The Downside of Escalator Renovation

A line to exit forms each morning inside Judiciary Square Station because the one open escalator is immobile. More than 14,000 passengers use the exit on a typical weekday.
A line to exit forms each morning inside Judiciary Square Station because the one open escalator is immobile. More than 14,000 passengers use the exit on a typical weekday. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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By Jo Becker and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 5, 2005

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 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."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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