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As escalator outages mount, Metro struggles with budget, workforce shortages

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; B01

Cedric Watson peered from beneath his black Metro cap into the guts of an escalator at the Gallery Place Station. He pointed out one source of escalator shutdowns: safety switches triggered when people slip and fall or kick the moving stairs.

"Some of our escalators are down more frequently than they've been in the past, but this is by design," said Watson, an escalator superintendent and 20-year mechanic. It's a necessary precaution, Metro officials say, given the dangers of the heavy machinery, with its powerful motors and gnashing metal teeth.

But to hundreds of thousands of Metrorail customers, motionless escalators are a daily frustration throughout the system. The safety devices, increased wear and tear and planned overhauls are causing more of the machines to be out of service at any given time, Metro officials said. The transit agency faces the problems as its budget and workforce for escalators and elevators have declined sharply relative to the number of conveyances it maintains.

"If I could have 1,000 escalator mechanics, we would be in nirvana, but the budget is not going to pay for that," said David Lacosse, director of Metro's Office of Elevators and Escalators. "So you are struggling with the number of people you have and the amount of area."

Metro has 588 escalators, more than any other transit system in the Western hemisphere, Lacosse said. They are vital to the system, which has tunnels built deep underground in several locations to avoid unstable soil closer to the surface.

The metal staircases are old, with an average age of 25 years. They operate virtually around the clock to serve growing numbers of riders and, after hours, Metro workers. That means less time for repairs.

"One of the big complaints that customers have is that they don't see people working on them. But if we are out there in rush hour working on them, we will be in the way," Lacosse said.

In recent years, the transit agency has taken responsibility from contractors for maintaining all 863 escalators and elevators in the system.

From fiscal 2004 to 2010, the number of units maintained by Metro rose 542 units, or 169 percent. Over the same period, the number of mechanics increased 89 percent, from 72 to 136. The budget for escalators and elevators grew relatively slowly, increasing from $19.7 million in 2004 to $28.9 million for 2010. The budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 dropped to $25.9 million.

Declining reliability

In the wake of rush-hour breakdowns this month of the 188-foot-long Dupont Circle escalators, Lacosse and Metro's operations chief, David Kubicek, explained the causes of Metro's escalator woes -- and efforts to remedy them.

"We have done a lot of soul-searching," Lacosse said. "In the best possible world, at any given time we would have 7 percent of escalators out of service."

That goal has been slipping away. Metro data show that 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 last year. This year, the average is 90.2 percent, dipping to 89.6 percent in May, the last month for which data are available.

A range of factors plays into the outages, which affect 50 to 60 escalators a day. About four units a day undergo mandatory annual inspections, Lacosse said. About five others are not broken but are out of service to be used as "walkers" for passenger traffic when nearby escalators are being worked on, he said.

Twelve other escalators are being rehabilitated under a multiyear plan begun in the late 1990s to overhaul all of the escalators -- nearly 300 have been done, with work planned for about 170 over the next four years. Overhauls can take three to four months.

Starting in the spring, as part of a Red Line rehabilitation contract, Metro will overhaul 46 escalators, replace six escalators and rehabilitate 22 elevators at the Dupont Circle, Farragut North, Metro Center, Gallery Place, Judiciary Square, Union Station and Foggy Bottom stations, said Jeffrey Griffin, project manager for Metro's Office of Elevators and Escalators. As part of the Blue and Orange Line contract to be awarded this fall, Metro will rehabilitate 90 escalators, replace three escalators and overhaul 22 elevators.

More safety switches

Accidents cause most outages, Lacosse said, such as when people or their bags get stuck in the contraptions, or when riders running for trains land too hard or jump on the metal panels at the top. Each time a rider is hurt enough on an escalator to go to a hospital, an inspector must examine the conveyance before it can be returned to service, a process that usually requires repairs, Kubicek said.

The number of safety switches per escalator has increased to about two dozen, Lacosse said, and the shutdowns triggered by passenger actions amount to about 6 percent of outages each day.

Once a breakdown occurs, repairs can be delayed because of a lack of parts, some of the escalator makers have gone out of business or parts for those units must be manufactured. Metro's escalator mechanics are widely dispersed, and those trained in the agency's four-year apprentice program are not as experienced as contractors, Metro officials said.

"The biggest limiting factors are the right number of people in the right place, with the right parts -- and time," Lacosse said. He said that although he had recently repositioned some mechanics, it still takes times for them to reach broken escalators.

Watson, the escalator superintendent, said that Metro will probably need more mechanics as ridership grows and the system comes under more stress.

"The standard operation now is of the equipment running 24/7; that also causes . . . more maintenance, he said.

Metro hired a consultant, Vertical Transportation Excellence, last month for an initial fee of $75,000 to assess escalator maintenance practices, targeting four stations where outages have been a problem: Bethesda, Woodley Park, Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom, Kubicek said. Their report is due in two months.

One way to improve mobility, Kubicek said, would be to add a more reliable -- if tiring -- way to get people in and out of stations: stairs.

"We know we have to seriously consider putting in stairways at certain stations in the next five to 10 years to maximize our efficiency," Kubicek said.

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