Amid Frustrations, Metrolink Is Said to Face an ‘Imminent’ Change

Metrolink train boarding (p)
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Southern California’s main passenger railroad is in for a significant “imminent” change, Orange County’s transportation board chairman said Monday, noting frustrations by the county’s representatives on the railroad’s board.

While he was vague about the potential change, Orange County Transportation Authority Chairman Shawn Nelson suggested the possibility of a different agency being contracted to manage rail service.

“It’s imminent. They cannot run this system and we are wasting our time asking them to,” Nelson, who also sits on the railroad’s board, said at Monday’s OCTA board meeting.

“I’m not trying to make a news story,” he added.

OCTA board members went directly into closed session Monday morning after the public part of their meeting.

Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten didn’t immediately return phone messages seeking comment.

The potential changes come amid frustration by OCTA board members over what they describe as a poor customer experience at Metrolink and unreliable ridership figures.

“Metrolink is poorly run and wouldn’t have any idea what their ridership is,” said Nelson. “It’s sort of an endless source of frustration.”

“Management there – we’re just continuing to go back to a very poor model, with a lot of [human resources] issues,” he added. “We’re just tired of fighting about HR and personalities and not focusing on ridership and fares and things like that.”

Michael Hennessey, who is the vice chairman of Metrolink’s board, also chimed in with frustrations over ridership figures and financial issues.

Across the region, Metrolink has experienced a drop of nearly 600,000 annual passengers since 2008, according to the railroad. Ridership in Orange County was reported to have increased over the last year.

But Hennessey said the data isn’t to be trusted.

“Ridership could be up, ridership could be down. We really don’t know,” said Hennessey.

Referring to what he described as a “budgetary problem,” Hennessey said Metrolink is late in “closing out” its books.

“You can ask for these things all you want…but they just don’t act,” said Hennessey.

When they don’t seem capable of reacting or understanding, “what do you do?” he asked.

Nelson replied that “the short answer” is to find an agency with the “pieces in place” and contract them to run the partnership.

It was unclear which partnership Nelson was referring to – Metrolink’s board is comprised of representatives from across Southern California, and OCTA itself pays Metrolink to provide rail service.

OCTA board member Lori Donchak asked how OCTA should get Nelson’s message across.

“I’m being polite on purpose,” Nelson replied. “It’s imminent. The thing is not workable right now.”

OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson has spoken with the transportation agency CEOs from other county members of Metrolink, Nelson added.

As for providing more specifics on the changes, Nelson said: “Those alternatives are very difficult if we out them in advance.”

During Monday’s discussion, Donchak pointed to difficult-to-use ticket machines as one of many customer experience problems with Metrolink.

“You have to be a rocket scientist to figure” out the machines, said Donchak. “It’s time for the customer experience to move to the top of the priority list.”

Unlike the other regional rail service, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink tickets cannot be purchased online or via a mobile app – thus requiring passengers to purchase the tickets at the station.

Additionally, after a ticket and receipt is printed out, the machines often wait about 20 seconds before allowing a new ticket buying process to start.

During busy ridership times, those delays exacerbate long lines of people waiting to buy tickets. Sometimes, people who arrive early still miss their train due to a long line at a station’s sole Metrolink ticket machine.

And even when passengers do purchase tickets, they’re often not checked on board the trains.

OCTA’s board has had a fraught relationship with Metrolink recently.

Last year, the OCTA board voted to postpone subsidy payments to the railroad amid a $66 million accounting error.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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