Miami-Dade County

Miami airport Skytrain shut down after derailment

Miami International Airport’s massive Concourse D has more than 50 gates — it can take 20 minutes for travelers to walk from one end to the other.

And on Tuesday, during peak holiday travel season, walking was the only option.

MIA’s fancy Skytrain was out of service for the entire day, after a train went off the tracks during a 2 a.m. maintenance run.

An employee with the train’s private maintenance company, Crystal Mover Services of Miami, was on board the elevated light-rail train car — and taken to the hospital afterward. The employee was later released from the hospital. Airport officials could not provide the extent of the employee’s injuries Tuesday afternoon.

Two of the four cars involved were damaged in the accident.

“One car went onto the roof of Concourse D, and the other car is off the rail,” Miami-Dade Aviation spokeswoman Suzy Trutie said in an email update. By the end of the day, the cars had been removed, but the county still had to finish inspecting the tracks before Skytrain service could resume.

“I don’t have a timeline,” Trutie said.

Crystal Mover is paid millions by the county to maintain the Concourse D train. A message left at Crystal Mover’s headquarters by the Miami Herald was not returned Tuesday.

The mile-long Skytrain people mover began running in Concourse D in 2010, and was supposed to be a symbol of a new-and-improved MIA. By adding better retail options and making the airport easier to navigate, county officials have been trying to shed MIA’s long-held reputation as a confusing nightmare for travelers.

But Skytrain had some hiccups from the start. MIA’s Concourse D construction ran years behind schedule. For five years, Miami-Dade County owned these new trains — designed and built by Sumitomo Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — and had nowhere to put them.

So during that long delay, the county paid Sumitomo $54,000 a month to “exercise” the trains to keep the rubber wheels and electrical systems from deteriorating.

Crystal Mover, the maintenance company, is a joint venture between Sumitomo and Mitsubishi.

Two months ago, a representative from the county’s transportation workers union, Jeffery Mitchell, told county commissioners that Crystal Mover is getting a multimillion-dollar “handout” from the county for no good reason. Mitchell said the county’s own transit workers, who maintain downtown Miami’s much larger Metromover rail system, could also take over Skytrain, and save taxpayers money.

“We have the expertise, and we can do that work standing on our head,” Mitchell told the commission’s Trade and Tourism Commitee.

That committee opted to keep Crystal Mover as the maintenance firm for another year, at a cost of about $6.6 million — a decision that was approved unanimously by the full county commission on Dec. 1.

The Skytrain shutdown comes during the busiest time of year at the airport.

Junior Spencer, 54, was at Concourse D Tuesday morning seeing off his 17-year-old daughter, who was flying to Nicaragua to visit relatives. Spencer said the train derailment “kind of concerns me,” particularly because the MIA train runs above ground, and a malfunction could put people underneath the train in danger, he said.

“I’ve been to other airports and their train system is on the ground,” he said, adding that MIA should perhaps have done the same.

If Spencer ever flies out of Concourse D in the future — and the train is working — he’ll skip it, he said.

“I prefer walking,” he said.

For 78-year-old Sumathi Kulasingham, the train problems were yet another reason for her to avoid MIA in the future. She called the airport a “mess.”

Kulasingham, who lives near Clearwater and was headed back home, said MIA makes getting a wheelchair for her 81-year-old husband a hassle. The couple were about to wait in line for the wheelchair, and Kulasingham said the process at Tampa’s airport is much easier — and Tampa’s airport employees are much friendlier.

Of the train breakdown, she said: “We are helpless, right? As consumers, we just go with the flow.”

A record-breaking crowd rushed through Miami International Airport last weekend, and the numbers are expected to rise throughout the holiday season.

Nearly half a million people flew in and out of South Florida’s largest airport between Dec. 18 and 20. The high was 155,620 travelers on Saturday, Dec. 19, with just more than 147,800 fliers each for Friday and Saturday.

The same weekend last year saw between 135,000 and 143,000 people per day. A weekend average for MIA hovers around 116,802 passengers.

Trutie, the airport spokeswoman, said this year’s addition of nine new airlines — bringing the total to 101 — may have helped the passenger numbers climb.

If the fliers keep coming at this rate, Trutie said, MIA could surpass 44 million travelers for 2015.

And thousands — thanks to the Skytrain failure — will have been forced to trudge through Concourse D on foot.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Alex Harris contributed to this report.