Metrorail launched its first new train Thursday since Ronald Reagan was a first-term president, promising the slow end to the transit system’s current crisis of breakdowns and unreliable schedules.
“I appreciate the fact that I will be riding in air conditioning,” County Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo said at a ceremony unveiling the $8 million four-car train. “I appreciate that when it is raining outside, it will be dry inside.”
The new train represents about 7 percent of the available seats on a Metrorail system that tries to have 14 trains running during rush hour. That’s down from 21 a year ago, before Miami-Dade cut service to close budget gaps in transit.
While the four new rail cars serving as the system’s first replacement train represent a relatively small fix, their debut signals the start of a full retrofit planned to finish in 2019 and cost about $380 million.
“The delays are going to be less and less,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said at the ceremony in Miami International Airport’s Metrorail station. “Each month, you will see more of these trains.”
The ribbon-cutting fell on a particularly ugly day for Metrorail, with an existing train breaking down during morning rush hour. That left passengers aboard stranded and thousands more delayed as the stalled cars disrupted scheduled arrivals throughout the 25-mile system.
“Would you believe I am still on the train?” Miami tech worker Yandro Diaz said shortly after 8:30 am, more than two hours after he said he boarded Metrorail for a trip to downtown that’s supposed to take about 20 minutes.
Diaz started riding Metrorail in his teens. He’s now 36, and takes a bus from Kendall to the Dadeland North station. He has no doubt Metrorail has never been less reliable.
“It’s gotten horrendously worse,” he said. “The last five or six months, it’s gotten brutal.”
Miami-Dade lengthened wait times between trains in the spring to deal with mounting mechanical problems in a fleet that has been starved for funding for years. The county balked at mid-life rehab more than a decade ago for a train system that launched in 1984, and now transit administrators report they can’t find replacement parts for the aging trains.
A half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2002 will fund the new trains, with the second-largest single expense of a tax that was falsely billed as a way to bring a historic expansion of Metrorail itself. That remains mathematically out of reach under current finances, and Metrorail has only grown about three miles since the tax passed by referendum 15 years ago. The $500 million extension and new station allowed Metrorail to connect to MIA in 2012.
The new four-car Metrorail train departed MIA Thursday filled with politicians, county employees, executives from manufacturer Hitachi and media shortly before 11 am. Despite the packed cars, the new air-conditioning system kept the interior cool — a welcome luxury for current passengers constantly complaining about hot cars. The brakes are said to be quieter, and stops less abrupt.
But transit officials say the main help will come from reliability: As more new trains arrive, the system will have fewer chronic maintenance woes. That should allow Metrorail to build back to a 21-train fleet sometime in 2018, said transit director Alice Bravo.
“This,” she said during the inaugural ride to downtown’s Government Center, “is one less train that can have problems with service.”
As it made regular stops during afternoon rush hour, the new train served as a rolling guide to the chronic shortcomings of the existing Metrorail fleet. The air-conditioning kept the interior cool enough that some passengers sat with jackets draped over their torsos. In service for just a few hours, the pristine floor and unblemished seats carried none of the wear, litter or worse that routinely spark passenger outrage.
“I feel blessed,” Brianna Harris, 24, said as she stepped onto the car for the first time at University station in Coral Gables. She pointed first to the cleanliness. But the car’s digital display quickly caught her attention. Along with posting the next stop in digital letters (joined by an automated announcer) the sign includes an Orange block — which Harris quickly saw as an interior alert that this train was following the Orange Line route to the airport and not the Green Line to Palmetto.
“That has been a major problem,” said Harris, a physical-therapy student at the University of Miami on her way to the school’s hospital by the Government Center station.
Next to her, Tyri Jones, 23, on his way to the Brownsville station after work at a state office in South Dade. He was caught up in the day’s delays that morning, and described disruptions as a regular part of a Metrorail commute. “It happens every week,” he said.
His eyes brightened at the new train when he boarded, asking a security guard if this was its first day. “First of all, it looks clean. That is a plus,” he said, asked to described the differences from his morning train. “And it smells betters.”
“Whether or not it will break down,” he said, “that I do not know.”