Metrorail outages on escalators, elevators frustrate riders

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

At Friendship Heights Metro station this week, commuters in raincoats hurried down one of two broken escalators to the platform to catch a rush-hour train, then bumped into one another as they boarded the crowded cars.

Lines of dozens of impatient commuters waited for a slow eight-person elevator at the station at Bethesda, where the 180-step escalators leading down into the station were out of service in recent weeks. At Huntington Station, frequent escalator breakdowns are infuriating some daily riders. "This morning was a total farce!" an exasperated Stephen Johnson wrote in an e-mail earlier this month. "I am tired of talk. I would like to see results."

Metro's chronic escalator outages -- including 63 to 69 as of this week, depending on the day, or about 11 percent of the total of 588 -- has riders like Johnson up in arms. According to data from Metro, the problem is worsening. Metro's average escalator reliability has fallen for the past three years, from 93.7 percent in 2007, to 93 percent in 2008 and 90.5 percent in 2009. The current rate of escalator outages this week, though only a snapshot, would be less than 90 percent.

"As a longtime rider of the system, escalators are clearly a problem," said Mortimer Downey, one of two new federal members of the Metro board. "Escalators are an integral part of the passengers' ride and experience, and they need to be every bit as effective as the trains. They are not an amenity."

But frustrated passengers say Metro officials are largely unresponsive to their plight.

Metro officials including General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. and Board Chairman Peter Benjamin "do not respond to my phone calls," said Johnson, who has been campaigning for escalator improvements for the past two years.

Indeed, Metro has turned down media requests for interviews on the escalator problem.

The top Metro official in charge of escalators and elevators -- David Lacosse -- has since early January rejected repeated requests by e-mail, phone and in person for interviews by The Washington Post.

"He has made it clear to us that he has no interest in being interviewed," Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an e-mail. "We have contacted him numerous times. He does not want to, and we have no authority to make him," she said.

Lacosse has worked in his current position for about six years, according to Metro spokesman Steve Taubenkibel. On the day this article appeared on The Post's Web site, Taubenkibel forwarded the data on escalator reliability to The Post, which he said came from Lacosse.

Metro officials say that escalators run about 20 hours a day, with wear compounded by exposure to dust, groundwater, and rain or snow -- and nearly 800,000 Metrorail passengers riding an average of two moving staircases per trip.

Downey recalled that when the Metrorail system was being designed in the late 1970s, the agency had a "war" with the Office of Management and Budget, which wanted to save money by cutting out many escalators.

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