Metro riders, and some experts, wonder why Dupont escalator work must take so long

For Metro riders, sometimes the cure is as bad as the disease.

It’s a problem they face every day at Dupont Circle station, where the south entrance remains closed for more than eight months while contractors replace the unreliable escalators there.

Switzerland-based Schindler is ripping out the old, custom-made units and installing new equipment. But some riders believe that the $12 million project, which began in February, isn’t being done as efficiently as possible. Even some subway experts say the timetable seems excessive.

It’s a disaster when escalators at the one open entrance stop working, because the station is about 130 feet underground. Metro has been urging some passengers to avoid Dupont altogether and use Farragut North station instead. And once the south escalators are replaced, Metro plans to do rehab work at the north end, although plans calls for that entrance to remain open.

“Why does it take so long?” asked Alex Luther, an ultrasound technician at Georgetown University Hospital who commutes daily from Friendship Heights to Dupont. “They’re closing it down for 24 hours every day. It would seem like they could get the work done then.”


Construction workers cut out sections of the granite at the Dupont Circle Metro station. The south entrance is closed for more than eight months while contractors replace the unreliable escalators there. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Curious about the project, Benoit Aquin, who works as a mechanic and foreman for CNIM Canada, an elevator and escalator company in Montreal, dropped by the Dupont stop in early March and chatted with some workers from Metro and Schindler.

“It’s unbelievable to take eight months to remove three escalators and replace those” at Dupont,” he said recently.

“God, so complicated.”

Aquin was the supervisor on a project to replace 125 escalators on the subway system in Montreal. The work finished late last year. It took between seven to 12 weeks to remove each escalator and install new units, depending on the size, according to Aquin and his supervisor Susan Coburn. One was almost as long as those at Dupont’s south entrance, he said.

“Maybe Washington’s Metro needs a Canadian brother to help them,”Aquin said.

Dan Stessel, Metro’s chief spokesman, disagreed with Aquin’s assessment.

“When you’re talking about taking large chunks of an escalator out that weigh tons from a space that has the relative dimensions of a straw it requires professional engineers and people who are highly qualified experts,” he said. “This is heavy construction, not just escalator maintenance.”

Comparing other timetables

Some managers at other transit agencies, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York, were cautious about second-guessing Metro’s timetable, noting that every system has unique needs.

But Aquin’s not the only subway professional to question the length of time on the project.

Officials in Moscow wrote in an e-mail that eight months sounded on the longer side for replacing an escalator. The Moscow subway system is the only one in the world with more escalators than Metro. The Russian system has 643; Metro has 588.

“It normally takes us about three months to put in an escalator of the size you mentioned,” wrote Oksana Ustinova, an interpreter at Moscow’s subway system.

However, Ustinova wrote, “if there is more work to be done than just to assemble an escalator (e.g. in some cases it may be necessary to lay the foundation, to develop infrastructure and technical areas, etc.) the replacement of escalators may take up to one year. So it depends on the type and amount of work that needs to be done.”

Metro has had chronic problems with its escalators for decades. Metro officials said 75 percent of the system’s escalators are more than 25 years old and parts can be difficult to find because some of the manufacturers have gone out of business.

Age doesn’t fully explain the problems. Since the ’90s, Metro has had trouble staffing its escalator division and there have been repeated instances of maintenance being neglected.

Most recently, in 2010, a consultant — Vertical Transportation Excellence — found that Metro was not adhering to its own standards, including at Dupont, where the assessment found flooding in the escalator machine room, damaged handrails, worn-out parts and improper maintenance. After the collapse of an escalator at L’Enfant Plaza injured six people, Metro launched a systemwide inspection that led to multiple emergency repairs.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has promised to invest $150 million over the next few years to repair and replace escalators and elevators throughout the system. One of the results: replacing the escalators at Dupont’s south entrance.

Multiple challenges

Two months into the project, Metro says the work is on schedule.

So far, escalator steps have been removed on two of the three units.

There’s a clear view of the skeleton of the escalator’s frame. Amid the greasy frames and chains lies the occasional piece of newspaper, coin, bobby pin or dry cleaning receipt.

The machine room, with the guts of the escalator, sits 20 feet down a manhole. It’s a dimly lighted room that houses three engines with peeling blue and white paint and spots of rust. Oil stains dot the concrete floor.

“The hard part we face every day is to keep these things running,” said Rodrigo Bitar, general superintendent of Metro’s elevator and escalator division, who was brought in more than a year ago to help speed up repairs.

“It’s like having a 1972 car and you’re trying to keep it running with parts that may be hard to find,” he said.

Metro and Schindler officials defend the timeline, noting the length of the escalators and the constraints of the work site. The planning alone took 11 months, which was included as part of the contract, Metro says.

The escalators rise 85 feet and have 291 steps. Schindler managers said these escalators are the “highest rise escalators ever manufactured” at its plant in Clinton, N.C.

There is little room to work between the escalators because the Dupont entrance, which opened in 1977, was originally built for two units; another escalator was installed in 1997. That unit has parts that are made from a manufacturer that has gone out of business, Metro officials said. Plus, the truss of that center escalator rests on the other two, according to Stessel.

The new escalators Schindler is installing — its Schindler 9700 — are “transit grade,” more heavy duty than what you would normally find at a department store — and better than the units they are replacing. They are made to carry more people, run longer and stand up to the elements, Bitar said.

Schindler also had to build a custom rig to remove the sections of old escalator, which can weigh up to 27,000 pounds.

“This isn’t just buying a part off the shelf at Home Depot and sticking it in place,” Bitar said.

Michael Landis, vice president of marketing for Schindler, said the international company ranks the job as being “up there around a 10” in difficulty.

“Nothing the size of these units has come up,” Landis said. “This big of a size, plus this much of a constrained environment, is tough.”

This week from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 19th Street NW will be closed from Dupont Circle to N Street as large sections of the escalators are removed by crane, according to Metro officials.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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