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Clergy take bidder for MBTA rail deal to task

By Martine Powers Globe Staff 

A group of well-known black clergy in Boston is lambasting one of the two bidders for the MBTA’s commuter rail contract, asserting that the company’s majority shareholder has engaged in discriminatory employment practices in Europe .

The religious leaders, including the Rev. Bruce H. Wall and the Rev. Mark V. Scott, delivered a letter to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Wednesday afternoon, calling on the T’s general manager, Beverly A. Scott, to reject the bid by Keolis Commuter Services against the company that currently operates the state’s commuter rail network.

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The timing of the letter, in the final days of a highly competitive bidding process, sparked an angry retort from a Keolis spokesman, who accused Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co. of making a thinly veiled attempt at vilifying its sole competitor.

Keolis maintained that the actions of its majority shareholder had little to do with its own operations, that its railway operation in Virginia has a strong record on diversity, and that MBCR’s shareholders have their own problems, too.

The clergy’s concerns center on SNCF, the state-owned French railway that is the majority shareholder of Keolis. SNCF has faced allegations of discrimination against African and Muslim employees and has been criticized for collaborating with the Nazis 70 years ago.

“We are strongly opposed to the bid submitted by Keolis to take over the contract for running the commuter rail in the greater Boston area,” states the letter, signed by six pastors in Boston’s black community. SNCF “has a very long history of innumerable instances of racism and discrimination.”

The pastors are seeking a meeting with Beverly Scott and Governor Deval Patrick to discuss the commuter rail contract. Their offices did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

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Alan Eisner, spokesman for Keolis, said in a statement that the allegations from the ministers do not tell the whole story, maintaining that Keolis is a distinct company that operates outside SNCF’s management structure.

Eisner also asserted that the Virginia Railway Express, Keolis’s only existing rail operation in the United States, has prioritized diversity, with a staff that is 45 percent African-American and 20 percent women. He said the company has committed to focus much of their hiring and training efforts on minority populations.

“This letter is a shameful, last-minute attempt by MBCR to use a group of highly respected, but uninformed Boston ministers to protect MBCR’s financial interests and draw attention away from MBCR’s dreadful 10-year management of the MBTA commuter rail system,” Eisner said.

The pastors said the idea that he was working to aid MBCR was false. Mark Scott said he was not aware of ever meeting or speaking to any representative of MBCR. Wall said the topic was mentioned in passing during his call-in radio show, which led him to seek out news reports about the company’s past.

“All the information that I have has come as a result of my own research,” Wall said. “I’m like a dog that won’t let go of a bone.”

The commuter rail’s contract expires in June 2014, and two bidders are vying to run the system for the next 10 years: MBCR, which is led by former MBTA officials, and Keolis, an international transit giant. Officials are expected to select the winning bid within the next several months.

The $1 billion-plus contract is the largest operating contract in state history.

“How can we sit by and let MassDOT even entertain a bid from a company that has all this baggage of racial discrimination? It’s just unbelievable,” said Wall, of Global Ministries Christian Church in Dorchester.

Eisner said he wished the clergy had contacted Keolis about their concerns.

“It’s unfortunate that the ministers gave the letter to The Boston Globe without contacting Keolis to understand how Keolis plans to enhance diversity within the MBTA commuter rail system, such as working with the state’s community colleges to provide first-in-the-nation, specialized degrees in transportation,” Eisner said.

The letter cited multiple allegations of racial discrimination, previously reported in French or international news organizations, including a 2010 lawsuit filed by hundreds of SNCF staff against their employer for victimizing workers of North African origin. That lawsuit,described in France’s English-language newspaper The Connexion, alleged that North African workers were passed over for job opportunities and received smaller pensions than their French-born counterparts.

The letter also pointed to widespread reports in April that SNCF’s black workers were all removed from Gare du Nord, one of Paris’s busiest train stations during a visit by President Shimon Peres of Israel, in an effort to prevent him from encountering Muslim workers.

“For young black and brown people, the commuter rail represents an opportunity to gain employment,” the letter said, “which may be hindered by the operation of the commuter rail by Keolis if the history of SNCF is any indication.”

The letter also incorporated other reports of ethnic or religious discrimination:

In 2010, the BBC reported that the French rail company apologized for distributing a note to passengers that called on them to report “all the activities of Romanians” to rail security in response to a rash of baggage thefts.

And earlier this year, the Agence France-Presse reported that US Senator Charles E. Schumer intended to introduce a bill that would allow American victims of the Holocaust to file lawsuits against SNCF in US courts. In 2010, the company apologized for the role it played transporting Jewish people in Europe to concentration camps, but maintained that the company was commandeered by Nazi leaders and that thousands of their own employees were ultimately executed or deported.

Wall said that the contingent of religious leaders are looking to travel to France to interview the rail operator and its employees in person in an effort to learn about the company’s employment practices.

But MBCR’s corporate structure is also fraught with controversy: The train company’s majority shareholder, Paris-based Veolia Transportation, operates buses for the Boston public schools and locked horns with union members in October in a clash that prompted a wildcat strike. Veolia fired two of the bus drivers, though they were unionized employees. Eisner also pointed out that MBCR is 20 percent owned by Bombardier Transportation, a company that Eisner said has its own ties to Nazi Germany.

Wall said he has not had any conversations with Keolis’s competitor, MBCR, and said he had no plans to investigate the background of MBCR’s parent company, Veolia.

Both ministers said they did not put stock in Keolis’s argument that the majority stakeholder should be considered separate from the company at question in the T’s commuter rail contract.

“No, I don’t see a difference, not at all,” Wall said.

“With SNCF being a major stakeholder, they’ve got to have a huge influence on how Keolis does businesses and their corporate culture,” Scott said. “I don’t buy that.”

Eisner said Keolis officials wanted to meet with the black clergy to allay their unease.

“Keolis is very proud of its history and its reputation in the industry, and we feel that we would be a great asset for the MBTA,” Eisner said in a statement. “We would welcome the opportunity to meet with the ministers to discuss any and all of their concerns.”


Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.