Lab helps Metro find escalator fixes

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post - Elevator/Escalator instructor Bobby Mizelle addresses members of Fairfax county Fire & Rescue at Metro's escalator/elevator lab and repair center on Dec. 10, 2012 in Landover.

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At the end of a long corridor in a building the length of three football fields, engineers and technicians are trying to find solutions to one of the Metro system’s most vexing problems: escalators and elevators that won’t go up and down.

Housed in the transit agency’s service complex in Landover, Metro’s escalator/elevator training lab is equipped with more than $1 million worth of equipment. It is where Metro workers learn the ins and outs of maintaining and troubleshooting the system’s 588 escalators and 283 elevators.

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Broken escalators are a chronic complaint among Metro riders and a perpetual headache for Metro officials. Even though WMATA has poured millions of dollars into repairs, maintenance and replacement, out-of-service escalators remain a problem.

Even recently replaced ones are not trouble-free. In their first few months of operation, three escalators at the south entrance of the Dupont Circle station have experienced about 20 outages ranging from 10 minutes to two days. And while Metro officials maintain that such occurrences are part of a “breaking-in” period, that is of little comfort to riders.

Officials opened the training lab in 2006 to have a place to offer hands-on training. Previously, officials had to take escalators and elevators out of service in order to give workers the experience required to do the job.

“The big benefit allows us to troubleshoot problems without having to interrupt service,” said Rodrigo Bitar, head of Metro’s elevator and escalator division.

Two elevators and an escalator dominate the two-story room, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to allow technicians the freedom to work as long and as late as they choose. The equipment has clear sides so that workers — and visitors — can see the guts of the machinery. The escalator is a Westinghouse Modular 100, the most common model in the Metro system and one that comes with a long history of problems.

Metro was the first transit authority to open such a facility, Bitar said. Today, more are following WMATA’s lead. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority opened an escalator training lab in 2009, and Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is halfway through construction of its lab, which is expected to be finished next year and has begun training workers.

Each month, about 200 to 300 people go through Metro’s training and refresher courses. Metro has used the lab to train almost 100 new technicians through its own program. Most of those who pass through the lab are Metro employees, but the agency also brings in local public safety agencies to familiarize rescue workers with the equipment in case their assistance is needed during an emergency.

Engineers and technicians have used the equipment in the lab to experiment with a variety of fixes to stubborn problems, said Madhavan Kozhipurath, an engineering manager in the elevator and escalator division.

In one example, Metro officials had repeated problems with escalator handrails. Handrails need to move at the same speed as the escalator’s steps, but they can malfunction when passengers pull at or sit on the handrails.

Using the lab, engineers and technicians realized that they could prevent the problem by going into the drive units that move the handrails and replacing the rubber belts with metal chains.

“If we want to hit the root cause, it’s going to take time,” Bitar said. “This way, we can remove the faulty component, bring it to the lab and spend as much time as we need to without having to interfere with service.”

Technicians also used the lab to come up with a fix for a problem that emerged when an escalator malfunctioned in November 2011 at L’Enfant Plaza after Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Six people were injured after an escalator unexpectedly sped up, and one of the causes of the malfunction was an oily brake pad. Technicians set to work finding a way to shield brake pads from oil leaks, Bitar said. Eventually, they came up with a small shield to protect the pads.

Still, while having a lab may help in some instances, it hasn’t solved all of the transit authority’s problems. That’s because Metro has more escalators than any other transit system in North America and more than 75 percent of the units are at least 25 years old. The authority has been faulted for not maintaining them more aggressively. Metro officials said that’s changing.

A check of Metro’s Web site one day this week showed 540 escalators working, 22 undergoing scheduled maintenance and 26 in unplanned outages. Of the system’s elevators, four were out of service for routine maintenance and two were experiencing unplanned outages.

Bitar said the reality is that at any given time, something is going to be out of service.

“Unfortunately, our system is such a size that to keep it in a state of good repair means we’re going to have to continually rehab escalators,” Bitar said.

 
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