Metrolink makes do as ‘stepchild’ agency
The commuter rail service known as Metrolink -- Southern California’s only true regional mass transit carrier -- gets little money and even less political respect.
It is guided by a board weighted with officials from small cities across five counties, which chip in to cover Metrolink’s expenses and connect their local transit networks.
Unlike the larger Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has billions of dollars to run light rail lines, subways and buses across Los Angeles County, Metrolink operates on a relative shoestring.
The agency has about 200 employees -- the MTA has more than 9,000 -- but hundreds more work for subcontractors. To save money, Metrolink contracts for items as varied as uniforms and internal audits as well as its train engineer and maintenance staffs.
The 11-member board must manage it all while juggling the added complexity of operating in “a mixed environment,” in the words of Robert Huddy, who oversaw transportation issues for the Southern California Assn. of Governments and is himself a former locomotive engineer: More than half of Metrolink’s system is single-track, which means it must be shared with freight trains.
Even some board members, who receive $100 for each meeting they attend, concede that they lack expertise on some of the problems the system faces. “It looks like we didn’t have as much knowledge as we should have had,” said Ron Roberts, chairman of the Metrolink board and a Temecula city councilman. “I know I didn’t.”
After the Sept. 12 crash in Chatsworth, in which a Metrolink train collided with a freight train, killing at least 25 people, Roberts said he asked Metrolink’s staff if an automated system was available to stop trains in an emergency. He was told such systems were only in the testing stages, although some experts say devices exist that could be used now to make the tracks here safer.
He also “asked them a question about what type of system is in the cab if the engineer becomes unconscious or not able to run the train anymore. I asked that yesterday,” he said Friday. “They still haven’t sent an answer back to me.”
Nick Patsaouras, who played a major role in developing the regional system while on the board of the now-defunct Southern California Rapid Transit District, says Metrolink has grown at the edges of the political establishment and escaped the kind of scrutiny focused on other public agencies.
“It’s not on the radar of the public and the press,” Patsaouras said earlier this week. “It’s a classic stepchild. It’s not visible like the MTA and other transportation agencies.”
In private, some officials of agencies that deal frequently with Metrolink are harsher, asking if it is up to the difficult task of safely operating the sprawling rail system, which has one of the worst fatality records of any commuter rail system in the nation.
Metrolink’s immediate public response to the Chatsworth crash was telling:
Chief Executive David R. Solow was conspicuously absent from the scene until four hours after the collision -- as television viewers across the region watched firefighters struggle to rescue victims.
The next day, Solow gave spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell permission to announce that Metrolink’s engineer was probably at fault, only to see board members publicly criticize her for speaking before the investigation was complete. That prompted her to resign.
Through a spokesman, Solow declined to be interviewed for this report.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was so displeased by Metrolink’s overall “defensive posture,” according to a knowledgeable City Hall source who spoke on condition of anonymity, that he replaced two of his board appointees.
Even Metrolink board member Mike Antonovich, a Los Angeles County supervisor, said he was dissatisfied with the response of Metrolink executives who, he contends, failed to manage the crisis and need more training.
“You can’t be AWOL in these situations,” Antonovich said. “This was not a tremor. It was an earthquake. They must be trained and able to respond. Everyone needs to be on the same page.”
Metrolink was launched in 1992 during a time when counties in the Southland were buying up old freight lines for use by commuter trains.
In an unusual show of cooperation, the counties came together to create Metrolink, the idea being that it would focus solely on long-distance rail service to help give workers an alternative to the freeway system.
Since then, Metrolink has been one of the nation’s fastest-growing commuter systems, with seven routes stopping at 55 stations, covering 388 miles of track. And all summer, it was on a ridership roll as rising gasoline prices brought more passengers aboard.
Ridership gains over the summer saw more than 48,000 average boardings a day. (To put that in perspective, the 17-mile subway system in Los Angeles has about 150,000 daily boardings.) The first commuting day after the Chatsworth crash saw boardings dip to 44,700, according to Metrolink. This week ended with about 6% fewer boardings.
To keep it from becoming a large transit agency that would have to grapple with bureaucracy and labor unions, Metrolink was purposely designed to keep expenses low -- its current operating budget is $159 million -- by relying on subcontractors.
“The intent was not to make it big, but to make it focused and efficient and make sure it didn’t slide into the MTA morass,” said Richard Stanger, Metrolink’s chief executive until 1998 and now a semi-retired transportation consultant in Los Angeles.
“It was felt that it would be more efficient because there would be more competition,” Stanger said, adding that the idea wasn’t just to attract low bids, but also to encourage competition to get better service.
Metrolink is in the process of buying new cars that can absorb some impacts without injuring passengers, but except for a short stretch of track in Orange County it lacks an automatic system to stop its locomotives when emergencies arise.
In recent months, the agency has been more focused on protecting passengers from possible terrorist attacks and improving the points where tracks cross roadways; most of the systems’ accidents have occurred at so-called grade-level crossings.
Many longtime observers of the local transit scene have praised Metrolink, while also saying the agency has had a terrible run of luck in the last five years.
“They have been a very efficient and safety-conscious operation, but they operate in a mixed environment with a lot of freight trains,” said Huddy. “But if I had one thing to say about Metrolink, it would be that they need to have a dedicated source of funding.”
Metrolink gets about half its revenue from passenger fares. The rest comes from the five county transportation commissions, of which the MTA in Los Angeles County and the Orange County Transportation Authority are the largest.
MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble predicted this week that his board, which includes several high-profile political leaders, would become more attentive to the workings of Metrolink and safety issues.
“I’m sure our board is going to want to be proactive in helping prevent these kinds of things,” Snoble said.
The MTA is a funding agency, but “not a regulatory agency,” for Metrolink, Snoble stressed, adding that the commuter rail agency is a safety-conscious partner operating in a “tough situation.”
Times staff writer Rich Connell contributed to this report.