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FDOT Must Take a Hands-on Approach to Safety

Posted: 01/18/12 05:09 PM ET

How safe are those monorails at the Miami International Airport for the nearly 9000 passengers who use them every day? Apparently not very. The trains are designed to whisk passenger between buildings in about a minute, while idling long enough to allow people to get on and off -- people who are usually carrying luggage and strollers or who could be in wheelchairs. On November 23, 2008, everything went horribly wrong. A three-car monorail on MIA's Concourse E failed to stop at a passenger platform and crashed into a wall. A maintenance technician and the five passengers on board were all injured along with one passenger on the platform.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an "independent federal agency" charged with the investigation of accidents and the promotion of transportation safety. They are supposed to make safety recommendations to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the fifty States, and their subdivisions, including communities like Miami-Dade County. The problem is that they began their investigation after the accident rather than before, when it could have and should have been prevented.

According to the NTSB's recently released investigation, the trains were having "recurring technical problems" for several weeks. The train would spontaneously lose electrical traction and stop mid-route between the terminals. The tram runs without a human operator, but whenever this happened a maintenance technician would go out to the train and jumpstart it or unlock the holster panels to manually operate the train back into the station. Nobody ever took the time to figure out why this was happening, to warn passengers of the possibility or to consider the consequences if it happened as a speeding train approached a stop and suddenly lost control.

Knowing that the trains had the propensity to have mechanical problems, the maintenance technicians decided to leave the "holster panels" unlocked to expedite a manual override. Apparently right before the accident the lead maintenance technician and his assistant ended their shifts, leaving a lone technician to monitor the trains. They also bypassed the fail-safe component that would have allowed the train to stop safely if the backup system failed. With three passengers in the middle car and two in the last car, the train approached Concourse E and flew past it, striking the retaining wall at approximately twenty miles per hour, injuring those aboard and causing nearly $16 million damage.

The NTSB categorized this as an "Organizational Accident," meaning a large complex system of mistakes involving many people was responsible for a failure rather than just one individual mess up. In my opinion, having investigated accidents and defective products in Florida for over twenty years, I disagree. This is a classic case of "profit over safety." Here, rather than just shutting the system down until the actual cause of the failure could be determine, the train kept rolling on, being jumpstarted and jerry-rigged by unsupervised and ineffective maintenance technicians. This boils down to having the proper safety oversight and common sense of one person just saying, "STOP," until they could figure out why glitches were happening.

Florida's Department of Transportation (FDOT) took a hands-off approach to the safety of Miami International Airport monorails. It did the same at Walt Disney World where a monorail fatality accident occurred in 2009. Yet the FDOT provides safety oversight for Downtown Miami's Metro Mover, Orlando Airport, Tampa Airport and four other systems in the State. The reason? Apparently the FDOT did not feel it needed to provide safety oversight -- even though the monorail is clearly in the State of Florida and transports Floridians -- because it did not receive state funding. Florida is apparently not alone in the "if you don't pay us we don't care" attitude. As a Florida injury-prevention advocate, I think it should be mandatory that the federal government and every state that permits the operation of a monorail-type train mandate state and city safety protocols to protect passengers. It would also serve to create jobs in our struggling economy. Are you listening President Obama?