New Metrolink chief to focus on customer service, lower fares

New Metrolink chief, Art Leahy, plans to recommend lower fares

Art Leahy, the new chief executive of the Metrolink commuter railroad, said after his appointment Friday that he wanted to fix customer service problems and experiment with lower fares to build ridership.

In an outline of his plans, Leahy said he also would like Metrolink to work more with Amtrak California and perhaps the Coaster line in San Diego to better coordinate train schedules and marketing in ways that could benefit passengers and the railroads.

Leahy's emphasis on customer service and fare policy may help Metrolink, which was one of the fastest growing commuter railroads in the nation until the economic recession reduced its ridership.

Since then, the six-county line has been struggling to rebuild its customer base to the former peak of about 50,000 riders per weekday. According to the latest figures, Metrolink now serves an average of 41,500 riders per weekday.

"I'd like to recommend to the board that we discuss lowering fares on some of our lines," Leahy said. "Cheaper fares might generate more ridership and revenue. We need to experiment with how we do business and see how we can improve our systems."

Leahy, 66, who resigned in January as head of the much larger Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was hired Friday by Metrolink's board of directors. He is scheduled to start work April 15.

Leahy is a veteran transit official who ran three transportation agencies after starting his career as a bus driver for the old Southern California Rapid Transit District, the predecessor to the MTA. He also headed Metro-Transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Orange County Transportation Authority.

"Given Art's leadership at the MTA, along with his previous stewardship of OCTA, he brings a unique perspective of leadership at the highest levels of transportation that will be of tremendous value to Metrolink," said board Chairman Shawn Nelson, an Orange County supervisor.

Leahy's three-year contract calls for an annual salary of $330,000 and a variety of benefits, including health insurance, a retirement plan, 38 paid vacation days and use of a Metrolink-owned car.

Leahy will oversee a commuter line that serves Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. It has 512 miles of track and a $221.5-million annual budget.

Since the Chatsworth crash in 2008 that killed 25 and injured 135, Metrolink has been trying to improve safety by purchasing sturdier rail cars with crumple zones, video cameras to monitor engineers and a $216-million positive train control system. The technology relies on computerized tracking and digital communications to prevent trains from colliding.

Leahy will be responsible for making sure that system is installed on all Metrolink routes by the end of the year, the federally imposed deadline for railroads nationwide.

In addition, rail officials have been taking steps to correct a variety of accounting irregularities, replace aging locomotives and solve customer service problems, including faulty ticket-vending machines.

Leahy said he would work on those issues, try to bolster the system's reliability for passengers, and probably bring in more expertise to help improve the railroad's bookkeeping and financial controls.

He added that he would like to begin the railroad's budgeting process earlier to better involve the five county transportation agencies that fund the railroad.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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