- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

Virginia Railway Express is threatening to end its contract with Amtrak unless it gets assurances that the national passenger railroad's financial problems will not interfere with the Northern Virginia commuter rail service.
VRE officials said they would seek a different contractor to operate the commuter trains in June if they do not reach a new agreement.
Amtrak provides maintenance, crew members and access to Union Station for VRE under the $13.5-million-a-year contract. It provides personnel or service to 11 commuter rail agencies nationwide.
"We just don't want to be surprised because of the pending changes to Amtrak that could force the VRE to operate in a less than acceptable manner," said Pete Sklannik Jr., VRE's chief operating officer.
He was referring to a move in Congress to reorganize Amtrak because of its persistent operating losses. The railroad ran a $1.2 billion deficit last year.
An alternative being considered among Senate and House Republicans leading the restructuring drive would end all Amtrak's cross-country and long-distance routes.
Instead, the railroad would oversee a series of high-speed regional networks. The Northeast Corridor would be one of them. Others would operate between major cities in California, Florida and the Midwest.
In July, Amtrak came within days of stopping all passenger service nationwide when it ran out of money. Only an emergency $205 million appropriation and $100 million loan guarantee from Congress saved it from a shutdown.
However, the near shutdown shook the confidence of commuter rail systems that depend on Amtrak for service or infrastructure.
"When this whole shutdown scenario almost happened, we found out how vulnerable we were," Mr. Sklannik said. "What will the story be a couple of years from now?"
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has replaced Amtrak to operate its commuter trains. Last month, the MBTA announced it would give its $1.07 billion, five-year contract to a private consortium called the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co.
The consortium includes European transit operator Connex, Montreal's Bombardier Transportation and a Boston consulting firm.
MBTA officials said Amtrak's financial difficulties are diminishing the quality of its service. Amtrak chose not to bid on the contract when the MBTA added requirements for the new contract that would make it more costly for the railroad.
Mr. Sklannik said a private company is a possibility as a replacement for Amtrak in Virginia when the current contract expires in May.
Connex, one of the world's largest contract transit operators, is a possible bidder on the VRE contract. Other bidders could come from freight railroad companies, which often operated passenger rail service before Congress privatized railroads in the early 1980s. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway helps operate the Seattle area's Sounder and Chicago's Metra commuter rail services.
"Should we not reach an agreement with Amtrak by the end of May, we would put it out to bid," Mr. Sklannik said.
VRE wants contractual assurances that it would have access to Amtrak's tracks that run into Union Station regardless of Amtrak's financial condition. The commuter rail service would also need staffing and maintenance services.
As VRE's ridership grows, the rail service is operating longer trains. As a result, any new contract must include storage provisions for VRE's rail cars and equipment, Mr. Sklannik said.
Maryland Rail Commuter's contract with Amtrak expired last year and has been extended on a month-to-month basis. Amtrak operates MARC's Penn Line between Union Station in Washington and Penn Station in Baltimore under a $22 million-a-year contract.
MARC is negotiating a new contract but has no plans to replace Amtrak.
"We have a solid working relationship with Amtrak," said Suzanne Bond, Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman.
Amtrak officials said they are confident the VRE contract will continue.
"I'm not aware of that contract being in jeopardy," said Cliff Black, Amtrak spokesman. "Amtrak feels that it is the best operator for VRE because Amtrak owns Union Station and can be the vehicle through which VRE and MARC can coordinate their services."
He also said Amtrak saves VRE money by providing the most qualified railroad operating personnel.
The $1.05 billion appropriation by Congress for Amtrak in fiscal year 2003 eliminated any risks of a shutdown soon, Mr. Black said.
"We feel this year we are in good shape to finish out the fiscal year," he said. "We are hopeful that next year's budget request will be better."

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