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Metro elevator, escalator outages stall riders

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:34 PM

The study commissioned by Interim General Manager Richard Sarles reinforced the challenges Metro faces in fixing its balky escalators and elevators: "There are no comparable installations like this in the United States in either the public or private sector," the review by Vertical Transportation Excellence said of the transit authority's 588 escalators and 275 elevators.

"While improvements gained with the modernization program are significant, the basic modular escalator design has been obsolete for over 20 years," the review says. "WMATA will have increasingly demanding maintenance challenges even with the massive capital improvement program."

Now let one commuter present the increasingly demanding challenges for riders. She described what she saw at about 8:45 a.m Thursday, a particularly bad day to travel via Union Station, Metro's busiest portal.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

There are no functioning elevators or escalators on the platform or street level at Union Station.

There are five escalators and one staircase on the platform level; none of the escalators is working, two escalators and one staircase are open and operating with two-way traffic. There is no signage or warning about the outages and no assistance for people with disabilities, strollers or travelers with luggage to handle this.

With the number of MARC commuters using those escalators, there are bound to be injuries soon. And, again, with no warnings to alert customers about the lack of elevators or escalators, huge angry crowds try to go up the escalator to make connecting trains and no Metro employees make any attempt to assist passengers or control the crowd or help make pedestrian traffic more manageable.

It's ridiculous and dangerous and an accident waiting to happen.

Kathryn Knight, Columbia

Knight, a Metro rider for 15 years and a MARC-to-Metro commuter for three years, points out what was unsaid in the transit authority's technically oriented report: At rush hour, this isn't a people-moving system. This is chaos.

Some of the problems at Union Station on Thursday reflected the emergency inspection and maintenance program that Metro was wrapping up in the wake of the Oct. 30 brake failure in a L'Enfant Plaza escalator.

Knight and I agreed that things were better by Friday morning. Still, the basic scenario persisted.

The two elevators were out of service as part of a 12-week rehabilitation scheduled to end this month. At the station's Massachusetts Avenue entrance, one escalator was out of service for repair and one was stopped for use as a two-way staircase. On the mezzanine, riders found the best way to the platform was the granite staircase. The escalator next to it was under repair. The only other route was another stopped escalator - stopped because, again, the escalator next to it was under repair. It was one of the rare ones with a sign indicating a return-to-service date: "08/27/10."

Information was much easier to find at street level, the mezzanine and the platform. The placard by the elevator closest to the MARC and Amtrak trains has a rider's handwritten addendum after the out-of-service announcement: "So is our money," it read.

Knight isn't being alarmist when she describes the dangers of using an escalator as a two-way staircase. This is Union Station: There a lot of people trying to go quickly between the subway platform and train platform. A lot of them are carrying bags - big bags.

Metro offers free shuttle services for people affected by the lack of elevators. But who's going to wait for a shuttle just because they have a bag or a stroller? No, they just manhandle the stuff up or down the narrow escalator. When they move too slowly, people try to walk around them, only to encounter people in just as much of a hurry coming from the opposite direction. The only thing preventing an injury is the willingness of people to accommodate each other, and that's sorely tested at rush hour.

Conditions at Union Station will ease, and improvements will be made throughout the system. Sarles said last month that Metro is adding 11 mechanics, enhancing rapid response teams and increasing focus on supervision and quality assurance. "I want to assure our customers that we've started down the long road of improvement," he said.

These are good things. But telling riders that Metro has an action plan to improve service goes over as well as telling an unemployed person not to worry, since the nation has a recovery plan in place. People must deal with today first.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible. To contact Dr. Gridlock by mail: Write to Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: drgridlock@washpost.com. On the Dr. Gridlock blog: washingtonpost.com/drgridlock. On Twitter: drgridlock.

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