As French rail firm Keolis bids to lay down tracks in Metro’s planned Purple Line expansion, two members of the House are demanding that Maryland transportation officials pull the brakes.
Concerned that an affiliate of SNCF, a railroad company historians say was paid to transport thousands of people to World War II concentration camps, could win a contract for the massive project, Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., wrote to Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr., asking that he closely scrutinize Keolis’ bid for the public-private partnership.
“During World War II, more than 76,000 Jews and thousands of other ‘undesirables,’ including U.S. pilots shot down over France, were transported from France toward Nazi death camps aboard trains operated by SNCF,” they wrote. “The rail company collaborated with the Nazis, operating the trains as a commercial venture, and was paid per head, per kilometer to deliver tens of thousands to their deaths. However, the company has yet to pay reparations to its victims.”
MDOT and the Maryland Transit Administration announced in January that Keolis, a subsidiary of France’s national rail company SNCF, is among the finalists invited to submit bids for the 16-mile, 21-station light rail line that will run east to west inside the Capitol Beltway between Bethesda and New Carrollton. The contract is valued at more than $6 billion.
Smith responded to the members’ concerns in a Feb. 5 letter, saying Keolis complied with a Maryland state law requiring companies that had direct involvement in the deportation of victims to Nazi camps provide World War II records when bidding on MARC rail projects. The firm satisfied the requirements of the statute, he wrote.
Maloney and Ros-Lehtinen argue that if Keolis is awarded Maryland’s contract, the funding “may be paid out of the very pockets of taxpayers who the company once willingly transported to the death camps.”
In April 2013, the pair introduced a bill that would provide plaintiffs the right to seek damages in U.S. federal court against railroads that owned or operated trains that deported people to Nazi concentration camps.
The Supreme Court dismissed a previous lawsuit against SNCF under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which limits plaintiffs’ ability to sue foreign governments. The rail company has argued it is an arm of the French government, which has paid out more than $1 billion in reparations.
Maloney continues to gather support for the measure, according to spokesman Mike Morosi. She visited Poland recently to observe the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and saw the rail line firsthand.
The bill is backed by 23 co-sponsors, and has been referred to House Foreign Affairs and House Judiciary. No committee action is currently scheduled. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has introduced companion legislation, supported by 13 other senators.
For now, the best bet for steering the rail contract off course may be a bill introduced in the Maryland state legislature that aims to prohibit the state from entering contracts with companies complicit in Holocaust deportations, unless those companies have paid reparations to victims.
Smith warns that additional restrictive conditions could conflict with the existing federal competitive bidding requirements. Segregating federal funds from the Purple Line financial plan “is not a realistic option, due to the project’s cost, scale and service requirements.”
But he did assure the two members that he took their concerns seriously. “Due to the complexity and seriousness of the issues raised by your correspondence, we will continue to consult with the Attorney General’s office and the appropriate federal agencies so we can remain in accord with both federal and state law,” he wrote.
Ros-Lehtinen said the sponsors are “standing up for justice, accountability and morality” and that state legislation would be a “step in the right direction” toward passage of the congressional Holocaust Rail Justice Act.