Take three vital steps to ensure safety of Metrorail riders
A shocking independent report that Miami Today detailed last week points toward worse, less safe rides on Miami-Dade’s Metrorail in the next few years even while 136 new cars from Hitachi Rail Italy replace every car in our nearly four-decade-old fleet.
If you didn’t read the two articles thoroughly, review them. They’re eye-openers.
In a nutshell, brand-new railcars now going into service years late at a cost of multiple millions per car aren’t being maintained by trained staff and they’re already wearing down, including wheels years ahead of replacement time.
But there aren’t enough spare parts to fix even the remaining decades-old cars, much less the new ones, because Hitachi has yet to provide $18 million in spare parts the county contracted for long ago, so some parts needed to fix the newest cars are being pulled right off the Medley assembly line that’s making more trains.
As for the county’s repair crew, they’re far too few – and only 12 of 99 repair jobs are filled by people fully competent to troubleshoot problems, a study commissioned by the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust found. By union contract, most new technical repair jobs can be filled only by senior bus drivers who are nearing retirement and must be taught totally new skills, including complex computer and software work that many of them can’t grasp.
As a result, the system’s very safety is jeopardized, according to the report.
Beyond safety, rides can be unpleasant because cars aren’t cleaned properly, or sometimes at all. On the night shift, which cleans cars for the next day, an average of less than 10% of the cleaning crew shows up, and never more than 15%. Some nights nobody comes at all, because many on the cleaning crew are thrust into the job after
they flubbed other tasks. It’s no wonder the system is bleeding riders.
The study was commissioned by the transportation trust, which oversees spending of the half percent sales tax we pay for new transportation and thus is obligated to make sure that our money does what it’s supposed to do: add safe, reliable public transportation.
The trust, which is our watchdog, ordered the $117,710 study based on one simple question: “Is preventive maintenance and cleaning of Metrorail vehicles being adequately carried out?” In other words, how is our sales tax investment in equipment being protected?
Before the trust saw the powerful report’s red flags June 19, copies went to the mayor and county commissioners, the county auditor, the inspector general, and those who run the transit system.
System operators said they’d already been advised of all the problems by federal and state regulators, said trust Executive Director Javier Betancourt when we asked him, and as of last week he hadn’t heard from a single elected official about what the report says.
So everyone involved has seen the red flags. Will they do anything to fix things?
The report offers three vital action steps for the next 30 days.
The county, it says, should institute “minimum qualifications requirements for all new technical employees in rail maintenance, including vehicle electronics, traction power, and train control technicians.”
In other words, dump the union rule in place since 1990 that any technical rail job must be filled by seniority alone from only union members, the majority of whom are aging bus drivers with no technical training or background and often with no likelihood of being able to do the job no matter how long they’re trained.
Doing that will require negotiations with the union, which refuses to talk because, its president says, it talked five years ago and didn’t get what it wanted. Alice Bravo, who runs the transportation department, talks of “a big legal battle” to achieve that. If that’s what it takes, the county shouldn’t waste time setting legal machinery in motion.
The next priority, the report says, is to get spare parts for the train control system and new trains here right now “in accordance with Hitachi contract terms.” If the company isn’t meeting its contract, more legal machinery should be cranked up before the new rail cars lose more of their value and life expectancy.
The third immediate recommendation is to rework the transit department’s reports so that data align “with safety outcomes and passenger experience.”
Reports, now partially paper based, should be not only digitized but offered in ways that can indicate both trends and specifics about the maintenance history of each rail car.
Your car dealer can pull up your car’s repair history on a computer, but the study says the transit department can’t do that with each rail car. If you don’t know what the issue was before, you can’t easily check to see if it’s been fixed. The county ought to be able to resolve that fast – and without going to court.
The report offers other big steps, too, but a final warning is clear: the county can’t keep relying on the sales surtax to subsidize operations and maintenance, replace rolling stock and renew infrastructure. As the surtax increasingly must repay debt for expansions like the Smart plan for six new transit legs, the county “must be prepared to provide greater financial support from non-surtax funding sources to adequately maintain, operate and upgrade the system…”
As for the transportation trust, it’s the watchdog, not the operator. Mr. Betancourt said it will continue to monitor issues the report raises and “hold feet to the fire” by raising issues in the public focus. Plus, of course, the trust holds the transportation tax spending power.
But it shouldn’t come to a battle over spending power. Everyone is aware of the issues and their importance. The report suggested 30-day action for three concrete steps involving money, safety and rider experience. We’ll count down those days together.