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Metro warned of 'questionable' escalator brakes before accident

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 9:30 AM

Metro officials came under attack Monday for their handling of potentially dangerous escalators after the revelation that an independent assessment had warned of a widespread risk of escalator brake failure weeks before a packed conveyance at the L'Enfant Plaza station sped out of control and injured six people.

Dave Kubicek, Metro's deputy general manager, briefed Metro's board of directors on the assessment by the firm Vertical Transportation Excellence on Oct. 14 but failed to mention its findings on risky brakes.

"They had the alarm bell, and they didn't follow up on it until there were two incidents or problems, and the transgression puts our customers in peril," said Jim Graham, a board member from the District. He said Metro had not provided the board with a copy of the draft report.

The 20-page draft, dated Sept. 30 and made public Monday by the blog Unsuck DC Metro, raised questions about the escalator brakes' "ability to stop and hold with full passenger load." It also said that "several units exhibit clear signs of wear in driving elements" and pointed to the possibility of "brake pads worn beyond usable life expectancy and out of adjustment allowing unit to freewheel to stop."

The assessment audited Metro's elevator and escalator maintenance program and examined 30 escalators and nine elevators at the Woodley Park, Bethesda, Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom stations.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein called the posted report "an outdated and incomplete draft." She said the report will be made public when it is finalized. She noted that Kubicek had stated on Oct. 14 that Metro was dealing with safety concerns raised by the report, such as removing water and debris and hiring mechanics.

Metro's staff briefed the board on the preliminary findings of the investigation of the Oct. 30 L'Enfant Plaza accident five days later, saying it was caused by a brake failure. Specifically, it said the escalator stopped but one of the brakes, which had an oily brake pad, failed to hold.

For 18 seconds, the escalator accelerated downward, throwing several people to the ground at the bottom. Six were hurt, some of them cut seriously. But despite questions from board members and reporters about whether the problem could be more widespread, Kubicek and other staff members did not mention the brake failure concern raised in the assessment.

"He was before the committee on a directly relevant incident ... and he never mentioned that, and for me that is the more alarming omission," Graham said.

Jeff McKay, a board member from Fairfax, agreed. "I'm very angry that certain information was not provided to the board when it should have been," said McKay, who asked Metro staff at the Nov. 4 meeting whether an inspection of all escalators of the type that was involved in the L'Enfant Plaza accident was in order.

Reports of an escalator failure at Gallery Place-Chinatown last week were not confirmed by Metro. But officials decided to inspect all escalators at that station, which revealed another faulty brake. That led Kubicek to order inspections of brakes on all 588 escalators last Thursday.

Metro's interim general manager, Richard Sarles, called for the Vertical Transportation Excellence assessment last spring in response to chronic breakdowns in the escalators and elevators. The assessment looked at several stations where escalators had been particularly problematic.

McKay said the assessment was a good step, but he voiced frustration that Metro's leaders still are not addressing the problem. "I ride the system every day, and you can't tell me that the elevators and escalators are working pretty well. They are broken down everywhere," he said.

McKay said he will urge the board to emphasize replacing rather than repairing escalators that in some cases are 40 years old.

Meanwhile, people aboard the L'Enfant Plaza escalator that failed said the experience left them deeply concerned.

"Those 15 to 20 seconds as that escalator hurtled out of control, then fearing that my two girls were going to be crushed to death as people began to fall, I can tell you there was nothing minor about that experience," Jenni Knittig wrote in an e-mail.

"My bruises and bumps may have started to fade but my anger, frustration and disbelief certainly haven't."

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