Fall Guy for Chatsworth Train Wreck

In the tight little world of L.A. politics and government, where accountability is rare, there has to be a fall guy when things go wrong and the public knows about it.

Metrolink boss David Solow is a case in point. Ever since the train collision  that killed 25 people in Chatsworth in September, Solow has been a dead man walking and his interview -- non-interview, really  -- with the LA Times today  is the kiss of death.

Here's the entire interview as it was reported:

Solow gruffly began the session, "Got the ground rules? I'm not going to talk about the incident or any actions after."

Asked why, he answered, "It's not in my best interest to talk about the accident."

Talk about a guy who needs public relations help. Unfortunately, Solow's PR adviser Denise Tyrrell quit in a public huff right after he hung her out to dry over criticism that she told the world the day after the crash that the Metrolink engineer, who we later learned was text messaging a teenager at the time, went through a red light.

Solow's silence on anything anyone would care about let his critics stick it to him..

Richard Katz, the mayor's point man on the Metrolink crash followup: "I think he did an abysmal job the weekend of the incident."

Supervisor Mike Antonovich's spokesman Tony Bell: "There was no preparation for crisis management, crisis communication, which caused chaos and confusion, which did even more harm. There was no excuse for that."

Solow is portrayed for not being a train buff as a kid, as a man who doesn't talk to his staff, resists efforts to improve train safety and cares more about his role in a national transportation organization than Metrolink.

Even how he got his $220,000 a year job without a nationwide search and the $100,000 the MTA -- the Los Angeles County transportation agency -- gave him for a down payment for a house in Orange County are called into question.

But there is another side of Solow and the Metrolink story.

The uncommunicative Solow rides Metrolink trains to work from his home in Laguna Niguel and talks to passengers to get their feedback on the service.

Metrolink now carries 12 million passengers a year -- up 73 percent in the 10 years of his leadership.

And transportation officials locally and nationally regard him highly.

Then, there's the issue of who's running the trains.

Metrolink was created on the cheap as a separate entity to create a multi-county commuter rail system on existing tracks to serve suburbanites. It gets massive subsidies from the MTA and others -- enormously more per passenger than for buses and other local mass transit.

Here's how cheap: When an audit showed the Metrolink head bungled just about everything, Solow was promoted without a nationwide search because "why spend all of that time and effort and money when we had an excellent candidate on staff," according to former Chatsworth Councilman Hal Bernson, long one of Metrolink's biggest boosters.

Katz, a former Assembly member with a long background in transportation, now says his months on the Metrolink board which was reorganized after the crash have convinced him: "I'm more willing to say let's spend some bucks and make it safer today."

Board Chairman Ron Roberts, a Temecula councilman, said the recent reviews showed problems with the entire agency, including the board.

"There were things that happened that we didn't get a handle on," he said. "I think you're going to see that once this is over, you're going to see a much different organization ready to handle anything."

So the Chatsworth tragedy and the long string of Metrolink accidents over the years are officially Solow's fault and the board's fault.

True enough, but not the whole truth. Metrolink was put together on the cheap by the leadership of LA and neighboring counties, left on its own without adequate funding for safety and the carnage left on its tracks was considered an acceptable risk.

The 25 dead and 135 injured on a blind curve in Chatsworth changed all that. So Solow must go, must as Admiral David Brewer must go as LAUSD superintendent.

They are the fall guys for the system's failure. That's what passes for accountability these days. Is it any wonder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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