- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

Virginia Railway Express and Maryland Rail Commuter are searching for companies to replace Amtrak in operating their train systems.

The Washington-area commuter railroads, like other such railroads nationwide, say they no longer want their operations tied to Amtrak's precarious financial condition.

The backlash from commuter railroads indicates that the damage to Amtrak from the crisis that culminated in a $200 million last-minute bailout by the federal government two weeks ago goes far beyond any short-term problem. Commuter rail contracts represented 13.7 percent of Amtrak's $2.1 billion revenue last fiscal year.

VRE, which carries 11,700 rides a day, plans to request bids in the fall from other companies to run their trains, take tickets and do maintenance. VRE is paying Amtrak $14 million for the operating services this year. The contract expires next year.

MARC's contract with Amtrak is more complex because the latter owns the rails used by MARC's Penn Line. VRE operates its trains on CSX Transportation freight railroad tracks. MARC's Camden and Brunswick lines run on CSX tracks.

"When you get into it, it's a lot more complicated than just operating a commuter rail service," said MARC spokeswoman Erin Henson. "You have to look at the dispatching, maintenance and the rails themselves."

Nevertheless, MARC officials say the crisis two weeks ago demonstrated the dangerous dependence of local commuter railroads on Amtrak.

"We have been considering it," Miss Henson said of the commuter railroad's search for other operators. MARC carries 21,700 daily riders.

Last year, MARC paid Amtrak $20.8 million for 115 full-time operating personnel and maintenance, as well as access to track and to Union Station. VRE used 103 full-time Amtrak personnel. Both railroads share personnel with Amtrak for dispatching, ticket sales and other routine operations.

Commuter railroads around major cities such as Los Angeles and Boston also are searching for alternatives to Amtrak.

Amtrak contributes to the operation of eight regional commuter rail systems and provides five others with shared access to track and stations.

"Their financial burden is being thrust on the commuter operations, and we don't think it's right," said Pete Sklannik Jr., VRE's general manager. "We have already started developing standards for the next VRE operator. We are going to make sure the next contract does not leave us vulnerable. We are very dependent on Amtrak facilities for maintenance."

VRE personnel are putting together a request for proposals they plan to submit to the railroad's board for approval before announcing it publicly, probably in October.

"There are a lot of i's to dot and t's to cross," Mr. Sklannik said. "We're in the midst of putting something together right now."

Alternative operators 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-based Herzog Transit Services Inc.

Mr. Sklannik said he is satisfied with the quality of Amtrak's service.

"They've done very good work for us," he said. "We're very unhappy with the financial problems of the parent group. That's really what's driving our concern."

About 250,000 commuter rail passengers rely on Amtrak's operating personnel for their daily commutes, far more than the 65,000 who ride Amtrak daily, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter trains carry about 144,300 daily riders in the Boston area, the association said.

Last week, California's Metrolink commuter rail system solicited bids from short-line railroads to operate its trains. The Boston rail system also is accepting bids.

"We've demonstrated strong performance to these contractors," said Amtrak spokesman Bill Schulz. "It's our hope the short-term cash problem won't have an otherwise negative consequence."

He refused to say who should be blamed for Amtrak's souring relations with commuter railroads.

"I would just decline to speculate," Mr. Schulz said.

However, in an interview with The Washington Times last week, Amtrak President David Gunn said the federal government's budget restrictions intended to make the railroad operate efficiently actually speeded up financial problems.

"That created an environment where, in order to survive, Amtrak did some very unwise things," he said, referring to the railroad skipping routine maintenance and mortgaging property.

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