National Taxpayers Union Urges VRE Operations Board Chairman Jenkins to Stand Up to Amtrak, Allow Competitive Bid

The Honorable John Jenkins
Virginia Railway Express Operations Board
1500 King Street, Suite 202
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Dear Chairman Jenkins:

On behalf of the more than 8,500 members of the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) in Virginia, I write to urge you and your colleagues on the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Operations Board to take the steps necessary to competitively contract out the system?s services in a manner similar to that undertaken by Boston in 2003 and Los Angeles this past year.

As you are undoubtedly aware, Amtrak held commuter rail operating and maintenance contracts in Boston from 1987 through 2003. With 141,000 weekday passengers being carried over a 350-route-mile system, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) carries more passengers per day than Amtrak?s Northeast Corridor carries in a week. Moreover, until 2003 Boston was Amtrak?s biggest customer. After years of shutdown threats and growing dissatisfaction with Amtrak, MBTA decided to bid out Amtrak maintenance contracts. MBTA then awarded a contract to the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company at a savings of $100 million over a five-year period. Recently, the system has experienced improvements in both on-time rates and breakdowns.

Another example of a commuter rail system breaking free from Amtrak?s grip is Metrolink in Southern California. Recently, Metrolink approved a contract with Connex, the same private contractor involved in the consortium now managing service for MBTA, to replace Amtrak by mid-2005, thus severing a 12-year relationship and removing Amtrak completely from the commuter rail picture in L.A., Orange, Riverside, and Ventura counties. Metrolink also will become free of Amtrak?s shutdown threats.

Over the past thirty-plus years of Amtrak?s existence, the railroad has hindered the development of rail networks. It has repeatedly threatened commuter rail systems like VRE with shutdown threats and work stoppages, thus sowing the seeds for widespread discontent among commuters and transportation officials. Worse, Amtrak-provided services are often not competitive on a price basis when compared with those provided by outside contractors.

In spite of strong opposition from Amtrak and the monopolistic railroad?s repeated attempts to foil competitive contracting efforts, more and more commuter railroads are successfully embarking upon such efforts. If Amtrak attempts to stand in VRE?s way as it did in the Massachusetts case, NTU recommends that VRE take any necessary anti-trust actions against Amtrak.

Regardless of whether Amtrak or a private entity ultimately wins under a truly competitive bidding process, taxpayers and commuters are the ultimate winners. Since Virginia taxpayers alone provide approximately $15 million in annual subsidies to VRE, the system?s managers have a special responsibility to make cost control and reduction a primary goal.


Paul J. Gessing
Director of Government Affairs