What goes up must be fixed

Metro board member Charles Deegan, left, and David Lacosse, head of elevator and escalator services, ride a see-through escalator used for training.
Metro board member Charles Deegan, left, and David Lacosse, head of elevator and escalator services, ride a see-through escalator used for training. (Photos By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Keeping Metro's escalators and elevators in working order is so difficult that the transit agency yesterday became the first in the nation to open a training facility to teach people how to fix them.

Breakdowns of the 588 escalators and 267 elevators are a long-standing issue for a system that relies more heavily on them than other subways because Metro's stations are buried so deep below ground. Nonfunctioning escalators trigger more complaints from Metro customers than almost any other problem. Outside escalators are particularly troublesome because rain, snow and debris pour into the electrical systems and cause problems.

"When they're down, it's a pain in the rear end," said Charles Deegan, vice chairman of the Metro board. "Hopefully, this is going to help improve the reliability of the system. We're not quite where we want to be, but we're heading that way.

"When you're my size, you don't like walking up escalators," joked Deegan, a regular rider who is 6 feet 2 inches and of generous girth.

At any given moment, 40 to 45 escalators and about six elevators are typically broken or scheduled for routine maintenance, forcing thousands of riders to climb into and out of stations. One day this summer, as angry passengers trudged in the heat, Metro gave away water at several stations where escalators were down. The number of escalators varies from station to station, depending on design and number of lines served.

Bill Quinn, 54, no longer keeps track of the number of times he has hiked up the 88 steps of a broken escalator at the Huntington Metro station. Or the number of times he has used the least convenient station exit and paid a cab to drive him three-fourths of a mile to his condominium so he wouldn't have to lug a suitcase up an out-of-service escalator.

"I don't regard it as reliable," said Quinn, a defense contractor who has been commuting from Huntington to Rosslyn for the past seven years.

The $1.5 million training lab, at the agency's maintenance facility in Landover, consists of two specially constructed elevators -- one hydraulic and one traction -- that flank an escalator unit. Trainees can ride up one elevator and exit to the top of the escalator, which carries them down to the other elevator. All three units have transparent panels so trainees can see the inner workings of the machinery they're learning how to repair.

Unlike a bus or a train that can be taken to a garage or rail yard to be repaired, escalators and elevators have to be fixed on site, said Dwyte Brown, maintenance manager for escalators and elevators. At the facility, trainers will be able to simulate a problem -- such as a door lock malfunction that stops an elevator -- and show apprentices how to troubleshoot it, Brown said.

In the field, mechanics often have to rely on the feel of a belt drive to see whether an escalator is working properly around its internal gears, said Mathew Ellis, 24, who has been in the apprenticeship program for a year and hopes to graduate three years from now. Pointing to the clear plastic side panels underneath the escalator, he said: "You can see what you're supposed to be doing."

Or as another apprentice, Jibril Ba'th, 31, put it: "The better we get at this, the less time the units will be down in the field."

In 2000, Metro began a 10-year maintenance and rehabilitation plan for all of its escalators. To date, 194 have been overhauled; the process costs $240,000 to $500,000, depending on the escalator, takes three to four months and involves stripping the unit down to bare steel.

The inconvenience to riders can last twice as long because side-by-side escalators are often repaired in tandem, meaning that one has to be turned off while the other is being fixed.

At the moment, out-of-service escalators are a nagging problem at some of the busiest suburban stations on the two busiest routes, the Red and Orange lines. In the next few months, additional units are scheduled to be overhauled at three stations on the Orange Line, and 20 outside units at stations along the Blue Line are also scheduled to be modernized.

"When you do a rehab, almost every unit has unforeseen conditions," said Jeffrey Griffin, who manages the overhaul work. A heavily used elevator at Federal Center that was supposed to be back in service last week is still not working because crews discovered water corrosion that had accumulated over many years. "Rehab is almost like an art form to get it just right," he said.

Contractors are responsible for maintaining 287 escalators, and Metro personnel are responsible for the other 301. Within four years, Metro intends to phase out the contractors and take over all of the work.

The training facility, which took two years to build, is supposed to improve the skills of in-house personnel. A 2002 task force convened by Metro found that private contractors were doing a better job of keeping the equipment running.

Eventually, officials said, the lab will be adapted to train fire, police and other emergency first responders.

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