Metrorail rolling out first of 136 new rail cars by month’s end
Decade-old union rules have left Miami-Dade unable to hire qualified mechanics to keep Metrorail running, creating a shortage of maintenance workers for a rail system with too many trains out of service, according to a new report. The hire-from-within agreements have Transit relying on training bus drivers from scratch how to repair trains and tracks, a process that county consultants say takes too long and causes safety risks.
Transit “has great difficulty in filling Metrorail vehicle maintenance positions with properly qualified long-term employees,” reads the report from transportation consultant IMG Rebel, which has headquarters in Washington, D.C. “This is due, in large part, to one of the most restrictive bargaining agreements and recruitment practices that [IMG consultants] have encountered in their experience with a variety of transit operators.”
The report, commissioned by Miami-Dade’s Citizens Independent Transportation Trust board, details a longstanding complaint by transit administrators that union rules are one of the biggest challenges facing Metrorail.
In a response to the report, first detailed by Miami Today, the president of the local Transportation Workers Union blamed the problems on management inaction and the county not spending enough on the training needed to produce enough skilled mechanics.
“Training under [the agreement] over the last few decades has been minimal at best and often ‘frozen for County budgetary purposes ... to cut corners and save money,” union president Jeffery Mitchell wrote in a letter sent to county commissioners last week. “If the County refuses to invest in this essential commodity, they have no right to complain about the all-too-predictable results down the road.”
The study found the vast majority of Metrorail’s mechanics don’t meet the qualifications needed to work alone on some of the most complicated maintenance tasks.
Of the 99 “skilled maintenance” positions on Metrorail’s payroll, only 12 are filled with employees qualified to work without supervision. Sixty-four need to be supervised during repairs. Twenty-three of the positions are vacant, openings the county blames on a narrow pool of potential hires.
“It’s a lengthy process,” transit director Alice Bravo said of the pipeline that trains bus drivers to become mechanics. “Sometimes we’ve gotten people that are successful. ... But sometimes you have people that require more supervision.”
Bravo said recent changes in state policy should let Miami-Dade begin working around rules that have been in place for decades. While federal rules keep Miami-Dade from rewriting the original agreement without union consent, the transportation grants at issue are administered in Tallahassee.
Bravo said state rules that took effect in the fall will alter how the county enforces the original union agreement. The new requirement will require transit to hire mechanics based on minimum qualifications, Bravo said, replacing the existing rule that the agency offer the posts to transit employees who could be trained to meet the qualifications.
“We need to comply with this,” Bravo said. “The first step we’re taking is meeting with the union to show them what the minimum qualifications will look like.”
The critical report arrives after a bruising stretch for Metrorail as an aging fleet of cars led to service shortfalls and delays — problems that have been slowly improving since the arrival of replacement trains in late 2017.
Last year, engineers cited safety risks from crumbling barrier walls along the 25-mile Metrorail system, and the county this week said human error was the cause of a partial derailment of a train leaving Miami International Airport on July 12.
IMG cited county statistics showing Metrorail’s on-time performance hitting three-year lows through the middle of 2018 before climbing back to about 90 percent in December. It faulted transit for producing reliability reports that are “not closely tied to customer outcomes,” such as focusing on arrival times instead of waits between trains. No-show overnight cleaning crews also lead to dirtier trains, with attendance rates hitting as low as 9 percent for overnight shifts that end at 4 a.m.
The June 19 report warns the requirement to produce internal Metrorail maintenance workers threatens the safety of the system, particularly with the looming retirements of veteran mechanics hired in the 1980s after the rail system launched.
Miami-Dade used to require internal candidates to compete with outside hires for maintenance positions, but a 1990 ruling by a labor arbitrator determined priority must be given to a transit employee who could be trained to do the job. The mechanics hired before that switch form the backbone of the maintenance department, according to the report, but most plan to retire within the next 10 years.
The union agreement dates back to the 1970s and is tied to the use of federal funds for Miami-Dade’s transit system. The agreement requires Miami-Dade to give transit workers a training path to better-paying maintenance positions. Since most of transit’s payroll involves operating one of the country’s largest bus fleets, that leaves the county to rely on promoting bus drivers into the maintenance program.
The report also said new trains from Japan’s Hitachi, vehicles assembled in a Medley plant, are being taken out of service for maintenance issues much sooner than expected.
Taking March 18 as an example, the report said the county had 28 new Hitachi vehicles available for the system and another 22 out of service. The report cited issues with wheels being worn down after six months of service, rather than the expected six years. Transit administrators say the wheel issue is a challenge they’re addressing with Hitachi.
Even with a $385 million order for new trains, Metrorail is having trouble getting spare parts from Hitachi, the report said. IMG said “there are only limited spare parts available for the new fleet” and called the “parts shortage for Hitachi vehicles” a major concern for Metrorail. Jose Fuentes, a Miami lobbyist for Hitachi, said Wednesday that the company is delivering parts as required by contract. “There is not a problem,” he said. “It’s a process.”
Javier Betancourt, executive director of the transportation oversight board, said the union restrictions are the fundamental issue facing Metrorail as it tries to leverage new trains into more reliable — and popular — transit service. “Unless we resolve the labor issues,” he said, “we’re not going to have the expertise to maintain those cars in good condition.”
Mitchell, the union president, said problems with the Hitachi parts and maintenance support laid out in the report show the kind of obstacles facing unionized maintenance workers who went through the proper training. He said Transit has authority to hire outside for cleaning crews and dismiss workers who don’t show up for shifts. “We’re sure if you pose the question often enough,” Mitchell wrote commissioners, “Ms. Bravo will figure out an answer that somehow blames the Union or their members.”