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Escalator maintenance, not replacement, is urged for Metro

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; B04

Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles said Thursday that basic maintenance is the solution to the transit system's perennial escalator woes, rather than a long-term and costly replacement plan.

"We cannot lose focus on the day-to-day maintenance in the hopes the capital plan will get you there," Sarles told Metro's board of directors, as several members questioned whether it is time to replace the escalators, many of which were installed four decades ago.

Metro Deputy General Manager Dave Kubicek estimated that new escalators would cost $1 million each. Said Sarles: "It will cost you a lot of money" and time.

The debate came after recent inspections and audits revealed serious problems with the rail system's escalators. An independent audit uncovered widespread deficiencies in Metro's escalator brakes as well as a lack of adherence to escalator maintenance standards.

Metro inspected its 588 escalators and their roughly 950 braking assemblies this month in the wake of an accident caused by a malfunction of brakes on an escalator at L'Enfant Plaza that injured six people.

According to Metro Deputy Chief of Rail Safety Robert Maniuszko, 568 escalators have been inspected and 40 brakes have been replaced. Ten brakes were found to be oily. Sixteen escalators with worn brake pads were taken out of service and are awaiting repair parts. Twenty escalators were not checked because they are undergoing major repairs or overhauls, but will be examined before being returned to service, he said.

An investigation found that all three brakes were compromised on the L'Enfant Plaza escalator that failed on Oct. 30, when packed with passengers coming from a rally. One brake had "oily, dirty" pads, one showed brake pad wear "down to the metal" and one had a loose screw and "erratic performance," Maniuszko told board members Thursday.

Pads on one of the three brakes were replaced during periodic maintenance Aug. 21, he said.

In addition, he said documents from an inspection on Sept. 28 on that escalator, as well as interviews with the mechanics who performed the inspection, indicated that all three brakes had been tested, and based on those tests, "Metro would not have considered taking this unit out of service."

Asked how the escalator could have failed so soon after an inspection, and whether mechanics may not have performed the tests, Kubicek said those questions are part of the investigation.

Sarles acknowledged that Metro had too many faulty escalators. Asked by board member Jim Graham if he were surprised by the number of problems uncovered, Sarles said, "We shouldn't have a number like that."

Kubicek told the board that Metro is trying to hire more supervisors and is increasing technician training.

"These are basically mechanical problems," board member Mortimer L. Downey said. "We shouldn't have to get an exorcist in."

Turning to a recent mishap of another variety, Metro officials briefed the board on an incident Wednesday in which a street construction crew using jackhammers penetrated the dome of Farragut North Station, causing a chunk of concrete and other material to fall near a bench on the platform.

Kubicek said that Metro had held meetings with the District Department of Transportation about the construction that included drawings of the area, but that a subcontractor dug too deep.

The construction work is on hold. When it resumes, Metro will have personnel on site full-time to monitor the project, Kubicek said. He said there was some monitoring already, but not around the clock. Metro will be "watching every inch of this work," he said.

On another topic of rider interest, Sarles appealed to lawmakers in a letter this week to extend the $230 transit commuter tax benefit that is scheduled to expire Dec. 31.

On Jan. 1, the benefit will be cut from $230 to $120 a month, which could cost commuters as much as $1,300 a year, Sarles said.

Currently, 285,000 employees in the Washington region receive transit benefits. And at least 90,000 of these Metro commuters receive more than $120 per month, according to Metro.

"During these tough economic times, a loss of transit benefits could cause a hardship for many area commuters, forcing them to drive to work, which in turn will add to the region's congested roadways," Metro said in a statement. The agency estimated it will lose 1.3 million to 3.78 million trips on its system, and potentially $5 million to $10 million in revenue.

In addition, beginning Jan. 1, transit and parking benefits must be separated in accordance with an Internal Revenue Service reading of the law, and Metro has begun notifying employers about the change.

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