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Metrolink's chief executive takes a demotion

David R. Solow, head of the regional commuter rail service for more than a decade, will become an advisor for implementing a new train safety system. Eric Haley will become interim chief.

December 12, 2009|By Rich Connell
  • Metrolink Chief Executive David Solow met with passengers for three days after the deadly Chatsworth crash, but was criticized for not being a strong enough and visible enough leader, including during the initial public response to last year's disaster.
Metrolink Chief Executive David Solow met with passengers for three days… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

The head of Southern California's regional commuter rail service was replaced Friday in a management shake-up that officials hope will better position the agency to tackle major safety and financial challenges in the wake of last year's Chatsworth disaster.


FOR THE RECORD:
Metrolink collision: An article in Saturday's Section A about the demotion of Metrolink Chief Executive David R. Solow said last year's Chatsworth train accident, which killed 25 and injured 135, was the worst in modern California history. It should have described it as one of the worst; a 1956 crash in Los Angeles killed 30 people and injured 130. —

David R. Solow, the five-county Metrolink agency's chief executive for more than a decade, agreed to step down and take a new advisory position guiding deployment of a complex safety system intended to prevent a repeat of last year's crash, which left 25 dead and 135 injured.

The announcement came after a lengthy, closed-door session of agency board members, who had become increasingly critical of management's handling of spending and budget issues as ridership and revenues have dropped.

For example, board members have said the agency has failed to drive hard bargains in negotiations for large contracts, including one multimillion-dollar award that initially included an 18% profit margin, which was reduced only after board members objected.

The Times reported last month that board frustration over the handling of a highly unpopular fare increase proposal -- coming just months after a previous ticket price increase -- also had intensified questions about Solow's future leadership role.

As part of the transition, Eric Haley, the former top executive at the Riverside County Transportation Commission, will serve as Metrolink's interim chief. He will direct the search for Solow's permanent replacement.

Solow, 57, joined the agency at its formation in the early 1990s. Even after moving to the top spot, he kept a relatively low profile, often avoiding media interviews.

He has won praise for helping steer Metrolink through a period of steady expansion, during which the agency became the nation's fastest-growing commuter rail service. It now carries about 1 million riders per month on lines stretching from Oxnard to Oceanside and San Bernardino.

But Solow also has come under intense pressure since the Sept. 12, 2008, crash in Chatsworth -- the worst rail disaster in modern California history. Investigators have tentatively blamed a Metrolink engineer who they say ran a red light seconds after he was text messaging on his cellphone. That engineer died in the collision with a freight train.

At federal hearings on the collision earlier this year, Metrolink's image was badly damaged by further revelations of safety rules violations by train crew members and allegedly lax oversight of operations.

"The guy at the top always has to take some of the blame," said board member Art Brown, an Orange County representative who recently was involved in Solow's confidential evaluation. "It's like the captain of a ship. No matter whose fault it is, it comes come back to him."

Some board members, notably Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, suggested that Solow was not a strong enough and visible enough leader, including during the initial public response to the Chatsworth disaster, a watershed event not only for the agency but in helping to prompt passage of a groundbreaking federal rail safety law.

"We need to have a director who is proactive, who addresses these problems," Antonovich said Friday.

If there is a crisis, he said, the director should be someone who is "at the scene of that crisis, to provide that leadership this agency needs."

Other board members said Solow seems overwhelmed at times by the job and the increased demands of dealing with rebuilding public confidence, managing a mushrooming number of safety improvements and dealing with recent recession-driven financial problems.

On Friday, board member Brown said Solow himself had acknowledged feeling overwhelmed and said he preferred to focus on technical matters.

In a prepared statement read by board Chairman Keith Millhouse, the public emphasis Friday was on Solow's technological expertise and the contributions he can make to ensuring rapid deployment of a $200-million collision avoidance system, known at positive train control. Such a system could have prevented the Chatsworth crash, experts say.

With Solow focused on such matters, Metrolink can "usher in the era of dramatic enhancements in rail travel in this region and the country," Millhouse said.

Board Vice Chairman Richard Katz also praised Solow and said the management change was seen by all sides as "the best way for the agency to move forward when we are doing a lot of things."

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