An accident foretold

Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 7:27 PM

A MONTH BEFORE a crowded Metro escalator lurched into overdrive for 18 terrifying seconds, leaving a dozen people injured and dozens more sprawling and shaken, the transit agency was warned - explicitly - that its escalators' braking systems were antiquated, ill-maintained and at risk. So what did Metro officials do about the admonition? They whitewashed it.

The warning was contained in a Sept 30 draft report by Vertical Transportation Excellence, a transportation consultant, that makes for chilling reading, especially in the context of the Oct. 30 mishap at L'Enfant Plaza station, and another, similar unconfirmed incident four days later at Gallery Place-Chinatown.

The fact that no agency officials saw fit to mention the report's main conclusions to the Metro Board - even after two dangerous accidents - is an appalling violation of public trust. Officials could have done so either at a Metro board meeting on Oct. 14 or at one last Thursday, after the mishaps occurred. Instead, officials referred to the report but danced around the fact that it warned specifically about the escalators' braking and maintenance problems.

The report was finally made public this week - not by Metro but by a blog, Unsuck DC Metro.The report provides a reminder that most of Metro's 588 escalators have been obsolete for years and are deteriorating rapidly. Alarmingly, it concludes that "obvious signs of conditions requiring immediate maintenance . . . are being overlooked" and provides a critique that reads like an engineer's worst nightmare: leaky and water-logged equipment; brake pads "worn beyond usable life expectancy"; safety circuits that are "dirty, out of adjustment, and ineffective"; and unsafe working conditions. "All escalator brakes have questionable stopping performance," the report says.

Of 30 escalators examined by the inspectors at four Metro stations - Woodley Park, Bethesda, Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle - just nine were rated "good" across the board for cleanliness, operation and lubrication. Fourteen received two or more "poor" marks, meaning the equipment showed "major signs of damage or wear" indicating "a prolonged absence of maintenance."

Metro has now launched what it says is an aggressive inspection of every escalator in its sprawling inventory. Part of its six-year, $5 billion capital spending plan approved this summer involves replacing and upgrading escalators and elevators; work is scheduled to start soon on 22 elevators and 103 escalators along the Orange and Blue Lines. It's unclear how many will be replaced, which is what is probably required.

The difficulties remain immense. Many of Metro's escalators, some of them 30 or more years old, were made by Westinghouse, which quit manufacturing them years ago. When parts wear out, Metro engineers must fashion replacements from scratch. Too many escalators and elevators are exposed to rain, snow and sleet. Recruiting and training skilled engineers to maintain them is a problem.

All of that presents Metro with enough challenges. It compounds the damage by trying to sweep bad news under the rug, as it did with the recent inspection report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company