Dozens of Metro escalator brakes found to have problems

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 10:45 PM

Urgent inspections of Metro's escalators have uncovered scores of brakes that need to be replaced or have oil-contaminated brake pads - the same problem that a preliminary investigation found caused a L'Enfant Plaza Station escalator accident last month that injured six people, Board Chairman Peter Benjamin said.

"As an important part of the service that we deliver each day, we understand that the performance of the escalators and elevators needs to improve," Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles said Wednesday night. "I want to assure our customers that we've started down the long road of improvement."

Metro began inspections of its 588 escalators last week after two faulty brakes were found, including the one involved in the L'Enfant Plaza accident. So far, 405 units have been inspected, with the rest to be done this week, Benjamin said.

The priority was to focus on the most vulnerable units: the 251 that have single drives and single brakes, Benjamin said.

He said that Metro mechanics had found 25 brakes that need to be replaced and that 47 escalator units are out of service for repairs because of damaged or oily brake pads.

"They are fixing them as they go," Benjamin said.

He said the escalator brake problems are not an "imminent danger" but are a "safety issue," because if an escalator is overloaded, the brakes could fail.

"If you don't get an overload, none of this happens, and the risk of an overload in normal working conditions [is] pretty low," he said.

An independent assessment of 30 Metro escalators at Bethesda, Woodley Park, Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom - stations with frequent problems - had raised questions about the escalator brakes' "ability to stop and hold with full passenger load," according to a draft of a report by Vertical Transportation Excellence, the firm conducting the assessment.

The draft, dated Sept. 30, also says that "several units exhibit clear signs of wear in driving elements" and mentions the possibility of "brake pads worn beyond usable life expectancy and out of adjustment allowing unit to freewheel to stop."

Metro released the 308-page report from VTX on Wednesday night, saying it had received the final report earlier in the day.

"The VTX's findings, combined with Metro's own inspections, affirm that one of the major factors of the state of Metro's escalators and elevators is a result of many years during which there has been a lack of adherence to Metro's own maintenance standards," Metro said in a statement.

"Metro will continue its focused work until all 588 of the system's escalators and 275 elevators meet the agency's maintenance standards," the statement said.

Metro board members criticized Metro staff members this week for failing to pay adequate attention to the warnings in the assessment until after the L'Enfant Plaza accident.

The Metro statement released Wednesday night said Sarles acknowledged that "greater emphasis should have been placed on brakes as a safety matter and elevated to the Board's attention sooner." Sarles said he directed VTX to return in six months to validate that its action plan for Metro and steps to address brakes were being addressed effectively.

Benjamin said Wednesday that Metro employees told him that the mentions of the escalator brake problems were in the maintenance section of the audit, rather than in the safety section.

"With 20/20 hindsight and after this accident occurred, it should have been labeled 'safety sensitive' - everyone now agrees to that," Benjamin said. "That was a mistake. Everybody has learned from that."

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