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The Region

Metrolink Cites Improvements in On-Time Record of Riverside Line

Transit: Commuter rail system's board praises upgrades by freight hauler Union Pacific, which oversees the track-sharing setup. Upkeep still at issue.

April 27, 2002|KURT STREETER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dispute over delays on track connecting Riverside and Los Angeles appeared to calm on Friday when Metrolink officials said they are pleased with Union Pacific changes that have improved on-time performance for the commuter train.

Discussion of the issue at Metrolink's monthly board meeting, occurring against the backdrop of Tuesday's fatal crash in Orange County, underscored the sometimes contentious business relationships that play out on Southern California railways.

In the Los Angeles area, as in most of the nation, freight and passenger lines share track. As the volume of freight trains has increased over recent years, the tracks at times resemble clogged freeways. That's led to heightened concerns over safety and to problems with reliability.

Despite the fact that Tuesday's deadly crash occurred on track controlled by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, it is the Riverside line--owned and dispatched by Union Pacific and with a history of delays--that has long caused Metrolink the most concern.

The issue peaked this year when Metrolink Chief Executive David Solow accused Union Pacific of ignoring the decade-old contract under which Metrolink paid $71 million for the right to share track on the 56-mile-long Riverside line. The contract requires Union Pacific to ensure on-time performance of Metrolink trains.

Solow contended that Union Pacific so poorly oversaw the line that, by October, the commuter trains ran on time only 74% of the time. That rate was by far the worst on Metrolink's 416-mile network, which stretches from Ventura to Riverside to San Diego counties.

Solow, notifying the freight line that the dispute may need to be solved by an outside mediator as stipulated by the contract, also criticized Union Pacific for poor upkeep of equipment on the line, including the signaling system.

But at Friday's board meeting, Solow said Union Pacific's record has vastly improved. Metrolink trains on the Riverside line are now close to meeting the goal of running on time 95% of the time.

"For the most part, things are working very well right now," said Solow. "We're hopeful they will remain straightened out."

Union Pacific has made several recent changes on the route, including using more experienced dispatchers and changing the freight traffic patterns to decrease competition for rail space.

"We have a much better review process in place," said Greg Workman, general superintendent for Union Pacific's Los Angeles rail lines. "We are focused on solving the problem, and we think we have a long-term fix in place."

Yet Riverside line Metrolink rider Ron Shirley disputed the notion that service had vastly improved.

"I'm sorry, but it's just not true that they have gotten much better," said Shirley, a human relations specialist who commutes--along with an average of 4,500 others each weekday--between Riverside and Los Angeles. "It's still very sporadic.

"There are good days," Shirley said, "but in all honesty, there are too many days when we have 20- and 30-minute delays."

Metrolink officials said they remain concerned about the upkeep of equipment, including signaling systems, though they said the problems did not affect safety.

Workman said Friday that he was unaware of any equipment problems and disagreed with Metrolink's assertions.

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