The Downside of Escalator Renovation
In $93 Million Metro Project, More Than a Third End Up Worse

By Jo Becker and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers

At the Brookland-CUA Metro station one evening this year, a line of people trudged up the steps of a broken escalator. Rashaad Houston, a 27-year-old travel coordinator for NASA, took one look at the familiar sight and shook his head in frustration.

"These escalators are always out," he said. "They just don't seem to get any better."

Metro's $93 million project to rebuild 178 escalators has managed to make many of them worse, documents show. More than a third of the escalators that have undergone the expensive renovations -- including two at the Brookland Station -- have been breaking down more often than they did before, records show. And close to a fifth of the rebuilt escalators have shown only marginal improvement.

Metro relies more heavily on escalators than other subway systems because its stations are so deep below ground and have few staircases.

Metro statistics show that, overall, the equipment is more dependable than it was five years ago, when breakdowns spiked and prompted calls for change. But nonfunctioning escalators still trigger more official complaints from Metro customers than any other problem. On a typical day, 52 of Metro's 588 escalators are out of service, forcing thousands of riders to climb into and out of stations.

Much about Metro's escalators, from their design to their maintenance and management, is emblematic of the failures that haunt the entire subway system.

The system's original 1966 design, for example, left many escalators exposed to the weather, allowing rain, snow, leaves and dirt to pour into the electrical systems and cause problems. Officials are working to erect expensive canopies over some of the equipment to correct the error.

The design also created some of the world's longest escalators rather than a series of shorter units.

When those escalators are overhauled, riders must suffer through long disruptions. It takes about 3 1/2 months to rebuild each escalator. Riders might expect an escalator to go back into service once it is overhauled, but at a two-escalator station, it must be turned off so work can begin on the other one. Riders are forced to plod up and down steps for the better part of a year.

At the Judiciary Square Station at Fourth Street NW, a long line forms each morning as riders wait to climb up an escalator that has been turned off since March while its mate is being rebuilt.

"This is absurd," said Richard Shapiro, one of 14,303 passengers who use the exit on a typical weekday. "Not to mention a fire hazard. Sometimes, there are 300 people down here on line. What if there was some kind of homeland security alert?"

Nearby, a Metro placard read: "We know that out of service escalators can be an inconvenience but the results are escalators that are more reliable for years to come. Thank you for your patience."

History, however, suggests that escalator problems are a constant.

In the mid-1990s, Metro officials decided to replace 28 of the worst-performing escalators in an experiment they now acknowledge was a disaster. The agency spent $16.4 million, only to watch some of the new escalators fall apart. Others were less reliable than the escalators they replaced.

Mechanics had to learn their way around four new kinds of escalators because Metro had purchased them from four different manufacturers. The manufacturers later left the business or merged, leaving no reliable source for parts. Now, Metro is planning to spend $15.5 million to replace half of those escalators.

By the late 1990s, Metro officials had decided to switch tactics. Instead of replacing aging escalators, they would gut the old ones and rebuild them with new parts.

"We learned our lesson," said Paul C. Gillum Jr., who formerly ran Metro's elevator and escalator office and is now director of plant maintenance.

David Lacosse, the current head of the elevator and escalator office, points to statistics over an 18-month period showing that, on average, rebuilt escalators were out of service 5 percent of the time, compared with 13 percent before the work was done.

But that improvement is driven largely by a fraction of the rehabilitated escalators, those whose previous performance was so bad that they were out of service at least 25 percent of the time, records show.

In fact, more than half of the overhauled escalators performed worse or showed only marginal improvement, according to an analysis. Of the 128 escalators for which Metro has statistics, 44 were out of service more often than before they were rebuilt. Reliability for another 23 improved by less than 2 percent.

Metro officials trace some of the problems to faulty, overly sensitive safety devices installed on the rebuilt escalators. More generally, Metro is "always going to have one-unit problems here and there," Lacosse said. The important thing to consider, he said, "is where we would be if we didn't make this investment at all."

Recently, the Metro board decided to overhaul 41 more escalators.

Metro's program to maintain the equipment also is troubled.

In 1997, an investigation found that escalator mechanics were falsifying records, claiming to have completed maintenance work that was never performed.

In 2002, a task force convened by Metro to study its escalator and elevator problems found that private contractors hired to supplement the mechanics' ranks were doing a better job of keeping the equipment running. Also, Metro mechanics were leaving for better-paying jobs in the private sector faster than the agency could replace them, causing a worker shortage. The panel delivered a clear verdict: Get rid of the in-house program and let the private sector take over.

Metro did not follow the panel's advice. Instead, to win peace with its labor unions, it negotiated a pay increase to stem high turnover rates among mechanics and promised to improve training. But worker shortages still hamper timely escalator repairs. "More inspectors and mechanics are needed," a report to the federal government concluded in January.

The in-house maintenance program continues to have other problems as well, a Washington Post analysis shows. Two years of maintenance records show that, on average, the escalators serviced by Metro mechanics broke down more frequently and took longer to repair than those serviced by commercial companies. And budget figures show that the routine maintenance performed in-house cost more: $57,425 per escalator and elevator, compared with $48,785 through private contractors.

Lacosse and Jackie Rhodes Jeter, a spokeswoman for Metro's largest employee union, said they are confident that mechanics will improve over time as they gain experience.

Maintenance also is hindered by management glitches. Two audits in the past year show that mechanics have had trouble finding spare parts for the escalators, partly because Metro had no way to automatically order parts when supplies ran low.

Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White said he is taking steps to improve the system for ordering and delivering parts. It is a problem that was brought to Metro management's attention more than two years ago.

A December 2003 internal audit found that Metro's system for storing and delivering rail-car parts suffered from similar problems, saying it was "inefficient," inventory lists were "unreliable" and shortages were "concealed." While higher-paid mechanics were forced to search for their own parts, the audit said, stock clerks were playing computer games.

Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company