08:21 AM

New Infrastructure Grabs Headlines, But Good Repair Leaves a Lasting Legacy

Why Southern California should prioritize Metrolink’s State of Good Repair

Justin Fornelli Thought Leadership

By Justin Fornelli

It’s an exciting time for Southern California.

The Olympics are less than five years away. Tourism figures returned to pre-COVID levels in 2023, and the region is becoming more convenient and accessible with the expansion of rail service and other transportation improvements.

Metrolink’s Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion (SCORE) program is designed to significantly upgrade and expand rail service in Southern California in time for the 2028 Summer Olympic Games. We’ve been thrilled to see support from government officials when it comes to funding this program, which is pivotal to our growth ahead of LA28. But while SCORE is an important part of our long-term vision, it needs to be implemented alongside regular and timely repairs of our existing infrastructure. Our State of Good Repair (SOGR) program establishes a complete inventory of Metrolink’s assets and determines what needs to be repaired, upgraded or replaced to ensure safe, reliable performance. Without one, the other won’t matter.

As part of a three-year modernization project that featured both SCORE and SOGR components, we recently completed a signal system upgrade at LA Union Station, replacing 1930’s-era relay technology with cutting-edge microprocessor-driven technology. The new system allows multiple trains to run simultaneously on multiple tracks into and out of the historic transportation hub, which connects six of Metrolink’s seven service lines. By reducing delays and shortening travel times for our customers, this project is delivering instant value, and the increased capacity has positioned Metrolink to expand and optimize service systemwide ahead of the Olympics.

The final stages of the signal cutover required us to place Metrolink’s entire system temporarily out of service for four days at the end of last year – time we used strategically to advance other ongoing SOGR and maintenance projects. While our trains were resting, we were working, performing critical housekeeping upgrades at LA Union Station and replacing approximately 10,000 feet of track on the winding and mountainous Antelope Valley Line. The new sections replaced end-of-service-life track, while increasing safety and improving travel times. Luckily, these projects were funded by grants and an approved capital budget, but to continue moving forward with necessary improvements and modernizations – we will need more funding.

Why good repair matters

Our first responsibility as a regional rail service is to keep our customers safe as we transport them from point A to point B. Good repair is a vital aspect of maintaining the safety of our service.

But while safety is paramount for a transportation service, good repair and maintenance extend beyond safety to affect every aspect of the customer experience. Good repair ensures that we can operate reliably, meet and exceed customer expectations, and be ready to increase service when the time comes.

Catching up on our SOGR responsibilities would allow Metrolink to shift to more proactive maintenance. A proactive approach allows us to plan and implement our work in a way that minimizes disruption to the customer. Reactive maintenance is the opposite: we do the work as soon as possible, regardless of what that means for scheduling or the customer experience.

To put it another way: new infrastructure projects and line expansions encourage new customers to try Metrolink. Good repair turns riders into loyal customers.

Southern California’s rail infrastructure

Metrolink itself is just over 30 years old as a transportation agency, but we didn’t start from scratch in terms of infrastructure. The tracks we’re operating as a service were constructed at the turn of the century — not the 20th into the 21st, but the 19th into the 20th. We still operate some of our lines on what was first built as the California Southern Railroad in 1880. Rutherford B. Hayes was President, the first electric streetlight was installed in Indiana, and two brothers in Ohio invented the cash register. Things have changed.

When Metrolink took over this infrastructure in 1992, we were already looking at multiple decades of deferred maintenance. We were behind the eight ball, and we’re still catching up. SOGR has a backlog of close to one billion dollars in deferred maintenance; solving this problem will require bravery, responsibility and political will.

But this is work that needs to be done, and it will be worth it. SOGR would significantly increase reliability while at the same time dramatically reducing the operating cost for our system. An emergency repair on a piece of track or infrastructure is on average six times more expensive than a planned replacement. This is the type of good, responsible decision-making that leaves a legacy.

Correcting the past to invest in the future

The future for Southern California is bright, and regional rail will play an integral part. Metrolink stations and transit lines serve as a catalyst for development, driving economic growth and improvements to quality of life.

The case for funding SOGR is clear. Maintenance isn’t exciting or thought-provoking. It doesn’t attract clicks or headlines. But it’s the type of investment that will enable more exciting opportunities in the future. It’s well past time for Southern California to catch up on repairing its rail infrastructure. We’ll all be better for it in the long run.


Justin Fornelli is the Chief of Program Delivery for Metrolink. Fornelli, a licensed California Professional Civil Engineer, directs staff and teams of consultants on the delivery of Metrolink’s capital and state of good repair programs, including rehabilitation, new capital expansion and third-party projects. He also oversees long-term planning and implementation for the $10 billion Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion (SCORE) Program. Fornelli has more than 20-years of experience in freight and passenger rail having previously served as Director of Transit and Rail Programs for the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) and Chief Rail Engineer for North County Transit District (NCTD).