Metro escalator brake, maintenance problems widespread

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 7:47 PM

Metro may be the world's largest owner of an outmoded and problematic type of escalator, one that has suffered brake failure accidents in other transit systems and is notorious among experts for requiring a high level of maintenance.

A recent independent audit uncovered widespread deficiencies in Metro's escalator brakes as well as a lack of adherence to escalator maintenance standards. The report suggests that the failure of the moving staircase at L'Enfant Plaza that injured six people last month was not an isolated problem but an accident waiting to happen, according to escalator experts.

The escalator involved is a Westinghouse Modular 100, one of 489 spread throughout the rail system, making up 83 percent of Metro's 588 escalators.

"There is a ton of them out there, and no one is really happy with them," said Ken Smith, an escalator consultant and a member of the escalator code committee of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In fact, the model was discontinued 30 years ago.

Metro's escalator problems are amplified simply because it has so many, the experts said. The transit system was designed with escalators as an integral part of moving people in and out of the stations, and Metro has more escalators than any other transit system in North America.

But it's not the only one with problems with the Westinghouse Modular 100.

In Atlanta on New Year's Eve in 2007, braking systems on three of the same type of escalators failed at two different stations that were packed with sports fans headed for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The escalators accelerated downward, dumping passengers on a pile on the platform and injuring 11 in one incident alone, according to reports.

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority shut down the majority of its 149 escalators - 117 of which are Westinghouse Modular 100s - for a comprehensive review after concerns arose about the thoroughness of a mechanic's maintenance. The agency discovered that 84 escalators needed repair work.

Uncertainty also exists about what work was performed on the L'Enfant Plaza escalator.

A quarterly inspection performed by Metro one month before the accident should have included an inspection of the brakes, said Lisa Farbstein, a Metro spokeswoman. That could have identified that there was a potential problem with the brakes and led to a repair that might have prevented the accident.

A hard copy of the inspection report shows a completed checklist, but an electronic maintenance tracking system indicated the work was not finished, Farbstein said. Metro officials are unsure why the discrepancy exists but are reviewing the incident.

"The investigation continues and needs to run its full course," Farbstein said.

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