Metrolink moves toward hiring its own train crews

Prompted by the deadly Metrolink crash in Chatsworth last fall, the Southern California commuter rail agency moved Friday to hire its own train crews, a step that would end its longtime practice of using engineers and conductors provided by a subcontractor.

But directors of the five-county Metrolink agency, while unanimously following a staff recommendation to end train crew subcontracting, also left the door open to partnering with Amtrak. Metrolink directors gave officials of the national passenger rail service two weeks to come up with proposals for contracting out train crews and possibly other workers.

Amtrak prefers "turn key" contracts that would give it control over all of Metrolink's train operations, including dispatchers, but an Amtrak representative at Friday's meeting said his agency was open to considering an arrangement in which it would provide only train crew services.

"Let's push that envelope," Metrolink board member Richard Dixon, a Lake Forest city councilman, said in seeking an alternative that would give the commuter rail agency an additional option for replacing its current train crew contractor, Connex Railroad LLC.

Connex said recently that it no longer wanted the job once its current contract expires June 30, 2010, putting Metrolink under a very tight schedule to hire its own crews or find another contractor.

Connex and Metrolink have been at odds -- and have sued each other -- over the Sept. 12 crash that killed 25 and injured dozens more. Federal investigators found that engineer Robert M. Sanchez had been sending text messages -- in violation of company policy -- and had blown through a red signal shortly before colliding with an oncoming freight train.

On Friday, Richard Hartman, Connex chief executive, told the Metrolink board that his firm was committed to serving out its contract and providing the commuter rail agency and its passengers with "a seamless transition."

David Solow, Metrolink's chief executive, who recommended that the agency hire its own train crews, said other rail service companies deemed large enough to handle the task for the growing Metrolink service would not agree to the agency's terms.

He also said Metrolink could provide the service for roughly the same cost and could provide better oversight of train operators because it would have direct control over its employees.

Some board members, however, expressed concerns about whether Metrolink would have the money and staff to provide strong oversight.

"This is not something you can do short-staffed or on the cheap," board Chairman Keith Millhouse, a Moorpark city councilman, said shortly before the vote to begin the process of switching over to "in-house" train crews while awaiting possible offers from Amtrak.

And another board member, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, took Solow to task for not including in the coming fiscal year's budget the $2-million cost to change to the new system of procuring train crews.

If Amtrak follows through, Metrolink officials expect to call a special meeting in two weeks to weigh its proposals against Metrolink's plans to hire its own train crews.

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jean.merl@latimes.com

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