John Fenton became the CEO of Metrolink in April 2010. He wasted little time launching a series of improvements for the commuter railway that serves six counties in Southern California and is funded partially by Metro.
Among his first goals: continuing the agency’s pursuit of a satellite-based anti-collision system, reducing fuel use, increasing on-time performance and trying to hold the line on fare increases. In the past few months, Metrolink introduced late-night service, express trains and trains for special events, such as the U2 shows in Anaheim and the summer season at Del Mar race track outside San Diego. It also introduced a $10 all-you-can-ride weekend fare that has proven to be very popular.
A native of Bloomington, Indiana, and a former Navy radioman, Fenton came to Metrolink after holding a series of prominent jobs in the freight railroad industry. I recently had the chance to sit down and talk with him about a few topics that especially interested me — how to speed up trains and increase ridership. The L.A. Times this past weekend also ran a good profile of Fenton by reporter Dan Weikel that focuses on the many changes at Metrolink since the Sept. 2008 Chatsworth crash that killed 25.
Here’s my interview:
A lot of people seem to be riding the new express trains and special events trains. Are we going to see more of that from Metrolink?
I think we have to try new products. If you look at the traditional approach taken by Metrolink, it was very much a local commuter-type train operation. I’ve worked in different parts of the country and you look at the role express trains play in Chicago and other parts of the country and it’s a big part of their service.
It amazed me in a city the size of L.A. that we didn’t offer a different type of service such as express trains. The other thing that struck me is that this is maybe the event capital maybe of the world — we have all these events and I have all this capacity on trains that’s available on weekends and at night.
And look at how people are responding. The train to the U2 concerts in Anaheim had 11,000 people using them over two days. Most of those people were brand new riders. They got on our trains and 40 minutes later they were in the parking lot of Anaheim stadium. You can’t do that in a car in rush hour.
We felt like we sold them something that they can’t get anywhere else: time.
We also introduced the $10 weekend fares, which have been tremendously popular. We’ve been averaging almost 3,000 additional sales per weekend. The train service to Angel games has been extremely popular and the beach trains are also full — ridership on that line is up 15 percent.
We just did a deal with AEG and they are going to promote and market Metrolink service to games and shows at Staples Center and L.A. Live. The idea is that someone can buy a ticket to the game and buy a train ticket at the same time. We’ve proven there’s a market for it.
We’re really going to go after the event type market. We just started the train to the Del Mar racetrack and that was historic for us. It was the first time that a Metrolink set of equipment served the San Diego market. To get to the San Diego area in the past you normally would have to go to Oceanside and switch to another train. Now you don’t if you’re going to Del Mar.
How much more can you expand express service? Outside of some commuter long-haul type bus service around the area, there isn’t much in the way of express transit service in Southern California.
It’s not that we can add more trains. The concept we’re looking at is converting trains from local to express.
I’ll give you an example. In Chicago they run 48 rush hour commuter trains and 46 of them are express and two are local. The thinking is that we do skip-stop — not every train stops at every station.
Here’s another example — let’s look at our San Bernardino line because the math is easiest. There are 12 stations on that line. If we run three trains in a row and each train stops at four of those stations, then every station is served and every train is an express train.
I think that will increase our ridership because now we have a product that competes favorably with the automobile.
So how much time can you shave off your travel times?
Every station stop takes three to four minutes because of the time it takes to slow down and re-start the train plus the time sitting in the station. Do the math. If you eliminate eight of the 12 stops on the San Bernardino line, that’s a time savings of roughly 30 minutes. And that’s basically what happened on the express train that we run on that line — it went from an hour and 30 minutes end-to-end to about an hour.
When I started looking at this job and I started looking at ridership, I thought the numbers were abysmal. We move about 43,000 or 44,000 riders on the average weekday – much, much less than the ridership on commuter rail in Chicago, Toronto and the Northeast corridor.
We have the kind of size and density that we should move many more people but we have to prove to the motorist that it’s a better option. The vision we have is to become the commute of choice.
What does that look like? It sounds simple, but there are a lot of things that go into it — you have to talk about value and what people are getting for their money. The trains have to be safe, clean, competitive time-wise and they must be priced right. There has to be a reason for people to use your service.
And that’s what we are constantly tinkering with — how do we provide better value and how do our riders define value.
Returning to the question of infrastructure, Metrolink still must deal with long stretches in which there’s only one track that make it difficult for trains to pass one another. How does that impact what you want to do with more express trains?
It doesn’t — not if we run more trains running in one direction. During the morning rush hour, we’re running trains into L.A. and we’re running trains out of L.A. in the afternoon. There’s not a lot of demand to go the opposite direction, so we need to design a system that gives us maximum ridership based on what people want.
There are constraints. Everyone knows we run on a single track down the I-10 and there are some things we’re looking at there. We are looking at the constraints on each and every line.
Are the constraints the single track or that Metrolink also has to accommodate freight trains on much of the system?
The good thing is that where we share of lot of track with freight, we also already have double or triple track. It’s not as big a constraint on the BNSF part of our line and the Union Pacific is really good about having recognized commuter railroad times and not putting their trains out there during that time. Some of our higher performing lines are on the BNSF and UP corridors.
Metrolink has about 150 rail vehicles and there are more on order. What happens with the current fleet when the new vehicles arrive?
The great thing about railroads is that we can grow capacity by adding cars to trains. As we grow in ridership, during peak commute hours, it’s not going to be because of more trains — it will mean longer trains, so we will need the equipment.
How do you feel about the fact that there are billions of dollars available to start building a high-speed rail line while the state already has commuter railroads and Amtrak that have many riders and their own funding needs?
I have real strong feelings about how that high-speed rail should be allocated. We certainly have system needs and Metrolink would be a great urban choice to become a type of high speed rail.
With some enhancements, we could run some trains over 100 miles per hour in some places. So we’re talking about an investment that speeds up our trains and gets us to 100 miles per hour in some places versus a high-speed rail line in a congested urban area that maybe runs five minutes faster than our trains in some areas.
And that’s what we have to decide as a state: what is the best use of these funds? Is it to upgrade Metrolink as a book-end to the high-speed rail system and maybe build the high-speed rail line out of Palmdale or Lancaster and down here invest in more grade separations and other improvements to Metrolink?
Right now Metrolink’s top speed is 79 miles per hour. What would it take to get your trains up to 100?
You aren’t going to get to 100 in certain areas — there just isn’t the space to do it. But there are some places it could be done if there weren’t the street crossings. If we can speed up some of our longer distance trains, we could be running trips that only take 45 to 60 minutes instead of two hours.
Look at the Antelope Valley Line. If we had trains running from there to L.A. in 45 to 60 minutes, that brings that area much closer to being part of the L.A. area in terms of job opportunities and the other things that the L.A. area offers.
What do you think the ceiling is for Metrolink ridership?
I think it can grow tremendously as infrastructure is built. I think one of the big challenges is connectivity — getting people the first and last mile to transit.
The other big thing we have to look at is running direct trains. Instead of all of our trains coming into Union Station — which requires them to detour off the main line –maybe we can design a train service that bypasses Union Station and goes straight from, for example, the Inland Empire or Orange County to a big jobs area such as Glendale and Burbank. I think if we take out that transfer at Union Station, a lot more people may take the service. We’re looking into popular origin-destination pairs and that will provide a transportation solution that meets the needs of our riders.
We would still probably need some type of shuttle between the train to local employers in some of these areas. But if we knew there was an express train serving these areas, it would be possible to coordinate those shuttles and customize the transit solution for different employers. An employee who knows there is an express train and that there will be a shuttle to their job waiting at the station — that’s a pretty good deal. On the other hand, if they arrive at the train station and have to wait for regular transit service, that may be a deal breaker.
But that’s the kind of coordination that has proven very difficult to pull off for many transit agencies.
Take Disney, for example. They have 37,000 employees in the Southern California area, including 12,000 cast members in Anaheim. And there are a bunch of other big employers with more than 5,000 employees. If we can design a service that helps many of those employees get to work and back, I think that’s a prudent use of our resources. Those are the type of things we are looking into.
One thing I’ve often said is that the world has changed. You are not going to solve these transit problems the way that we used to. Funding is going to be short, unemployment is high. There has never been a time in the history of mass transit when we have to figure out a better way to do things.
Communities need it. We can’t keep raising fares and sell more bonds and increase the subsidy for transit. We need to figure out a smarter way to utilize the assets we have or the options are not going to be good — the options will be cutting service and/or raising fares.
That’s where as an operator I think we have to figure out the best way to use our resources. And the only way I know how to do that is to create a service that people really want to use.
I think that’s the problem. By not providing a service that’s in demand, you end up providing a service that people take if they don’t have any other options. They ride because they have to.
I want to create a product that appeals to people who need it, as well as people who want to use it. You have to solve both sides of the equation. And I think the demand for that kind of service is astronomical.
I come from the private sector and I had shareholders. In the public sector, I have riders. My obligation to them is to keep cost structure low and provide a service that maximizes the benefits to the public. That’s how we’re going to run this agency.
And the only way I know to do that is to sell and use the un-used capacity that we have on our trains. We have to grow so that we can be a viable transportation option for more people, and we have to operate more efficiently. There are no other options.