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Metrolink Proposes Deal to Keep Train Operators

Transit: The plan is designed to prevent commute disruptions if troubled Amtrak, the workers' employer, folds.

July 03, 2002|KURT STREETER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Metrolink officials are attempting to work out a deal to transfer their work force of contracted Amtrak train operators to a freight rail company, a move meant to ensure that the commuter railway is unaffected by the potential shutdown of Amtrak later this year.

Metrolink last week sent proposals to two short-haul freight rail companies, asking them to bid on hiring the nearly 145 Amtrak workers who run the commuter rail agency's 416-mile, six-county network.

The request came despite a Bush administration deal Friday that gave Amtrak a temporary reprieve. The nationwide railway, which is about $4 billion in debt and on flimsy financial footing, had threatened to start shutting down this week if it did not receive a federal loan.

The White House deal immediately lends Amtrak $100 million, an amount officials hope will be bolstered by a $170-million package from Congress to keep Amtrak trains running until this fall.

A regionwide railway that handles about 34,000 trips each weekday, many of them sending workers from suburbs to downtown Los Angeles, Metrolink operations are directly linked to Amtrak. That's because Metrolink's force of train operators, conductors and dispatchers are all actually Amtrak employees.

The commuter railway contracts with Amtrak, paying about $18 million per year to farm out the work, a move Metrolink's officials say is meant to keep internal costs low and to keep Metrolink clear of direct involvement with unions.

Metrolink officials are worried that the Bush administration deal is merely a short-term solution and that Amtrak will be near closure again late this year, unless the White House and Congress can agree on more funding.

Without a contingency plan, an Amtrak closure would shut down Metrolink, since it would lose its key Amtrak employees.

"It's still tough to tell what is going to happen with Amtrak," said Metrolink Chief Executive David Solow. "Obviously, that's scary for us. We're looking for a backstop to make sure we aren't affected by what happens with them.... We need something solid to fill in if Amtrak is suddenly not there."

The Metrolink request was sent to two rail firms that run trains on small slices of track in Southern California: Anacostia & Pacific, a Chicago-based company that operates out of the San Pedro area; and RailAmerica, a Florida-based company that runs trains in San Diego and Oxnard.

Anacostia & Pacific officials did not return phone messages on the matter. RailAmerica officials declined to comment.

If the companies bid on the plan and one is picked by Metrolink, the contract would hinge on what happens to Amtrak.

If Amtrak closes down late this year, one of the rail concerns could receive the $18-million annual contracts for the Amtrak workers, who would be given the chance to keep their jobs and continue to run Metrolink's trains while being paid by the freight railway.

Solow said the two firms were selected because they have experience in the region and relationships with Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the rail companies that own chunks of Metrolink's tracks. "Amtrak is going to run through July and summer," said Solow. "I'm far less confident about what is going to happen in October."

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