Outgoing Metrolink chief John Fenton on commuter rail and an ostrich egg

John Fenton

Michael Juliano/KPCC

Outgoing Metrolink Chief John Fenton heads to Florida to join his family after two years manning L.A. rail authority.

Wearing a shirt and tie with no jacket, John Fenton stares out of his office window on the 12th floor of Metrolink headquarters. The panoramic view of downtown L.A. still amazes him.

“I love trains, I love the Dodgers and what a great view,” he says.

The view inside his office isn’t half-bad either: framed photos of lions, slam dunks and quotes from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi on what it takes to be number one.

There’s also large white ostrich egg. Yep, a real egg. Before Fenton ran trains, he ran hundreds of 8-foot-tall, 300-pound ostriches on a farm.

“But they’re the dumbest animals around," Fenton quips. "So we’d try to move them and they’d walk the perimeter of this fence and you take the fence down and they still walk the perimeter. And that’s what I try to teach people. I say, ‘You create most of your own barriers. The fence is down. Let’s do something creative.’”

Fenton says it took creativity to steer Metrolink in the right direction. He stepped in after the 2008 Chatsworth crash that killed 25 people. He pushed forward a $200 million project to prevent collisions through Positive Train Control technology.

“I think that’s the one thing that you see — the difference in the commitment and how it’s really stepped up," Fenton emphasizes. "I wish that [the PTC project] would’ve been pushed harder many years ago. I always get superstitious. I hate talking about safety. I’m just that way but we’ve had really good improvement.”

Positive Train Control lets managers monitor and control trains remotely. When it’s in place next year, the 500-mile Metrolink system will be the country’s first commuter railway to use the technology.

Metrolink’s Board Chairman Richard Katz hails some of Fenton’s other achievements.

“We installed inward and outward facing cameras in the cab, even over the objections of the union at that point. We have crash energy management cars which refuse energy in the case of an accident," Katz says.

Fenton also initiated express train service to connect commuters between L.A. and the Antelope, Santa Clarita and San Gabriel Valleys. And Metrolink ridership is up 4 percent this year.

But Metrolink caught the ire of commuters like Alex of Chino Hills when it hiked fares by about 6 percent a couple years ago.

“It sucks," he said. "And the fact that they take the little bit of change that we could use to get lunch during the day. We’re all struggling nowadays, you know what I’m saying?”

Metrolink will boost fares an average of 7 percent at the beginning of July. Fenton says soaring fuel costs make it inevitable.

“We burn 7 million gallons of fuel a year, so you can see, every nickel of fuel costs us about $150,000. So we’ve gone from $1.80; we’ve had over a hundred percent increase in one of our largest operating costs.”

Some frustrated commuters didn’t like it when the rail line said it would stop selling 10-trip tickets. Fenton says they went away because some commuters wouldn’t validate them, and that cost taxpayers over $1 million a year. He says a new train pass and other ticket options help control costs.

But Fenton doesn’t think commuter gripes put a dent in his team’s accomplishments.

“It takes a tremendous amount of effort and skill to run 163 trains a day. And I said I’m going back to obscurity and much less day-to-day excitement,” he said.

Fenton will soon run Patriot Rail Corporation based in Florida. The move puts him near his family. On his iPad, he proudly shows a video of his adorable two-year-old granddaughter. He’s seen her in person only a couple of times.

“My wife sent me the nicest note yesterday," Fenton recalls. "She says, ‘Yeah, I’m sitting at the beach, and I’m watching Matt, Ana and Kate.' That’s my daughter and her husband and my granddaughter — and she says, ‘You know, this is not a bad way to think about spending the next years of our life.’”

With that, John Fenton, the Indiana Hoosier who loves Dodger baseball, heads to the Sunshine State for the next ride of his railroad career.

You can bet he’ll keep an ostrich egg in his office there, too.

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