How old are Miami-Dade’s Metrorail trains? Ronald Reagan was a first-term president when the cars first started rolling down the tracks. More than 30 years after their 1984 debut, those same cars have become reliable sources of breakdowns, delays and fuming commuters.
But transit chief Alice Bravo promises that will start to change in the next couple of weeks when suffering passengers are finally able to board the new passenger car she’s showing off this weekday afternoon.
“People have been hearing about these cars for years,” said Bravo, director of transportation for the county. “Now the new cars are here.”
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Decades of use and deferred maintenance have left the Metrorail system plagued with breakdowns and unable to operate enough trains to keep up with passenger demand. Extended waits between trains have led to overcrowding, while the hollowed-out replacement fleet plays havoc with schedules every day in a system that recorded about 21 million boardings in 2016.
After years of delay, Miami-Dade is finally ready to bring into service the first four cars of a new 136-car fleet of Metrorail cars costing more than $350 million. The first of their second generation, these cars are billed as the answer to many of the system’s problems.
The main change: their age. As new pieces of equipment, they won’t be subject to the breakdowns that often leave Miami-Dade with more sidelined Metrorail cars than working ones. They also can be fixed easier. Metrorail’s current cars are so old, Miami-Dade can’t buy new parts for them. Instead, it is pursuing used parts that aren’t quite as old from the Washington, D.C., transit system.
About 15 years ago, Miami-Dade opted to save roughly $200 million by skipping the recommended mid-life upgrade of its Metrorail fleet and just replace it altogether in later years. The replacement itself was delayed through a number of factors, including when Miami-Dade commissioners insisted that the Italian manufacturer change plans and make the Metrorail cars sloped at the front, instead of boxy.
If all the cars are replaced, you can expect much, much better reliability. I would be fairly optimistic.
Alon Levy, transit blogger
Figures in the federal government’s National Transit Database show that in 2016, Miami-Dade’s rail system had the sixth-highest number of major mechanical breakdowns per mile in the country. Miami-Dade had one breakdown for every 36,000 miles traveled by rail in 2016.
The chronic breakdowns make the delivery of the 136 new cars more urgent, since transit administrators say there’s little hope of the system improving without them. Even with county commissioners inserting an extra $5 million into the Metrorail budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, administrators aren’t restoring any previously made cuts until the end of January at the earliest. By then, the county expects at least eight replacement cars to be in service, with another 36 slated to be on the tracks by the summer. The official schedule calls for the final four-car train to be replaced by the end of 2019.
The first four-car train should begin accepting passengers sometime before Dec. 1. Hitachi Rail, the Italian company with Miami-Dade’s Metrorail replacement contract, makes the parts in the United States and abroad, then assembles the cars in a Medley plant.
Among the promised upgrades:
▪ Built-in bike racks designed to free up more space for passengers. While current Metrorail cars simply remove multiple seats near the middle to allow for bike storage, the new ones have actual racks near the door. The idea is to give passengers with bikes a quicker, easier path to the exit and avoid delays and disruption.
▪ Easier-to-clean materials. The new cars have upholstered seats designed to be removed easier than the current ones. And the materials used to cover the interiors, including the floors, are also designed to be more graffiti-resistant than the ones in service now, which are notoriously dirty.
▪ A breezier layout without the metal stanchions that can make Metrorail cars harder to clean. Unlike the current cars, the new ones feature benches attached to the walls without vertical supports. That gives an airier feel to the interior, and should make some cleaning easier because of fewer barriers.
▪ Computerized announcements of upcoming stops. While the existing Metrorail trains rely on operators to make announcements, which can be hard to hear and understand, the new cars have computers playing emcee.
▪ New air-conditioning equipment. Metrorail passengers frequently use emergency-only windows to air out steaming cars when the air conditioning fails. Malfunctioning cooling equipment also leads to water falling from the ceilings.
▪ Security cameras. Bravo said current Metrorail cars don’t have them. The new ones do.
Alon Levy, a transit writer and blogger, said transit systems with new cars can face a backlash at the start when initial bugs cause logistical issues. But he said Miami-Dade’s new trains should lead to a pretty consistent wave of improved conditions.
“If all the cars are replaced, you can expect much, much better reliability,” Levy said. “I would be fairly optimistic.”