Metrorail outages on escalators, elevators frustrate riders

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; B01

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.

"Metro made the case you have to have them," he said. "And if you have them, you have to be sure they are basically working."

Lacosse, who has been director of Metro's Office of Elevator and Escalator Maintenance since March 2004 has called the escalator outages inevitable. "Mix hundreds of thousands of people and moving mechanical equipment together, and something is bound to go wrong," he said in an online chat in 2006.

Fixing escalators and ensuring they are safe is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process, Lacosse said in the chat. He has stressed that no other transit agency in the United States has more "vertical transportation units" -- escalators and elevators -- than Metro. Other systems do not use as many escalators. New York City Transit had 11 escalators out this week, according to the agency's Web site. New York has 176 escalators, and the outages accounted for about 6 percent of the total.

"An escalator is a complicated electro-mechanical machine," Lacosse said in the 2006 chat. "To access the interior portions, the steps must be removed," slowing the repair process, he said. "For complete overhauls, the unit is usually stripped down to the truss, and all the wearable components are replaced," including sometimes the truss itself, he said.

In the 1990s Metro launched a project to replace dozens of escalators, only to find that the new ones were less reliable. A later $93 million initiative to rebuild rather than replace escalators also had mixed results, with more than a third of the renovated escalators breaking down more often.

In 2006, Metro launched a six-year, $50 million program to overhaul 206 escalators, with each one taking two to three months to rehabilitate, which involves ripping out old escalators and rebuilding them. So far, 42 units have been completed, with contracts awarded for another 74. The goal is to award a contract for the final 90 units by July, according to Metro.

The transit agency also opened an elevator and escalator training lab in Landover, the first in the transit industry, to be used in teaching new mechanics.

But compounding the problem, Metro officials say, is the age of many of the escalators; many of the companies that made them are no longer in business. "You have 30-year-old escalators, and the people that built them don't exist any more, and we can't get spare parts anymore," Benjamin said. As a result, Metro must find new suppliers to make the parts.

But that is no excuse for passengers such as Johnson, a retired Navy ship secretary who works as a civilian at the Pentagon. "Listen, we have escalators here in the Pentagon," and leaving them broken is "not going to be tolerated," he said. "Bring in the bloody supplies, fix it, and make it convenient for your patrons," he said.

Downey agreed that Metro should have had more foresight to secure replacement parts. If the manufacturers are out of business, "too bad -- you have to find the parts," he said. "You can't just say, 'Okay, we are out of service now, the escalator has died and will never be replaced.' "

Johnson said he is particularly upset seeing elderly passengers struggling up the broken escalators at Huntington Station, some carrying suitcases, and has stepped in to assist them more than once. "Maybe someone needs to have a heart attack to get the Metro folks' attention," he said.

In fact, that already happened, when a passenger was climbing the stairs of a broken escalator at Bethesda Metrorail station during a heat wave in July 1998.

"The family of the deceased sued," Taubenkibel said in an e-mail. "Not sure what the end result was."

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