Giv­ing Metrolink im­age a boost

New chief wants to make im­prove­ments, whether it’s Wi- Fi or new lo­co­mo­tives.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - DAN WEIKEL Twit­ter @ LADead­line16

Ear­lier this month, staff writer Dan Weikel talked with Art Leahy, Metrolink’s new chief ex­ec­u­tive, dur­ing an in­spec­tion of the re­gional com­muter rail­road’s Ven­tura County Line be­tween Chatsworth and Bur­bank.

Leahy started his trans­porta­tion ca­reer 44 years ago driv­ing a bus for the old South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Rapid Transit Dis­trict.

He climbed the ex­ec­u­tive pyra­mid, even­tu­ally lead­ing the Metro Transit in Min­neapo­lis- St. Paul, the Or­ange County Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity and the Los An­ge­les County Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity.

In April, Leahy, 66, re­placed Michael DePallo as the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Metrolink, the 512- mile rail net­work that ex­tends to Palm­dale, Simi Val­ley, the In­land Em­pire, and south past San Juan Capis­trano, of­fer­ing longer- dis­tance com­muters a public trans­porta­tion op­tion.

Leahy faces a va­ri­ety of chal­lenges, in­clud­ing re­build­ing rid­er­ship, solv­ing cus­tomer ser­vice prob­lems and im­prov­ing re­la­tions with f ive coun­ties that help fund the rail­road: Los An­ge­les, Or­ange, River­side, San Bernardino and Ven­tura.

Here is what Leahy had to say:

Can you put Metrolink in per­spec­tive? How does it fit into the re­gional trans­porta­tion sys­tem?

Metrolink needs to po­si­tion it­self bet­ter. It car­ries 42,000 to 45,000 riders a day. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but viewed in terms of pas­sen­ger miles trav­eled, it’s sec­ond only to the MTA. At 40% to 45%, it has the high­est fare box re­cov­ery rate in the re­gion, and the sub­sidy per pas­sen­ger mile is the low­est in the re­gion. If you look at it holis­ti­cally, Metrolink is highly pro­duc­tive. It car­ries lots of peo­ple long dis­tances in an ef­fi­cient man­ner. It does a lot of good things, though it needs im­prove­ment.

With rid­er­ship fall­ing be­low its peak in 2007- 08, Metrolink will be­gin ex­per­i­ment­ing next month with lower fares on the An­te­lope Val­ley Line and dis­counts for cer­tain passh­old­ers. Why is this nec­es­sary?

Our fare sys­tem can dis­cour­age rid­er­ship, es­pe­cially for short trips. It now costs $ 5 just to go be­tween two sta­tions. That will be low­ered to $ 2.

To get more rid­er­ship, we need to be more ex­per­i­men­tal and will­ing to test ideas. The experiment should pro­vide lots of data and show us whether low­er­ing fares will in­crease riders and rev­enue.

Faced with ser vice dis­rup­tions be­cause of a f leet of ag­ing lo­co­mo­tives, Metrolink plans to buy state- of- the art en­gines called Tier 4s. They have more power, bet­ter fuel econ­omy and lower emis­sions com­pared to con­ven­tional en­gines. Some board mem­bers have ques­tioned their cost. What is the sta­tus of that ef­fort?

Our cus­tomers can’t af­ford to miss meet­ings, ap­point­ments or work. Though our on- time per­for­mance is more than 90%, lo­co­mo­tive fail­ures can re­sult in one- to two- hour de­lays. Metrolink had or­dered some Tier 4s and planned to re­build 17 lo­co­mo­tives.

We’ve now changed that. In­stead of re­build­ing our 30- year- old en­gines, there is a strong busi­ness case in fa­vor of buy­ing more T- 4s. We need to fol­low the busi- ness case, not just who is happy or un­happy with the idea.

Is Metrolink ad­dress­ing riders’ con­cerns about bro­ken ticket vend­ing ma­chines and the lack of Wi- Fi?

The rail­road is con­sid­er­ing the in­stal­la­tion of Wi- Fi, which could cost about $ 10 mil­lion.

Metrolink also is weigh­ing op­tions to re­pair, re­place or do away with many, if not all, of its 130 ticket vend­ing ma­chines. Online or re­mote tick­et­ing us­ing cell­phones and per­sonal com­put­ers has a great deal of po­ten­tial.

Test­ing will be­gin in the months ahead. It could re­duce the need for ticket vend­ing ma­chines and save Metrolink $ 30 [ mil­lion] to $ 35 mil­lion while im­prov­ing the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence.

Will there be ac­com­mo­da­tions on trains for bi­cy­cles?

Util­ity cars with room on the bot­tom f loor for bi­cy­cles and surf­boards will be added to trains in the months ahead.

What are you do­ing to patch up the CEO’s re­la­tion­ship with the rail­road’s board, which in­cludes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the five sup­port­ing coun­ties?

Some folks have wor­ried that Metrolink is too de­pen­dent on the coun­ties. But Metrolink and the coun­ties are ac­tu­ally code­pen­dent.

The coun­ties need the ser­vice. It helps them re­lieve con­ges­tion on their highways. So we need to work to­gether. I’ve al­ready im­proved com­mu­ni­ca­tions by in­volv­ing the coun­ties in dis­cus­sions about the draft an­nual bud­get and have pro­posed that the chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer pro­vide them monthly fi­nan­cial re­ports. There are no se­crets. We need full dis­clo­sure to avoid dis­trust.

Is Metrolink go­ing to add ser vice in the fu­ture?

We are eval­u­at­ing sched­ules to see if there are ways to pro­vide more con­ve­nient ser­vice. I’d like to see more mid­day trains and later-night ser­vice on some lines. The Per­ris Val­ley Line is sched­uled to open by the end of the year.

There ought to be dis­cus­sions about al­low­ing Metrolink trains to go to down­town San Diego, and there is some early dis­cus­sion about ex­tend­ing Metrolink to Red­lands, Palm Springs and In­dio.

What are some other ways to im­prove ser vice? Metrolink has some dou­ble-track­ing projects un­der­way. They re­duce wait­ing times for pas­sen­gers be­cause trains don’t have to pull into sid­ings and stop to let other trains pass. Also, tracks that will al­low trains to pass through Los An­ge­les Union Sta­tion with­out stop­ping are planned.

Is any­thing be­ing done about Rice Av­enue near Ox­nard, where a Metrolink train col­lided in Fe­bru­ary with a pickup truck and trailer that strayed into the cross­ing?

Rice Av­enue is a bit of a co­nun­drum. The cross­ing has a record of deadly ac­ci­dents, but Ven­tura County lacks a trans­porta­tion tax like vot­ers in Or­ange and other coun­ties have ap­proved. That means they have less money to lever­age for state and fed­eral grants to make im­prove­ments. I would like to look into putting sen­sors in the pave­ment. Its cheaper and faster to do than a grade sep­a­ra­tion.

A fed­eral dead­line of De­cem­ber 2015 is loom­ing for rail­roads to in­stall pos­i­tive train con­trol, a so­phis­ti­cated safety sys­tem. What is the sta­tus of Metrolink’s $ 216.4- mil­lion ef­fort?

The tech­nol­ogy is be­ing ap­plied sys­temwide. We plan to have PTC fully op­er­a­tional by the end of the year. When that hap­pens, Metrolink will be the first com­muter rail­road in the na­tion to have done so.

What are your im­me­di­ate pri­or­i­ties?

Re­solv­ing the prob­lems with ticket vend­ing ma­chines, buy­ing Tier 4 lo­co­mo­tives and pro­vid­ing mo­bile tick­et­ing with op­ti­cal read­ers. We can do those things on fairly short or­der to en­hance the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence.

And longer term?

Metrolink has so much po­ten­tial. Free­ways are about done in dense ur­ban ar­eas. We’re too con­strained, and cit­i­zens don’t want free­ways dou­bledecked. Things are chang­ing. In the 1980s peo­ple would say, ‘ We don’t need rail here.’ They don’t say that any­more.

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

METROLINK CEO Art Leahy be­gan as a bus driver with the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Rapid Transit Dis­trict. He wants to experiment with lower fares on short trips and try giv­ing pas­sen­gers the abil­ity to buy tick­ets by cell­phone and com­puter.

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