Miami-Dade County

County finally fixing Metrorail air conditioners, thanks to ‘bad newspaper press’

A crowded Metrorail car during the afternoon commute in November, at a time when complaints about the aging rail system were soaring. Miami-Dade County recently filed paperwork for air-conditioning repairs, citing bad publicity about the system’s troubles.
A crowded Metrorail car during the afternoon commute in November, at a time when complaints about the aging rail system were soaring. Miami-Dade County recently filed paperwork for air-conditioning repairs, citing bad publicity about the system’s troubles. BY DOUGLAS HANKS

Miami-Dade’s aging Metrorail trains are often steamy and drippy thanks to faulty air-conditioning systems that are so old the county has trouble finding parts. But relief could be coming soon, thanks in part to “bad newspaper press.”

A March 7 notice of a plan to outsource a $3.5 million repair job for the air-conditioners in 40 Metrorail cars says the expedited work is needed “to eliminate passenger discomfort and bad newspaper press for the Department of Transportation and Public Works.”

“We see these contracts all the time,” said Pete Flores, executive vice president of the Transportation Workers Union in Miami, which has the right to bid on any outside repair work. “That’s the first time I’ve seen the language ‘bad press.’ 

In a statement Friday afternoon, transit administrators linked the planned repairs to a spike in complaints.

“We noticed that between May and August of 2017, approximately 24% of all Metrorail complaints were related to air-conditioning. This is why we will be improving the air-conditioning system on several of our old Metrorail cars,” said the statement from the Department of Transportation and Public Works. “As we transition into the warmer months of the year, our goal is to improve the conditions of our legacy fleet while continuing to place new Metrorail trains into service.”

Whatever the justification for the air-conditioning fixes, the internal document could mean good news for Metrorail passengers who have been flooding complaint lines and social media about the shortcomings of a rail system still using the original cars launched in the 1980s. The latest performance report from Metrorail captures the fury. The department’s goal for the first three months of the 2018 budget year was to receive about two complaints per 100,000 Metrorail boardings. Instead, the system received 16 complaints for every 100,000 boardings for the 90-day period that ended Jan. 1.

“During the summer, there were some days that were really pretty bad. It was crowded. There was no air-conditioning. The windows were open, which gave just a little bit of air,” said Barbara Walters, a longtime transit rider in Kendall. She said she used to call in complaints about service issues, but largely stopped last year as Metrorail’s delays and mechanical issues seemed overwhelming.

Miami-Dade County rolls out its long-awaited new Metrorail cars on Nov. 30, 2017.

“I think the people at rail are doing the best they can with what they have to work with,” she said. “To complain about it, really isn’t going to do any good. It isn’t productive.”

Miami-Dade has begun replacing its original Metrorail fleet with new trains, a $380 million project funded by the county’s half-percent sales tax. Eight of the promised 136 Metrorail cars have been put on the tracks, a pace already putting the county behind a schedule announced last summer.

With Miami-Dade’s transit system facing a budget squeeze and aging equipment, the county last year reduced service by cutting operating hours and scheduling longer waits between trains. While operating hours for Metrorail were restored this year, extended waits between trains continue. Later this month, Miami-Dade is imposing new cuts on its bus system as well.

There is no hint of short-term relief beyond the arrival of new trains. This week, Transportation Director Alice Bravo told county commissioners her department’s revenue projections were down 5 percent for the budget year that began Oct. 1, thanks to a continuing decline in ridership.

As Miami-Dade buys replacement cars, administrators are forced to weigh how much the county should spend fixing Metrorail cars slated to be put out of service within the next two years.

The outsourcing notice does not include a timeline for repairing the 40 cars, which Flores said is a large enough work order to cover most — if not all — of the Metrorail cars with faulty air-conditioning units. In October, the Transportation Department announced it was buying old train parts from the Metrorail system in Washington, D.C.

Flores said the system desperately needs the air-conditioning repairs. “It’s bad,” he said. “For a lot of the cars, the air-conditioning units don’t work. If they do work, they blow warm air.”

He questioned whether the fresh investment suggests Miami-Dade will need the old Metrorail trains longer than anticipated as the county manages the testing and delivery of the new trains. Clarence Washington, president of the transportation union, called the outsourcing bid an example of chronic under-spending in the county’s transit system.

“They should have have been letting our guys maintain those trains all along,” he said.

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