Dupont Circle escalator incident prompts Metro to take action

Metro's budget and workforce for maintaining escalators and elevators have dropped relative to the growing number of machines, leading to numerous breakdowns and headaches.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

Metro plans to put bullhorns in rail stations and improve crowd-management techniques after rush-hour escalator breakdowns at Dupont Circle Station last week left hordes of customers struggling up broken, 130-foot escalators -- with some people forced to crawl over the handrail to avoid falling into a hole.

Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn told Metro's board of directors at a meeting Thursday that an investigation into the incident, which started with a report of smoke at the Q Street NW entrance, determined that there were failures in radio communications and that for a short time the station's only open entrance was left unmanned.

A large crowd trying to get out of the smoky station formed at the bottom of the 19th Street escalators, which also weren't working. Some people removed a barricade to get out more quickly -- only to find an impassable and dangerous gap at the top, Taborn said.

This "unfortunately . . . required customers to cross over to the next escalator to get out," Taborn said.

Moreover, Metro police had found that they could not communicate well because of radio "dead spots" at Dupont Circle Station, and so police need to consider using alternatives such as cellphones and "runners," he said.

Taborn said Metro will supply stations with bullhorns to aid in crowd management, add warning signs to escalator barricades and develop new guidelines for deciding when to close stations that rely on long escalators for access.

Another problem was that a station manager left his position to help at the Q Street exit, and as a result "the 19th Street mezzanine went unmanned" even as customers surged toward it, Taborn said.

Jeff McKay, a board member from Fairfax, said the incident illustrates how vital it is for Metro to put its most responsible employees in station manager jobs. "We need to raise heightened awareness about the quality and caliber of people who are our station managers," he said.

Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles said the station managers had followed existing protocols. But Taborn said Metro would issue a memo to station managers about "situational awareness."

Commenting on Metro's escalator woes earlier this week, Sarles acknowledged that Metro had failed to maintain the conveyances adequately. "These escalators are old; they have not been kept in a state of good repair, so we're behind the curve on that," he said in an interview on WTOP radio. "People will always see escalators out of service on Metro."

At Dupont Circle, escalators are still undergoing repair, although the work should be completed by the end of July, said Metro operations chief Dave Kubicek. He said the problems at Dupont are exacerbated because the three escalators at the 19th Street entrance are of an unusual design and the manufacturer has gone out of business, making parts difficult to locate. Metro plans to install three new escalators at that entrance in 2011 under a program to upgrade 46 Red Line escalators, he said.

Kubicek added that all Metro escalators undergo heavy use and harsh weather conditions and need to be "industrial strength." Some of Metro's escalators would "work well in a mall but not in a transit environment," he said. Metro just took over maintenance for the Dupont Circle escalators as part of a transfer of 55 escalators from contractors on July 1.

Addressing another source of rider discomfort, Metro officials said a recent spate of air-conditioning failures on Metro cars was related to high temperatures. Metro said that between June 1 and July 9, an average of 21 Metro cars a day had to be taken out of service because of failures in their air-conditioning units. But the numbers were higher as the temperature approached 100 in early July; there were days when as many as 66 cars were taken out of service, Metro said.

Turning to security, Sarles said Thursday that Metro has taken several steps to strengthen safeguards at Metro bus garages after an incident July 9 in which a teen allegedly stole a bus from the Bladensburg garage and picked up several passengers before crashing into a tree.

Sarles said Metro implemented more-stringent rules for inspecting identification cards, and plans to hire 13 more special police officers by next month to improve security at garages. The agency also plans to assign roving officers to patrol them, he said. Metro is putting up new fences and cameras, and is exploring new technology that would require driver identification to start a bus and allow for buses to be shut down remotely.

Metro is also reviewing its uniform policies, said Sarles, who also revealed in the WTOP interview that the 19-year-old charged with stealing the bus, William Jackson, was given a Metro bus driver uniform to wear as a Halloween costume.

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