The O'Malley administration has chosen a Canadian company to operate two MARC commuter train lines, passing over a competitor whose critics have tied it to Nazi Germany and avoiding a potential fight with Holocaust survivors.
The Maryland Department of Transportation is expected to seek Board of Public Works approval Oct. 3 for a nearly six-year, $204 million contract with Bombardier Transportation Services to run the Camden and Brunswick lines. The lines are now owned and operated by CSX Transportation, which has long wanted to get out of the business of running a commuter railroad.
But the transition became controversial once Keolis Rail Services America LLC, a subsidiary of the French national railroad SNCF, got involved in bidding for the contract — triggering a lengthy and costly delay.
Representatives of 650 Holocaust survivors contend SNCF has not fully disclosed its role during World War II in the transport of Jews and others to Nazi death camps. And they have fought in Congress and the Maryland General Assembly for legislation targeting Keolis.
Bombardier, which has its U.S. offices in Horsham, Pa., was the low bidder among the three companies that submitted acceptable bids. Keolis of Rockville came in at $218.4 million, while Veolia/Connex Railroad LLC of Silver Spring bid $265.4 million. Bombardier also ranked first in a scoring of its technical proposal.
Had the state chosen Keolis, it would have faced a potential challenge before the board from representatives of the Holocaust survivors.
The award to Bombardier spares Gov. Martin O'Malley, one of the board's three members, a potentially uncomfortable situation — having to choose between protesting Holocaust survivors and the decision of his own department.
Terry Owens, a spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration, said the controversy played no role in the contract decision.
"That issue was not a factor in our decision-making process," he said. "We were solely interested in finding a provider who could meet the requirements of MARC operations."
The contract is for five years, eight months, with a five-year renewal option that could bring the value of the contract to $409 million. In June, the Camden and Brunswick lines had an average daily ridership of 4,597 and 7,742, respectively.
The Camden Line runs between Baltimore and Washington. The Brunswick Line runs from Martinsburg, W.Va., to Washington. MARC's Penn Line, which runs between Perryville and Washington, will continue to be owned and operated by Amtrak under a separate contract with the Maryland Transit Administration.
CSX will continue to own the tracks and other infrastructure on the Camden and Brunswick lines; once the transition is complete, its role will be more that of a landlord leasing its space.
Bombardier Transportation is an arm of Montreal-based Bombardier Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of railroad equipment. The company got its start in the 1930s as a pioneer manufacturer of snowmobiles.
The award comes in the Transportation Department's second attempt to find a replacement for CSX. In November 2010, then-Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley canceled the department's original request for proposals, saying the state wanted to rework the bid solicitation to attract more bidders. At the time, Keolis — already mired in controversy after being awarded the contract to run the Virginia Railway Express commuter line — was reported to be the only bidder.
In 2011, the General Assembly passed a bill that would have prevented Keolis from bidding unless its majority shareholder, SNCF, made a full public accounting of its role in transporting deportees to Germany during the 1940-1945 occupation.
SNCF has acknowledged the role its wartime management played in collaborating with the Nazis and has made a public apology. But the Holocaust survivors contend that the company failed to do enough to make material in its archives accessible to researchers.
The Maryland law left the determination of whether the railroad had complied up to the state archivist, Edward Papenfuse.
The archivist determined that Keolis' disclosure of wartime documents did meet the requirements, clearing the way for it to bid. But a lawyer for the Holocaust survivors disputed Papenfuse's decision, contending he relied on biased sources.
SNCF's critics, including Baltimore-area Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz, took their fight to Congress, where they pushed for a bill that would clear the way for U.S. courts to hear lawsuits seeking reparations from the railroad. The bill has not emerged from committee in either the Senate or the House of Representatives.
Aaron Greenfield, a lawyer for the survivors, said his clients have no objections to Bombardier.
"If it had been awarded to SNCF, we would have been before the Board of Public Works, raising our objections," Greenfield said. Now, he said, there is no reason to appear.
Greenfield said that while the survivors still dispute Papenfuse's finding that SNCF had made a full disclosure, he has no plans to challenge it in court.
Greenfield said he didn't know whether the survivors' opposition affected the state's choice of a vendor. "I think it was another voice heard."
The state advertised the contract for a second time in July 2011 and received bids in November. This time the state received five proposals, but one company withdrew its bid and another was disqualified.
The department said it spent eight months evaluating bids before choosing Bombardier. If the board approves the contract, as it usually does, the transition would begin next month.
The contract calls for Bombardier to provide train crews, operate locomotives and other equipment, collect fares, and manage customer service and passenger relations.
The MTA would continue to oversee contract performance and have a voice in scheduling, Owens said. It would continue to own the locomotives and rail cars used on all three MARC lines would continue to have a contractual relationship with CSX as owner of the tracks.
Maryanne Roberts, the U.S. spokeswoman for Bombardier, said the company holds fleet operations and maintenance contracts for rail systems in New Jersey and Toronto and is involved in a joint venture providing those services for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Roberts said she could not comment on the Maryland contract until the board votes. A spokesman for Keolis did not return calls seeking comment.
Mark Ostler, a spokesman for Toronto-based GO Transit, said Bombardier has provided "exceptional" service since taking over operations on the commuter line in 2007.
Rafi Guroian, chairman of the MARC Riders Advisory Council, welcomed the news that the state had found a new operator.
"In the long run, it's going to be beneficial, certainly from the perspective that CSX made no secret that they wanted out of the operator business," he said.
Guroian said CSX, primarily a freight carrier, has been doing a better job in recent years but was reluctant to do any new hiring as vacancies occurred. As a result, he said, there were times when trains were understaffed and had to be delayed.
As a taxpayer, Guroian said, he is happy to see a new operator because the MTA has been paying financial penalties to CSX for the delays in finding a successor.
Owens said those penalties have amounted to $1 million over the past year.
"That cost will go away with the new agreement," he said.