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.
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.