Paul O'Brien understands the frustrations of the transit user. He's been one most of his life.

He knows how it feels to watch the train pull away just as the bus he's riding on reaches the station.He's waited 30 minutes for the next bus because the last one didn't wait another 30 seconds for his train.

He's spent what seemed like an eternity on a stalled subway car without any explanation or information from the driver.

But if O'Brien has anything to say about it - and he will - Utahns won't go through those same anguishing experiences. If they do, O'Brien knows, they might give up on mass transit.

When the Utah Transit Authority's light-rail mass transit system opens two years from now, O'Brien is confident Transit Express (TRAX) trains will be on time, the schedules for connecting buses will be tightly coordinated and light-rail breakdowns and delays will be rare.

"I really didn't start out in transit, but I've always been a transit user, so I'm very sensitive to the needs of the customer," said the 45-year-old O'Brien, in his third week as UTA's director of rail operations.

"Looking at the market, I do not think we can have the ridership we need if we don't have a quality service."

O'Brien vows to run a safe and efficient system in the Salt Lake Valley, the third light-rail start-up project of his career.

He was assistant superintendent of rail transportation in Buffalo, N.Y., when that city's six-mile system debuted in 1984. Later, he was responsible for the 1990 start-up and initial operation of the Blue Line in Los Angeles. Since 1991, he has served as light-rail manager for the Sacramento Regional Transit District.

The Sacramento system is regarded as one of the safest in the country, and its trains have a reputation for being on time. The Los Angeles Blue Line, meanwhile, was plagued with safety problems from the onset.

O'Brien was in charge only of rail operations in Los Angeles, not safety or maintenance, but said he learned a lot in helping to resolve some of those issues.

"The importance of coordination of effort was probably number one," he said of the problems in L.A. "Having everybody on the same page and working together."

After two-plus weeks on the job, O'Brien said it's apparent to him that communication and coordination are two of UTA's strengths.

The UCLA graduate was already familiar with UTA's 15-mile line from Sandy to Salt Lake City. He served on a peer-review panel that studied UTA's plans in 1992 and again two years ago.

"I think it's been well-designed. It's a good corridor," O'Brien said. "People who try it are going to like it."

Giving light-rail cars the right-of-way through Salt Lake City by allowing operators to manipulate traffic signals is imperative, O'Brien said, if TRAX is to be punctual. In Baltimore, he said, light-rail trains must stop at signals along with automobiles on a two-mile stretch of Howard Street, making service less dependable.

The first of UTA's 23 light-rail cars is scheduled to arrive late this month from a production facility near Sacramento. UTA, under O'Brien's supervision, will begin testing the cars June 1.

Eventually, O'Brien will oversee a staff of 75, including light-rail operators and vehicle and track maintenance workers. Many of his employees will be transferred from other UTA departments. All will be based at the vehicle maintenance facility in Midvale. O'Brien said he hopes to hire a vehicle maintenance manager by May 1.