Metro riders express frustration over mounting escalator malfunctions

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; B06

A string of escalator failures forcing thousands of rush-hour commuters to take long, breathless hikes out of cavernous stations has riders lamenting the state of the system and wondering when relief will come.

"It is a health hazard for people my age, and I'm not that old!" said Rose Darby, a 61-year-old writer at the U.S. Department of Labor. Darby was panting after an emergency worker helped her reach the top of the roughly 150-step escalator at the Dupont Circle Station's 19th Street exit Monday.

"I was told I had no other option," said Darby, flapping the lapel of her jacket to cool off. "I assumed an escalator would be going up. I held everyone up."

Passengers who couldn't make the climb were advised to ride to another station and exit.

Smoke coming from an escalator Monday afternoon at Dupont's Q Street exit led Metro to shut down all working escalators and herd riders up a single, steep conveyance. Metro reported the evacuation as a hazard to the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which oversees safety at the transit authority, said Matt Bassett, head of the committee.

That malfunction followed a complete escalator breakdown that had caused chaos at the Red Line station Monday morning. All of the escalators leading to the 19th Street exit were out again Tuesday morning, and Metro requested shuttle bus service. As of Tuesday evening, three of the six exit escalators were not working because of broken motor drives, handrails or brakes, according to Metro.

Angry riders venting over these and other escalator breakdowns have lashed out at Metro on blogs, such as The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, and via Twitter and e-mails.

"It seems there isn't a station in the system which can have all of its escalators operating," Jason Gooljar wrote in an e-mail after taking video of a crowd trying to get out of the Dupont station Monday morning.

Many commuters took particular offense at the latest escalator breakdowns -- long a source of rider frustration -- because on June 27, Metro launched the first phase of the biggest fare increase in the history of the Washington area transit system to help close a $189 million budget deficit. Rail fares increased about 18 percent.

"Where is the money going?" asked Faheen Moghal, 32, a physician, after he reached the top of the escalator at Dupont Circle on Monday. "This does seem to happen a lot."

The performance of Metro escalators has continued to fall, according to a Metro "vital signs" report issued this month. Escalator availability dropped to 89.6 percent, compared with the Metro goal of 93 percent.

One reason for the decline is that Metro has taken several escalators out of service as it took over maintenance of 55 of the system's escalators from the company Schindler on July 1, according to the report. As of Tuesday, all of Metro's 588 escalators were being maintained by Metro, and about 55 of those were out of service.

Last month, Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles brought in an outside expert to assess the agency's chronic escalator and elevator problems as well as maintenance standards.

The consultant, Vertical Transportation Excellence, has looked into problems at the Woodley Park, Bethesda, Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom stations.

In response to passenger complaints, Sarles has pushed forward the assessment, which is scheduled to be completed by mid-September, as well as a reorganization of the department that repairs escalators and elevators.

But irritation among riders has escalated.

"The Bethesda escalator situation is an abomination," wrote David A. Poland of Rockville, who commutes on the Red Line to his job in Bethesda. He said an escalator that underwent repairs starting in April and that was supposed to be repaired by last month was still out of service.

"Why it takes more than two months to complete an escalator refurbishment is beyond me -- but then again, rarely can you see anyone there working," he said. "Having people going up and down the one stationary escalator is more than a nuisance. . . . It's amazing no one has yet taken a serious tumble," he said.

"When is someone at Metro going to be held accountable for their complete lack of public accountability?"

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