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Metrolink's new chief looks to boost image

Earlier this month, staff writer Dan Weikel talked with Art Leahy, Metrolink's new chief executive officer, during an inspection of the regional commuter railroad's Ventura County Line between Chatsworth and Burbank.

Leahy started his transportation career 44 years ago driving a bus for the old Southern California Rapid Transit District. He climbed the executive pyramid, eventually leading the Metro Transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Orange County Transportation Authority and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In April, Leahy, 66, replaced Michael DePallo as the chief executive of Metrolink, the 512-mile rail network that extends to Palmdale, Simi Valley, the Inland Empire, and south past San Juan Capistrano, offering longer-distance commuters a public transportation option. Leahy faces a variety of challenges, including rebuilding ridership, solving customer service problems and improving relations with five counties that help fund the railroad: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura.

Here is what Leahy had to say:

Can you put Metrolink in perspective? How does it fit into the regional transportation system?

Metrolink needs to position itself better. It carries 42,000 to 45,000 riders a day. That doesn't sound like a lot, but viewed in terms of passenger miles traveled, it's second only to the MTA. At 40% to 45%, it has the highest fare box recovery rate in the region, and the subsidy per passenger mile is the lowest in the region. If you look at it holistically, Metrolink is highly productive. It carries lots of people long distances in an efficient manner. It does a lot of good things, though it needs improvement.

With ridership falling below its peak in 2007-08, Metrolink will begin experimenting next month with lower fares on the Antelope Valley Line and discounts for certain pass-holders. Why is this necessary?

Our fare system can discourage ridership, especially for short trips. It now costs $5 just to go between two stations. That will be lowered to $2. To get more ridership, we need to be more experimental and willing to test ideas. The experiment should provide lots of data and show us whether lowering fares will increase riders and revenue.

Faced with service disruptions because of a fleet of aging locomotives, Metrolink plans to buy state-of-the art engines called Tier 4s. They have more power, better fuel economy and lower emissions compared to conventional engines. Some board members have questioned their cost. What is the status of that effort?

Our customers can't afford to miss meetings, appointments or work. Though our on-time performance is more than 90%, locomotive failures can result in one- to two-hour delays. Metrolink had ordered some Tier 4s and planned to rebuild 17 locomotives. We've now changed that. Instead of rebuilding our 30-year-old engines, there is a strong business case in favor of buying more T-4s. We need to follow the business case, not just who is happy or unhappy with the idea.

Is Metrolink addressing riders' concerns about broken ticket vending machines and the lack of Wi-Fi?

The railroad is considering the installation of Wi-Fi, which could cost about $10 million. Metrolink also is weighing options to repair, replace or do away with many, if not all, of its 130 ticket vending machines. Online or remote ticketing using cellphones and personal computers has a great deal of potential. Testing will begin in the months ahead. It could reduce the need for ticket vending machines and save Metrolink $30 [million] to $35 million while improving the customer experience.

Will there be accommodations on trains for bicycles?

Utility cars with room on the bottom floor for bicycles and surfboards will be added to trains in the months ahead.

What are you doing to patch up the CEO's relationship with the railroad's board, which includes representatives from the five supporting counties?

Some folks have worried that Metrolink is too dependent on the counties. But Metrolink and the counties are actually co-dependent. The counties need the service. It helps them relieve congestion on their highways. So we need to work together. I've already improved communications by involving the counties in discussions about the draft annual budget and have proposed that the chief financial officer provide them monthly financial reports. There are no secrets. We need full disclosure to avoid distrust.

Is Metrolink going to add service in the future?

We are evaluating schedules to see if there are ways to provide more convenient service. I'd like to see more midday trains and later-night service on some lines. The Perris Valley Line is scheduled to open by the end of the year. There ought to be discussions about allowing Metrolink trains to go to downtown San Diego, and there is some early discussion about extending Metrolink to Redlands, Palm Springs and Indio.

What are some other ways to improve service?

Metrolink has some double-tracking projects underway. They reduce waiting times for passengers because trains don't have to pull into sidings and stop to let other trains pass. Also, tracks that will allow trains to pass through Los Angeles Union Station without stopping are planned.

Is anything being done about Rice Avenue near Oxnard, where a Metrolink train collided in February with a pickup truck and trailer that strayed into the crossing?

Rice Avenue is a bit of a conundrum. The crossing has a record of deadly accidents, but Ventura County lacks a transportation tax like voters in Orange and other counties have approved. That means they have less money to leverage for state and federal grants to make improvements. I would like to look into putting sensors in the pavement. Its cheaper and faster to do than a grade separation.

A federal deadline of December 2015 is looming for railroads to install positive train control, a sophisticated safety system. What is the status of Metrolink's $216.4-million effort?

The technology is being applied systemwide. We plan to have PTC fully operational by the end of the year. When that happens, Metrolink will be the first commuter railroad in the nation to have done so.

What are your immediate priorities?

Resolving the problems with ticket vending machines, buying Tier 4 locomotives and providing mobile ticketing with optical readers. We can do those things on fairly short order to enhance the customer experience.

And longer term?

Metrolink has so much potential. Freeways are about done in dense urban areas. We're too constrained, and citizens don't want freeways double-decked. Things are changing. In the 1980s people would say, 'We don't need rail here.' They don't say that anymore.

dan.weikel@latimes.com.

Follow on Twitter @LADeadline16 for transportation news.

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