Crash thrusts Metrolink chief into the unwelcome limelight

Metrolink Chief Executive David Solow’s performance is under scrutiny as never before.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

He is one of those well-paid technocrats who makes sure things run smoothly, someone few people have heard of but so many depend on. Then something happens, and that cloak of invisibility disappears.

For David R. Solow, that moment occurred Sept. 12, when a Metrolink train crashed into a freight train in Chatsworth. Twenty-five people died and 135 were injured in the worst rail accident in modern state history. Suddenly Solow, chief executive of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, which operates Metrolink, was much closer to the spotlight than he cared to be.

No member of Metrolink’s board will say publicly that Solow’s $220,000-a-year job is in jeopardy, but his performance is being scrutinized as never before. The board has appointed an 11-member panel composed mainly of academics and industry experts to examine the railroad’s safety and operating procedures. The board also approved a review of Metrolink’s emergency preparedness and crisis communications plans.

Several members have expressed disapproval of the railroad’s reaction immediately after the crash, including Solow’s taking four hours to arrive at the scene.

“I think he did an abysmal job the weekend of the incident,” said Richard Katz, the former assemblyman whom Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed to the Metrolink board shortly after the accident. Katz is also a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

Los Angeles County Supervisors and board members Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich joined in. “There was no preparation for crisis management, crisis communication, which caused chaos and confusion, which did even more harm,” said Tony Bell, Antonovich’s spokesman. “There was no excuse for that.”

There were other bobbles. The day after the accident, Solow told Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell that she could let reporters know that the wreck was apparently caused by a Metrolink engineer who went through a red light. It was later learned he had been text-messaging on his cellphone seconds before the crash.

Members of Metrolink’s 11-member board and federal investigators rebuked Tyrrell, even though preliminary findings from the National Transportation Safety Board said the same thing. She resigned.

Then Solow’s 2007 testimony before a Senate subcommittee came back to haunt him. Solow, who serves as vice president of commuter rail for the American Public Transportation Assn., urged senators to give railroads more time to install updated safety equipment because of the cost. After the Chatsworth accident, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) blamed the crash on “resistance in the railroad community in America to utilize existing technology to produce a fail-safe control of trains.”

Solow was reluctant to agree to an interview with The Times, and through a spokesman turned down several requests. Finally, when a reporter called Solow at home, the chief executive asked for a list of the questions.

Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca replied that Solow was “comfortable” responding to some of them but placed half out of bounds.

Among those he would not answer:

* If you had to do it over, would you have reacted differently immediately after the Chatsworth crash?

* Do you feel it’s necessary to reassure the public that Metrolink is as safe as it should be?

The interview took place in a small conference room at Metrolink’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters.

Solow gruffly began the session, “Got the ground rules? I’m not going to talk about the incident or any actions after.”

Asked why, he answered, “It’s not in my best interest to talk about the accident.”

Recruited for post

Solow was hired from New Jersey Transit in 1990 to help start Metrolink when it was still part of Los Angeles County’s MTA. As part of the deal, the MTA paid $100,000 toward the $326,350 purchase of his Laguna Niguel home.

The MTA’s involvement was part of an agency program to recruit executives who moved from areas with cheaper homes. Solow moved from Newton, Pa.

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.

Solow was appointed interim chief executive and was given the job permanently four months later after what was supposed to be a nationwide search.

“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.

Metrolink rider

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.