Getting There: Who speaks for the MARC riders?

Passengers are forgotten in fight over Holocaust blame

March 06, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Last week a bill came before the General Assembly that could have a profound impact upon the future of two of the three MARC commuter lines.

But nobody showed up to speak for the riders. Not the MARC management. Not the Maryland Transit Administration. Not the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Neither did a single MARC rider show up. But it's hard to blame them. They'd have to take a day off work to testify — and it's doubtful anyone would have paid much attention anyway.

Instead, the focus was on the Holocaust — who was to blame for the deportation of French Jews to Germany during World War II aboard trains run by the French railway SNCF.

The bill proposed before the General Assembly would impose voluminous disclosure requirements on Keolis America, which is 57 percent owned by SNCF, before it could bid for a contract to operate train service on the Camden and Brunswick lines. No other bidder would be affected.

For Baltimore riders, the Camden Line is especially important because it is one of two that go back and forth between the city and Washington.

Like the Brunswick Line serving Western Maryland, the Camden Line is owned and operated by CSX, a freight railroad that wants to get out of the passenger business as soon as it can — yesterday if possible. The state has agreed to seek another operator, and CSX has agreed to keep providing a basic level of service as long as it's needed.

But nobody should expect a company on its way out the door to be interested in long-term improvements that are desperately needed on the Camden and Brunswick lines. It will be up to the next operator. So MARC riders have a real stake in which company is selected.

The pending legislation is certainly well-motivated. There is compelling evidence that some victims of the deportations aboard SNCF trains have not received just compensation. Testimony at the hearing brought out the fact that France has limited reparations to victims who were in the country before Sept. 1, 1939 — effectively cutting out many individuals who were refugees in France before the Nazis took over in 1940.

Essentially, the issue is before the Maryland legislature because the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against SNCF — Holocaust survivors and their relatives — have been stymied in the courts. Proponents are hardly bothering to pretend the bill is anything but an attempt to force the company to the settlement table.

The MARC contract simply became the chosen means of leverage.

So what happens if the bill passes?

Well, maybe SNCF and the French government capitulate to mighty Maryland and provide the compensation and documentation that the plaintiffs are demanding. But don't count on it.

Or the French company and U.S. subsidiary could take Maryland to court, challenging the law on constitutional grounds. According to legal scholars, there are plausible grounds. But the companies have said they don't plan to take that path — though they could change their minds and perhaps tie up the procurement for a long time.

More likely is that Keolis would do just what its president, Steven Townsend, said it would do if the law is enacted: Take a pass on doing business with Maryland. SNCF and the Keolis representative explained that the costs in time and money would outweigh any benefit that could be derived from the MARC contract.

Proponents of the bill would likely see that as a victory — a measure of payback for the collaboration of long-dead SNCF executives in Nazi atrocities.

But such an outcome would also take one of only a handful of competitors out of the mix when Maryland issues its next invitation to bid. The last time the state tested the waters, Keolis was the only bidder — prompting the state to cancel the procurement and go back to the drawing board.

There is no telling how Keolis would fare in a future bidding. Maybe it would be a great operator, maybe not. All we know is that it is one of the few with actual experience running an American commuter rail operation — the Virginia Railway Express.

But in a small pool of potential bidders, the subtraction of one can make a big difference — both in the quality of the eventual winner and the price paid by taxpayers.

And if Maryland ends up with a less-qualified bidder than it ultimately would have, the burden will not be evenly distributed among all its taxpayers. Rather, it would be the 4,403 daily riders of the Camden Line and the 7,420 riders of the Brunswick Line taking the hit so we can all feel a little more righteous at the expense of the always unpopular French.

There's no moral equivalency here. Whatever inconveniences MARC riders might endure as a result of this legislation cannot be compared to the suffering of those transported in SNCF cattle cars. But neither do MARC riders bear responsibility for deportations to the death camps.

MARC riders have good reason to be disappointed in the performance of the O'Malley administration and legislators of both parties. It's understandable that the administration avoided taking a position on a hot-button issue, but its officials ought to have at least explained the practical ramifications. Members of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, enamored of their role as history's jurors, failed to ask basic legislative questions about whether the bill would make good law.

Witnessing the hearing made me skeptical whether this is a topic lawmakers — by their nature prone to stampedes — are qualified to address. There's a reason the Founders insisted on a strict separation of powers. Legislators make laws to govern future conduct; courts punish past misdeeds. That's as it should be.

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