Solow took over Metrolink's top spot in 1998 from chief executive Richard Stanger after an audit criticized agency leaders for the way they handled contracts, billings, employee relations and planning.
"Some of us felt why spend all of that time and effort and money when we had an excellent candidate on staff," said former Los Angeles councilman and Metrolink board member Hal Bernson.
Solow did not grow up a train buff -- he never even had a model train set. He received his undergraduate degree in urban studies from Temple University in Philadelphia and two master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, one in public administration with an emphasis on transportation and the other in city planning. It wasn't long before he was working at New Jersey Transit.
He moved west with his wife, a preschool teacher, and three children and took the No. 2 Metrolink job because "me and others were given the challenge of starting a commuter railroad from scratch," he said. "You don't get that opportunity very often."
He has seen ridership grow nearly 13-fold from 1992-93, when the system started, the number of rail lines grow to seven, the miles of track from 100 to 388. He presides over a $159-million budget, 200 Metrolink employees and 600 or so others who work for contractors, including the engineers and conductors.
From the time he took over in 1998-99 until 2007-08, Metrolink's ridership has grown about 73% to a little more than 12 million riders.
But in the last five years, he had to deal with two major accidents even before the Chatsworth crash, although neither was the fault of Metrolink. In 2003, a freight train ran a stop signal and crashed into a Metrolink train in Placentia, killing three passengers. Two years later, 11 people were killed near Glendale when a man parked his SUV on the tracks and fled.
Just last month there was another accident, when a freight train and a Metrolink train heading in opposite directions collided in Rialto. Five passengers were hurt. The Metrolink train ran a red light. Investigators are trying to determine whether human error or brake problems caused the accident.
Many who know Solow professionally praised him. They said he is solid and smart, not flashy.
His biggest fault, they said, is that he failed to communicate well. "He has been criticized for walking around the office and not talking to staff," Tyrrell said. "It's very difficult for everyone involved."
Most days Solow commutes between his Orange County home and Los Angeles office on a Metrolink train. He eavesdrops on passengers, especially when there's a delay, to hear what people think of the ride.
Passengers usually don't recognize the bald 56-year-old man with the close-cropped white beard. "When they know who I am, unfortunately, it's when we have an accident and I'm on TV," he said, his voice trailing off.
Solow must balance the concerns of a board that represents five counties and includes a mishmash of politicians with competing concerns.
"He's one of the industry's top professionals," said Roger Snoble, chief executive of the Los Angeles County MTA. "Anybody in the commuter rail business would probably be honored to have him."
William Alexander, former Rancho Cucamonga mayor and former chairman of the Metrolink board, called Solow "probably one of the most knowledgeable people when it came to the passenger rail transportation industry that I knew."
Solow has been active in the public transportation association for years. His position as vice chairman of commuter and inner-city rail puts him on the 18-member executive committee that wields the most power in the organization.
"People trust him. They trust his word," said Bill Millar the association's president and chief executive. "I would say in the commuter rail world, several people would say, 'When I had a problem, I called David and he helped me out.' "
In an interview, Katz wondered whether Solow's association post led him to take positions on safety issues nationally that might not be best for Metrolink, including his Senate testimony.
"I'm more willing to say let's spend some bucks and make it safer today," Katz said.
Although Tyrrell said she believes Solow betrayed her when he failed to back her up, Katz said Solow sent board members an e-mail taking the blame for her comments. "David did step up," Katz said. "He did not hang her out to dry."
Katz and others say the reviews underway will determine what decisions the board made and which ones Solow was responsible for.
Board Chairman Ron Roberts, a Temecula councilman, said the reviews were an implied criticism of the entire agency, including the board.
"There were things that happened that we didn't get a handle on," he said. "I think you're going to see that once this is over, you're going to see a much different organization ready to handle anything."
Gottlieb is a Times staff writer.