Saturday, August 14, 2010

"We move people!" says John E. Fenton, Metrolink's new CEO

Photo by Zach Behrens/LAist
John E. Fenton, Metrolink's new CEO, joined the Transit Coalition at its monthly meeting and offered up his philosophy on transportation, business, public benefit, and customer service. "Everything we do, we do for people. If we forget the human element, we will fail!"

He acknowledged that the bulk of his rail experience consists of moving freight and included stints with the Canadian National Railway, the Kansas City Southern Railway, and the Santa Fe Railway. But he took time to point out that his professional commitment to the safe and effective operation of a rail system was developed during his first rail job when he worked for a government agency servicing munitions depots hauling bombs around. "I'm committed to safety!"

Through it all, he says his commitment to safety has always been the foundation of operating style and the key to his success, claiming that his focus on the management of risk and probability yields benefits that transcend a simple reduction in "incidents" and results in an increase in employee morale, customer satisfaction, operational accountability, and systemic performance. "It impacts every aspect of the operation and it is the substance of my leadership commitment."

Fenton has been on the job for just six weeks and yet the impact of his arrival has had a positive impact on the Metrolink's operations, starting with his message to Metrolink insiders "Schedules, capital improvements, track maintenance, running the railroad, it's all important because we're moving people. The people are the ultimate responsibility.

He spoke of a recent conference call he had with his operations team in which he left his audience sitting for three minutes with nothing but dead air. He did it to make a point, that a delay that left people wondering "What's going on?" is completely unacceptable and that he expected Metrolink's passengers to be informed and treated with respect, not just with schedules and performances but with information and guidance.

Fenton's philosophy for systemic change was home-spun at times, "Yeck, I move boxcars more efficiently than this. These are people! Let's get moving!" It was good old fashioned common sense, "Why are 'Passenger needs assistance!' calls a surprise?" It grew wonky and the room perked up! "Systemic improvements come when you manage the details and understand what is causing your performance issues."

"I manage by exception, I'm always going to manage the bottom quartile in every case. You manage performance by moving the bottom. Drill into the data, ask why, get the top causes of failures and you'll find that the root causes analysis will direct you to the work that needs to be done." Every topic he addressed came with a demonstration that he was able to grab hold of both the strategy and the data, connecting them so that each and every decision and action were combined to maximize effectiveness.

Fenton's laid down his strategic priorities for Capital Improvement as safety, line capacity, operating efficiency, renewal rates. Shared tracks, capacity constraints, power plants, 30-10, HSR, ties per mile, he presented a business case to a room full of experts reliable and predictable experience to the customer that results in a "Wow, I want to ride that again!"

The Transit Coalition's audience can be a tough crowd, typically filled with transit professionals, engineers, planners, activists and consultants. Fenton was able to address their concerns and desires for a robust transportation vision as well as a sensitivity to the details of the inner workings of a rail system and especially a commitment to the passenger's experience. He hit the marks and went further, laying down an commitment to connectivity that included a strategy for synergy with other transportation systems and an acute sensitivity to the fact that passengers need to arrive at the station and then depart the station, that transition is part of the Metrolink experience.

Fenton jumped into his role at Metrolink feetfirst and one of his first executive orders was simple and yet revolutionary. He implemented a shut-down policy that forbids idling locomotives and that resulted in a savings of 93 thousand gallons of fuel in the first three weeks of the new policy. This commitment to financial responsibility, to environmental responsibility, to systemic efficiency and to good old fashioned common sense bodes well for the Metrolink, its passengers and the community as a whole.

The Transit Coalition meets monthly on the fourth Tuesday at Philippes the Original and Fenton was the latest in series of transportation leaders to join the TC in discussing the future of transportation. Prior speakers have included OCTA's Will Kempton, the Metro's Art Leahy, and the Metro's Bruce Shelburne. June's Transit Coalition meeting will feature round two with the Metro's CEO, Art Leahy.

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