Metrolink Chief Executive John Fenton is leaving to take a job with Patriot… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Metrolink Chief Executive John Fenton, who worked to improve the service and safety of the struggling commuter line following the deadly Chatsworth crash, announced his resignation Monday to head a Florida-based railroad company.
Fenton's departure after not quite 25 months on the job leaves Metrolink with a leadership vacuum at a time when the operation is trying to bolster ridership, reduce costs and install cutting-edge safety measures, such as positive train control, a sophisticated collision-avoidance system.
Fenton said he was stepping down for family and professional reasons to become the chief executive of Patriot Rail Corp. in Boca Raton, Fla. The company operates 12 regional freight railroads throughout the United States.
"There is nothing at Metrolink that is causing me to leave," said Fenton, whose resignation becomes effective in 30 to 45 days. "It's been a wonderful experience and one of the most gratifying jobs I've had or will ever have. We've made a lot of progress since I arrived. I feel really good about the position that Metrolink is in."
The railroad, which has 512 miles of track, is the third largest commuter service in the nation. It averages more than 40,000 riders per weekday from six Southern California counties: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura.
Fenton's decision left transit officials, transportation activists and members of the railroad's board of directors surprised and disappointed by the loss of a skilled executive.
Companies "have been after him for a long time. He's a talent that is hard to hold onto," said Richard Katz, Metrolink's board chairman and a former state legislator. "It's happened a lot sooner than I would have liked. Except for the family matters, I think he would still be here."
Will Kempton, the chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said Fenton has done "a terrific job on safety" and has been responsive to the chief executives of the five county transit agencies that support the railroad.
"I am deeply saddened that he is leaving," said Bart Reed, director of the Transit Coalition. "He's turned a moribund agency into a vibrant, healthy organization."
Fenton, a former railroad vice president with broad transportation experience, replaced David Solow, Metrolink's embattled chief executive who stepped down in December 2009 amid a management shake-up.
At the time, several million dollars in inventory was unaccounted for. Ridership had declined, staff morale was plummeting, and Metrolink had one of the worst safety records in the nation due to the Chatsworth crash that killed 25 people and injured more than 130 in September 2008.
Federal investigators found a variety of safety lapses and blamed the tragedy on a Metrolink engineer who was texting on his cellphone and ran a red stop signal before colliding head-on with a Union Pacific freight train.
Since his arrival in April 2010, Fenton has been credited with helping to reduce safety violations and injuries at Metrolink. On-time performance has improved, ridership has steadily grown and millions of dollars have been saved through changes in procedure, officials said.
His safety efforts include accelerating the purchase of state-of-the art rail cars with energy-absorbing technology, installing cameras in locomotive cabs to monitor train operators and forming a partnership with safety experts at the Viterbi School of Engineering at USC.
His most ambitious move was a pledge to install positive train control by the end of 2013, two years ahead of the federal deadline. Estimated to cost $201 million, the system marries global positioning technology to computers and digital radio communications to monitor trains and take control of them, if necessary, in an emergency. Such a system could have prevented the Chatsworth crash.
"His departure is a major loss for Southern California and Los Angeles," said professor Najmedin Meshkati, who directs the safety program at the engineering school. "His safety-culture related accomplishments in such a short time, just two years, were monumental."