Challenges Facing the Next CEO of Metrolink

There is a job opening for the next head of Metrolink which will be filled soon. Only those who seek challenges need apply. Metrolink has many problems, and some of them have been festering for years and ignored. Here is a short list of them.

Money! or actually the question is where is the money? For years Metrolink management has been hiding problems with the organization’s accounting. The result is no one seems to be sure how much money Metrolink has or owes. The Board of Directors of Metrolink ( the Southern California Regional Rail Authority) has been struggling to get answers about Metrolink’s accounting to little avail. This was the last straw which lead to the dismissal of the current CEO and the start of the search for a new Metrolink CEO.

A major problem for Metrolink is declining ridership which is part of the revenue problem. This comes a time when track improvements are underway which will make possible expanded and improved Metrolink service. Serving a market area of at least 16 million people with chronic traffic congestion; daily ridership of under 50,000 daily is something of an underachievement.

Adding to Metrolink’s ridership and revenue problems, are equipment and capital improvement problems. There has been recently much bad publicity due the age, slowness and unreliability of Metrolink’s ticket machines. First time patrons are not repeat riders if they miss their train because of ticketing problems. Metrolink is also behind the times by not offering online ticketing. For that matter not offering on board Wi-Fi puts it behind the times as well. There have been some problems with the locomotives causing delays and breakdown of trains. New equipment, particularly new locomotives are needed in the near future to retire locomotives which are getting old. A good state of repair is critical to attracting and retaining ridership.

One problem that hangs over Metrolink is the perception that it isn’t safe. Given the highly publicized accidents on Metrolink over the last 10 years (Glendale 2005, Chatsworth 2008, Oxnard 2015) trains have proven themselves amazingly safe compared to cars or buses in major accidents. The latest accident in Oxnard was basically a traffic accident with the driver of the pickup truck stuck on the tracks at fault, not Metrolink. Still more needs to be done to reduce accidents on Metrolink at grade crossings.This may include having sensors at rail crossings to warn train operators of something blocking a crossing. This technology already exists. This might include live video images to the operating cab of the upcoming crossing. Also Metrolink needs to improve its public image, not only for safety, but for good service, transportation value, reliability and friendliness.

Much of what makes running Metrolink so difficult is the structure of the organization. Metrolink has a balkanized structure with each county belonging to it having its own priorities.The effect of this is instead of having a unified service for all of Southern California, we often have piecemeal, disjointed service. Look at the extension of service on the Metrolink 91 Corridor Line to Perris. Since 1995, the only service expansion on Metrolink has been on the 91 Corridor between Los Angeles and Riverside which opened in 2002. The creation of the 91 Line and the extension of it to Perris opening later this year came about only because the County of Riverside wanted it. Metrolink management has been very timid in approaching its member counties about how it can improve service to these counties and improve transportation to the entire region.

The other extreme is Ventura County. Ventura is the only county in Metrolink which doesn’t have sale tax revenue dedicated to funding transportation. As a result it has little money for Metrolink. This was dramatized during the recent Oxnard crash when it was shown that the rail crossing where the accident happened had a poor safety record and had been on the list for a grade-separation for years. The reason this crossing hasn’t been replaced is largely because Ventura County doesn’t have the money to pay for a grade separation.

The result of this balkanization is that the counties that have money get what they want. But what is often ignored is the needs for service region wide. For example, if there were connecting buses at Fullerton for the Orange County Metrolink trains that terminate there to connect to Los Angeles, ridership and revenues on those trains would increase. The same could be said if buses connected at Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo for trains to terminate there bringing passengers as far as Oceanside. Because of track capacity problems it is difficult to extend more trains now to either Los Angeles or Oceanside.

But, it is unlikely this will happen the way Metrolink is run now. This would likely require Los Angeles and San Diego Counties to help pay to start up the bus service. San Diego isn’t even a member of Metrolink, although Oceanside is a stop which is a good market for Metrolink. Orange County isn’t likely to offer to pay the full price in order to extend service on their local trains to either county.

In order to increase ridership, increase revenues and become a major player in regional transportation in Southern California, Metrolink needs to offer better service to more places, more often. That can mean more rail miles. Metrolink will need better connecting services and transfers to more places more often. The key to doing this is SCRIP or the Southern California Regional Interconnector Project. SCRIP will be the new tracks at Los Angeles Union Station that can allow trains from San Bernardino to go directly to Los Angeles and Chatsworth or even Oxnard. It could also allow trains from Lancaster to continue on as far as Oceanside without backing up at Union Station. Trains from Perris are planned in the future to be extended to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and future High Speed Rail. To make this work, the trains need to connect at a hub at Los Angeles Union Station so people can travel almost anywhere in the region with Metrolink.

There isn’t a published list of candidates for the job of Metrolink’s next CEO. The only name mentioned is Art Leahy who recently retired as CEO of LA Metro, which is a much larger and more complicated organization than Metrolink. Mr. Leahy has said publicly that he is interested in the job at Metrolink.The Metrolink Board seems to be interested in him and an announcement of his appointment seems to be in the works. He has many connections and working relationships in Los Angeles and Southern California. He also has a stake in the future success of Los Angeles Union Station and SCRIP,¬† both projects he sponsored as CEO of LA Metro. The next¬† Metrolink CEO will have plenty of challenges waiting when that person goes on the job.

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