And here I thought I was only getting a ride in a filthy Metrorail train.
But the hygiene issue is only a symptom of a larger and more troublesome pattern of official neglect and perennial underfunding of the county’s rail system, says a labor union leader who has sent a complaint to federal authorities seeking an investigation of Metrorail operations.
Clarence Washington, president of the TWI Local 291 of the AFL-CIO that represents Metrorail workers, calls Miami-Dade Transit “an agency in crisis” and the way Metrorail is being run “a threat to public safety.”
“They are breaking all kinds of [federal regulatory] rules,” Washington said. “There are things going on. Other [train] operations have problems, but they don’t run the system as shabbily as we do. There has not been one replacement of a rail car in the entire 33 years of Metrorail’s existence.”
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This means equipment breakdowns are chronic and parts for the 1984 trains are difficult to find, he said. A fleet report from last week is disturbing, not only for the high number of cars out of service but for the shortcomings of those in service. So are the photos he sent me of cars in service that have parts tagged: “Do Not Operate.”
Washington also sent me a video and internal report of a car derailment — at 4:15 a.m. on May 14 while it was on its way to the cleaning track — that certainly raises safety questions.
“There are zero margins of error for things like that,” Washington said. “We are talking lives on the rail and lives on the ground if something happens.”
Under pressure to return cars to service, maintenance is not always being done as required by federal regulations — and the derailment is proof of how badly that can turn out, Washington charges.
All of this is what has led to curtailed hours, delays — and outraged riders.
“The reason they shortened the service to start an hour later and end an hour earlier is that they don’t have enough cars,” Washington said. “I’m talking basics here. They should have done something about this a long time ago.”
Hard to believe this is how the county runs one of its most important public infrastructure investments — a service 1.6 million people ride monthly, according to the April ridership report, the latest numbers available. And those figures are down 10 percent; in fact, every month of 2017 shows a decrease in ridership at increasing rates — and there’s plenty of reason for it.
Scores of riders reached out to me after I wrote about my recent experiences riding Metrorail.
Riders are fed up with a major metropolitan area that funds the pet projects of political supporters, yet runs a public transportation system at Third World levels. Or worse, as riders point out that Medellín, Colombia, has a clean state-of-the-art system, as does Klang Valley, Malaysia.
Paulette Gilbert, an aviation property manager who sold her home in South Dade three years ago and moved to the Dadeland area to be closer to the Metrorail station, says she could write a bestseller on her “nightmare” daily commute.
“On a number of occasions I have had to run from my seat because of roaches, not just one but a nest,” she wrote me.
Then, there’s the 20- to 45-minute delays in service, especially in the Orange Line to the airport.
“The trains are broken and malfunctioning doors and equipment are constant,” she said. “The digital display monitor at the station is a joke and the iPhone Metrorail App is consistently inaccurate. Miami-Dade Transit must give Metrorail priority attention and get the new trains on track now!”
But fat chance; the plan is to phase new cars in starting in November through 2019.
As for the grime, Washington says it’s not the fault of rail workers, who’ve been working under an old contract, haven’t had a raise for three years, and aren’t being heard by the mayor or commissioners.
“There are so few cars running that they barely have enough cars to make the schedule, so those people don’t have time to do a thorough cleaning. There’s only so much they can do with it, anyway, when you don’t buy the equipment for cleaning people to use on them.”
What? The county skimps on cleaning equipment and supplies when it budgets $88 million in new furniture and calls it smart planning?
Miami-Dade Transit Director Alice Bravo, however, tells me that none of what Washington says is true and that he has made other contentious claims in recent weeks.
The real issues are an aged fleet, 22 percent worker absenteeism, and “a bargaining agreement that ties our hands as to how we can discipline employees,” she said, adding that Metrorail is as good as any other rail system in the U.S.
“If there were legitimate issues the feds would have been here already,” Bravo said. She attributed the derailment to the operator exceeding the speed limit. She said the trains are old but safe and deep-cleaned by morning. “During the day, things happen.”
Washington says employees are being made “the scapegoats.”
“They say, ‘Oh, they don’t come to work and that’s why the work don’t get done.’ They try to build a narrative that’s different from reality. But if you don’t come to work, you’re fired. That’s not the real problem.”
Indeed, Metrorail’s problems run much deeper than filthy cars.