtrak will store the locomotives and rail cars that VRE plans to acquire as it continues growing.

“We would like to grow our system, and if you’re going to grow your system, where are you going to store these cars,” Mr. Rober said.

Amtrak officials said any problems result from a misunderstanding about the detail VRE demands in its responses.

“Basically, the response they’re looking for is a little more detailed than the estimates we had given them,” Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said.

He denied that Amtrak’s contract with VRE is in jeopardy.

“Not at all,” he said. “Our relationship with the VRE is excellent.”

Amtrak contributes to the operation of seven regional commuter rail systems and provides three others with shared access to track and stations. Commuter rail contracts will bring in about 13 percent of Amtrak’s expected $2.1 billion in revenue this year.

Although MARC officials expressed displeasure with Amtrak’s near shutdown last summer, they insist they have no plans to terminate their contract with the national passenger railroad system.

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