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In Moscow, escalators to carry the city

By Will Englund
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 10:03 PM

IN MOSCOW -- The trains get to stop every few minutes. Not the escalators. In a city tied together by its phenomenally jampacked subway system, the escalators here just keep on rolling - morning, noon and half the night.

There are 643 of them in the Moscow Metro. This is a system, like Washington's, with deep, deep stations, but, unlike in Washington, passengers here are rarely left to hoof it on their own up or down immobilized stairways. It wouldn't work, because people don't walk fast enough. At rush hours fully loaded trains run on 90-second intervals; it's up to the escalators to get the passengers delivered, but just as important, to whisk them away again before they start bunching up and spilling off the platforms and onto the tracks.

"In my opinion, they're much more important than trains," says Sergei Likhachev. He would say that, though. He's the chief mechanic of the Moscow Metro's escalator division.

The escalators under his purview carry almost as many people as the trains do - because all but the outermost stations have them - and that can be up to 9 million in a single day. Down. And then up again. Or 2.5 billion a year.

If a train breaks down, he points out reasonably enough, it gets sent to the yard for repairs. No such luck with an escalator. It has to be fixed in place, and it has to be fixed fast.

Without escalators in working order, the Moscow subway system would seize up, and without its subway system, Moscow itself would cease to function. In fact, all of Russia would feel the shock waves, because some unknowably huge number of subway passengers consists of people trying to transfer between train stations or airports in the capital city, the hub of the nation, so they can get from Novosibirsk to Novorossiysk, or from Velikiye Luki to Ust Usinsk, or from Omsk to Tomsk.

In fact Muscovites like to say they never use the Metro anymore, preferring instead to while away the hours topside in endless, epic traffic jams.

Maybe so. But whoever those passengers are, there's an endless river of them, and they ride more than 40 miles' worth of escalators. That's almost a quarter of the length of the rail lines themselves.

How do you keep them running?

"People," Likhachev says. His division has a staff of 3,000. It has workers posted at every station during operating hours. It has a 20-member emergency rapid response team. It also has its own factory churning out spare parts, "so we don't have to rely on suppliers."

This is not to say that all escalators work all the time, because they don't. But let's be clear about one thing: "We do not have escalators out of order," Likhachev says. "We close some for repair."

Likhachev, who is 50, studied in an auto institute, and worked as a technical translator until that job disappeared, and then he tried his hand at car mechanics. But 13 years ago he landed a job with the Metro, on the lowest step of the escalator division, and now he has risen to the top as swiftly as his charges carry their passengers from the depths below to the street above.

Moscow's escalators, Likhachev says, are in a class by themselves. They're deep - the deepest are at Park Pobedy station, 717 steps long, in one big loop, carrying passengers 230 vertical feet from the platform to a mezzanine, in a trip that takes precisely three minutes. And they're strong, able to carry 60 tons of people plus their baggage and groceries and purses and umbrellas and gloves.

There's the rub. Someone, somewhere, is always dropping something where it will jam in the steps, or trying to wedge something on that's too big and heavy, or just doing something stupid.

"Unfortunately, the mentality of our passengers leaves much to be desired," Likhachev says, matter-of-factly.

And that's where the escalator watchers come in. This is a corps of uniformed employees - they're not even in the escalator division - who sit in glass booths at the bottom of all major escalator banks and keep an eye out for trouble. A stern eye. They're almost all women, they're called dezhurnayas, and they're renowned for their heart-stopping scowls. A sign on each booth says, "Information is not provided." Do not talk to any of them.

Unless you find Ksenia Nevezhina. She's 18, and she just started work this summer, at the Belorusskaya station. She hasn't had time to get beaten down yet.

She explains that when someone falls, or something gets jammed, her job is first to announce quickly that the escalator will be stopping and then to stop it. Then she instructs passengers to continue walking down or up and summons Likhachev's crew if a fix is in order.

"I like it. It's a quiet job," she says. In fact, it's hours at a stretch staring at people going up and down. "Sometimes they get angry at me for no reason. I try to ignore them."

She's certainly aware that most of her colleagues, who tend to be considerably past 18 in years, come across as nothing less than ferocious. "Maybe they don't like something about the work," she offers with a cheery smile. "It's the passengers."

About six years ago, Likhachev recalls, a man took off all his clothes on an escalator. But his last bit of clothing got caught in a step and in turn caught what Likhachev refers to as "one of his parts." The dezhurnaya on duty stopped the escalator, and a repair man approached the ensnared passenger with a large knife. Misunderstanding the employee's intentions, the passenger began yelling, "No, don't cut this!"

He didn't. He cut away the tangled clothing instead. Uninjured, the passenger was taken away to a psychiatric hospital. The escalator went back into service.

At the Sportivnaya station, there's a door in one corner with a very small sign on it that says "Museum of the Moscow Metropolitan." Open the door and you'll find a storage area with lockers in it. But on the other side of that is a staircase, with a handrail made out of an old rubber escalator handrail, and if you go up two flights, past the window where dozens of pigeons are taking shelter from the snow, you'll find another door, and the museum.

You won't find anything there about the collapse of an escalator in 1982, which apparently left eight people dead in the crush. The Soviets didn't report anything about it at the time, and the Metro system, which is more than a little suspicious of reporters even today, chooses not to dwell on the accident.

But Konstantin Cherkassky, the museum director, will explain how, overall, Moscow's escalators got to be so good. While he talks, a guide in the next room is showing a class of schoolkids on a field trip around the museum, and they've just gotten to the part about escalators. She wows them with a working scale model of one.

"What are you not supposed to do on the escalator?" she asks them.

"You're not supposed to sit down," comes an answer.

"You're not supposed to throw things."

"Watch your fingers."

"Watch your shoes."

"Correct," she says.

In 1934, Cherkassky says, when work on the system began, the authorities considered buying escalators from the Otis Elevator Co., based in Yonkers, N.Y. "But the machine did not satisfy the technical requirements," he says, so the decision was made to manufacture escalators in Russia especially for the system.

Factories were built in both Moscow and Leningrad. A photo from 1934 shows a political rally at the Moscow plant, with a big sign on the roof: "The best escalator for the best metro in the world."

They're totally different from escalators abroad, he says.

A German historian named Dietmar Neutatz has looked through Soviet archives and tells a somewhat different version of the story in a book he wrote about the Metro. The Soviet idea was to buy one escalator from Otis and then copy it. But Otis executives realized what was going on; they offered to sell one escalator for the price of 12. The Soviets declined, then dragged out negotiations as long as they could in order to find out as much as possible about the Otis escalator's technical specifications. Then they broke off talks and built their own, as close a match as possible. Escalator piracy, it would be called today.

In any case, they're built to last. Cherkassky says they are designed to keep working for 60 years. The oldest one in the system at the moment is at the Baumanskaya station. It has been carrying passengers since Jan. 18, 1944, from the street level down to a platform lined with especially heroic bronze statues of Soviet workers, peasants and soldiers. The steps glide between wooden baseboards. The handrails are cradled in wood moldings. The passengers, it would be safe to say, give no thought to either.

The newest escalators are at Belorusskaya, under Nevezhina's watchful eye. All sleek burnished stainless steel, they began operating just the other day. They gleam in the unusually intense light; much of the rest of the Moscow system seems to have been built under the theory that what you can't see properly, you can't complain about. Here, too, though, the flood of passengers is in constant ebb and flow, up and down, a torrent of people thinking about other things, talking on cellphones, dropping their scarves - hurrying to get somewhere else more hospitable than a bank of subway escalators.

englundw@washpost.com

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