Hoofing It Out of the Subway

With broken escalators such as this one at Judiciary Square among the leading complaints of Metro commuters, officials are asking for the first time:
With broken escalators such as this one at Judiciary Square among the leading complaints of Metro commuters, officials are asking for the first time: "Should we put in stairs?" (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Riders who are sick of dealing with Metro's broken escalators may have a new option: walking up a flight of stairs.

The transit agency's latest idea on how to reduce costs and cut down on wear and tear of its chronically broken escalators is to rip out the shortest ones and replace them with a set of low-tech, low-maintenance steps.

Metro is looking at getting rid of only escalators that are less than 30 feet tall and at locations with multiple escalators. Riders would continue to have the option of taking escalators, though there would be fewer of them in certain places. For instance, in a spot where there are three escalators, one might be replaced with stairs but the other two would remain.

"Wherever we're proposing to do this, there would still be an escalator going up and an escalator going down," said Jim Hughes, Metro's chief operating officer for operations support.

Metro officials said 23 escalators at 15 stations might be replaced with stairs. They range from 10 feet 11 inches high to 27 feet 6 inches high. Included in the stations marked for potential conversions are such busy downtown stops as Farragut North, L'Enfant Plaza and Federal Triangle, as well as such heavily used, end-of-line stations as Vienna.

Even at the idea stage, the thought of eliminating some escalators is a radical shift for a system that relies on them more than any other subway in the world.

"For Metro, this is the first time in over 30 years that we're looking at vertical transportation and asking, 'Should we put in stairs?' " Hughes said.

A Metro board committee will consider the proposal this week. If the committee decides to pursue the concept, the agency will seek feedback from riders and from its elderly and disabled advisory committee, Metro officials said.

Nonfunctioning escalators trigger more complaints from Metro customers than almost any other problem. Metro has so many escalators because the subway was built so deep beneath swampy Washington. In some places, stairs aren't an option because all available space is devoted to escalators.

Metro, with 86 stations and average weekday ridership of about 720,000, has 588 escalators and 267 elevators. In contrast, the London Underground, which serves 275 stations and carries more than 3 million passengers a day, has 412 escalators and 112 elevators.

At any given moment, 40 to 45 of Metro's escalators and about six elevators are typically broken or scheduled for maintenance. Last month, the transit agency became the first in the nation to open a training facility to teach mechanics how to fix escalators and elevators.

For riders, broken escalators often mean long, arduous hikes up steps that are close to nine inches tall -- harder to negotiate than typical steps. Additionally, the edges of escalator steps are sharp and can be dangerous when people fall.

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