Tuesday, July 13, 2010

VRE transitions from Amtrak to Keolis

Regional rail lines are found around the country, and most of them are operated as state partnerships with the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak

For most of its history, Virginia Railway Express was one of these.  As of yesterday, however, VRE service is now operated by Keolis Rail Service America, a subsidiary of a French company.  The decision to change service providers was made for cost reasons, with Keolis bidding to operate VRE for considerably less than Amtrak was willing to accept.

Might this shift anticipate a broader move away from Amtrak?  It's not clear. 

For decades, bystanders and travelers alike have noted that while Amtrak is a money-losing corporation rather than a public-sector agency, it functions as the de facto national rail provider in large part because private companies have not been able to make rail profitable.  (Indeed, Amtrak was created to release the railroads from their legal passenger obligations.) 

That makes it unlikely that a domestic competitor is going to challenge Amtrak any time soon.

What the VRE transition does raise is the possibility that private foreign providers--and there are quite a few that are very experienced in running First World rail systems--could step in to compete with Amtrak.  Given that these companies are committed to rail service, it's hard to see how that competition could be a bad thing.

VRE riders will continue to have access to certain Amtrak trains through the use of Step-Up tickets.  (Reports that this arrangement would end on account of the transfer of management were a mistaken interpretation of the annual realignment of which Amtrak trains accept Step-Up fares.)

As for whether the new management will bring other changes, we'll have to wait and see.

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