Bidding on MARC contract canceled

State unhappy with competition to run Camden, Brunswick lines

November 15, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland has canceled the bidding on a contract to take over the operations of the MARC Camden and Brunswick lines from CSX, saying its bid solicitation had failed to generate sufficient competition for the work.

"We were not happy with the competition or lack of competition," said state Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley.

Swaim-Staley said the Maryland Transit Administration would revise its request for proposals in an effort to make it more attractive for bidders. She said it would take "a couple of months" to put the contract back on the market. In all, the decision to rebid the contract could extend CSX's role by a year over previous plans, she said.

For riders, the cancellation could delay the transition to a new operator that would presumably be motivated to bring improvements to the service offered by CSX — a freight rail company for whom the MARC passenger lines are a vestige of its past.

CSX has expressed its intent to get out of the passenger operations side of the business. The Camden Line runs between Baltimore and Washington, while the Brunswick Line extends from Washington to Martinsburg, W.Va.

Swaim-Staley said the state still hopes to make improvements to the service on the two lines, which have struggled to maintain acceptable on-time performance numbers.

"That would be the long-term goal," she said. But she noted that whoever eventually takes over as operator of the service will have to deal with the same issues — track problems, signal malfunctions and competition with freight traffic — that CSX struggles with now.

Rafi Guroian, chairman of the MARC Riders Advisory Council, said he understands that the state was down to one bidder — Keolis Rail Services America — after Amtrak dropped out of the competition.

"It's good they're making sure they have a competitive bidding situation, but I feel this should have been taken care of years ago," he said.

Steve Townsend, president of Keolis Rail, said his company was "disappointed" by the decision to cancel the bidding. "We put a lot of effort. We felt we had a very good proposal," he said.

But Townsend said his company would not be discouraged. "We'll always be in the competition," he said.

A third MARC route, the Perryville-to-Washington Penn Line, is operated by Amtrak and was not involved in the bid solicitation.

Swaim-Staley said CSX has agreed to extend its role as operator of the two lines. She said the railroad had expressed a willingness to work with the state to determine why the first round of bidding did not attract as much interest as anticipated.

"We did have interest, but we did not have the interest we were contemplating," Swaim-Staley said.

That extension comes with a price for Maryland taxpayers. Swaim-Staley said the state pays an escalating amount to CSX the longer its stays in its role as operator. The expected year's delay would cost MARC an extra $1 million, she said.

CSX is under contract until 2012, but the state has an option for a series of extensions, she said.

The MARC contract was the second high-profile bid solicitation that the Maryland Department of Transportation has canceled this month. Last week, the department decided to call off bidding for a contract to redevelop the Maryland Transportation Authority's two travel plazas along Interstate 95 in northeastern Maryland.

The solicitation for that contract was withdrawn before bids were opened. Swaim-Staley said the MARC contract, which was first put out for bidding in May 2009, was even further along and that a bid or bids had been received before the state decided the level of competition was insufficient.

Swaim-Staley said there are a limited number of companies — about five — that are qualified to provide train operations services. Amtrak is one of them, though it told a trade publication this year that it would not compete for the MARC contracts because of the liability provisions the state was seeking.

Keolis recently prevailed over Amtrak in the bidding for a contract to operate Virginia Railway Express trains, which also serve Washington's Union Station. But the company has recently been dogged by controversy because its majority owner is the French national railroad SNCF, which some activists contended has never sufficiently made amends for its management's collaboration with the Nazis during the German occupation of France during World War II.

Swaim-Staley said the state's decision had nothing to do with that dispute.

Townsend said his company was surprised there weren't more bidders for the contracts. He said Keolis didn't see anything in the terms of the bid solicitation that would deter competition.

The executive said his company is confident it could improve service on the Camden and Brunswick lines, noting that passenger rail is one of its core businesses.

But Townsend said he understood why Maryland decided to start over.

"I think MTA probably likes Keolis' proposal, but they have an obligation to the taxpayers to make sure they have a competitive process," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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