Brake failure, crowds, thought to cause Metro escalator accident

By Ann Scott Tyson
Friday, November 5, 2010; 6:26 AM

A preliminary Metro investigation found that an oily and worn brake pad, coupled with a heavy passenger load, caused the accident on Saturday that left more than a dozen riders sprawling, hurt and bloodied at the base of a L'Enfant Plaza escalator.

Metro Deputy Chief of Rail Safety Robert Maniuszko said brakes failed to halt the escalator crammed with passengers after a fault caused it to shut down, allowing it to suddenly accelerate. The incident occurred as Metro stations were crowded with people attending the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert rally on the Mall.

An inspection of the brakes showed that "one brake had oil on it" and "showed brake pad wear," he said.

Metro is examining maintenance records for the escalator, which was last serviced by transit authority employees in September. The unit was installed in 1977 and rehabbed in 2004, meaning it would not be due for another overhaul for 10 or 15 years, officials said.

Metro Assistant General Manager Dave Kubicek said a leaking drive box or gearbox could have compromised the brake that failed. He said the investigation would examine whether the failure was an isolated incident or represented "an issue we need to look at on a more global scale."

Kubicek said the accident could represent a simple failure to keep things clean, a problem pointed out in a recent assessment of Metro's escalator and elevator maintenance problems.

The consulting firm that carried out that assessment, Vertical Transportation Excellence, will conduct an independent investigation of the breakdown, Maniuszko said.

A recent report by the company found that Metro was not following its own maintenance standards and identified immediate problems, including failure to clean escalator switches, debris and water in and around the conveyances, and a shortage of supervisors.

The report, ordered by interim General Manager Richard Sarles in response to serious customer complaints about escalator outages, recommended that Metro hire a contractor to clean escalator pits, devise a plan to remove water, and add training on maintenance standards.

Metro plans to rehabilitate about 26 platform escalators at the L'Enfant Plaza station as part of a major renovation along the Blue and Orange lines, according to Jeffrey Griffin, project manager of Metro's office of elevators and escalators. The rehab starting next year will include work on 100 escalators at stations along the lines. Griffin said the nine entrance units at L'Enfant, including the one that broke on Saturday, are not included in that contract because they were rehabbed about seven years ago.

The escalator that malfunctioned, a Westinghouse Modular 100, will remain shut down until the investigation is complete, Metro officials said. It had been running in the ascending position but the station manager reversed it because of the crowding, Maniuszko said.

"There was very heavy loading on the escalators," he said. The escalator motors stopped due to an "overspeed fault," Maniuszko said. When the escalator shut down, the brakes were applied, but they failed, he added.

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