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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
The past four years have been a whirlwind for southern California's Metrolink. Following the deadly September 2008 Chatsworth crash, the agency has made management changes, procured a new fleet of passenger cars featuring crash energy management technology and begun adopting a total safety culture, much of it under the leadership of former Chief Executive Officer John Fenton. But when Fenton ended his two-year Metrolink stint in May 2012 to become president and CEO of short-line holding company Patriot Rail, Metrolink board members sought a new chief who could build on the recently implemented initiatives and bring more stability to the organization. They believe they found their guy in Michael DePallo.
Most recently the longtime director and general manager at the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH), DePallo is a Philadelphia native who began his career at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. He worked there for eight years in several departments, including grant and capital program development, and transportation services. From there, DePallo joined the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority as deputy chief mechanical officer in the bus and non-revenue vehicle department. After 10 years at MBTA, he moved to the West Coast to serve Bay Area Rapid Transit in a number of executive management positions before joining PATH in 1996.
The Metrolink board approved DePallo's contract in September 2012, and the new chief officially took the reins the following month.
In many ways, DePallo is the opposite of Fenton: He is as reserved as Fenton is outgoing, has as traditional a management style as Fenton's is unique, and his experience is rooted in the public sector versus Fenton's mostly private-sector stints, says Metrolink Board Chairman Richard Katz. But the two are similar where it counts: They share a fundamental commitment to safety, ridership growth and customer service.
"We had so much growing and transformation under Fenton that you have to take time to let that all sink in. I see DePallo as an excellent steward of what's been created, as well as implementing his own vision of what this railroad should be over the next 25 years," says Katz. "We were impressed with his background, his experience and his reputation, which is stellar."
That experience includes implementing a fleet replacement program and overseeing the installation of an automatic train control system at PATH. The technology is similar to what Metrolink is installing as part of its PTC push, says DePallo.
"The integration between the signal system and train control system and vehicles is critical, and that experience has really prepared me well for the program that's being completed at Metrolink," he says.
It's a good thing DePallo was able to jump right in on the PTC program. Metrolink officials plan to have the system installed by the end of 2013, well in advance of the federally mandated December 2015 deadline.
DePallo's experience on the fleet front will be useful, as well, as Metrolink prepares to acquire 10 Tier 4-compliant locomotive engines, with an option to purchase up to 10 more, under a contract with Electro-Motive Diesel Inc.
But for DePallo, who has worked for some of the country's oldest transit systems, the biggest appeal about the Metrolink job was the opportunity to help a relatively young organization (the agency began operations about 20 years ago) grow, particularly as southern California's passenger-rail system continues to expand and eventually include high-speed rail. Finding ways to continue to boost ridership and improve customer service top his priority list.
"Whether you're on the East Coast or West Coast, providing the best quality public transportation service to customers is the challenge everywhere, and that's our goal — to be as efficient and effective as possible, so that we're the transportation mode of choice" says DePallo.
Katz has no doubt that DePallo will meet his efficiency and effectiveness goals. In addition to building on the safety culture created by his predecessor, DePallo is being tasked with creating the first long-term strategic plan for the agency.
"We've been running around in a fire drill for so long that no one has had time to stop and think long term," says Katz.
That's why DePallo's "quiet and strong competence" will set the right tone going forward, he adds.
"He's more deliberate, he's more traditional in his management approach, and I think Metrolink needs that kind of stability to make the next leap," Katz says.