Metro escalator problems growing, report finds

By March, Metro plans to overhaul four escalators at Gallery Place. Chris Remsburg, left, and Chad Livingston have worked on one.
By March, Metro plans to overhaul four escalators at Gallery Place. Chris Remsburg, left, and Chad Livingston have worked on one. (Melina Mara)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Metro's 588 escalators are breaking down with greater frequency - once every seven to eight days, on average - and repairs are taking longer than in past years, according to newly released performance data aimed at helping the agency tackle the problem.

The data also reveal that the majority of Metro escalator outages - 68 percent - are caused by breakdowns, unscheduled repairs and incidents requiring shutdowns, rather than scheduled maintenance.

In fact, Metro is falling far short of its own standards, complying with its maintenance schedule only 40 percent of the time.

"This measure should be going up," says the 18-page Escalator Performance Report, which is scheduled to be presented to Metro's board of directors at a committee meeting Thursday.

The report represents the latest effort of Metro chief Richard Sarles to address the chronic malfunction of escalators and elevators in the Metrorail system, which has more of them than any other transit system in North America.

The findings show the challenges Metro faces in attempting to reverse the deterioration of its escalators, which average 28 years old and were installed between 1974 and 2004.

The trends over the past three years are not encouraging, the report shows. Unscheduled escalator outages are taking longer to repair, requiring about 14 hours while the Metro system was open in 2010, compared with 10 hours in 2008 and 13 hours in 2009.

The report points to staffing levels and the lack of maintenance as key factors behind the outages. Metro's escalators also come from multiple manufacturers, some of which are no longer in business, which makes it difficult to obtain spare parts. The report shows that newer escalators do not always perform better; in fact, the newest units, on average, failed more often than the oldest ones.

Last spring, Sarles brought in a consulting firm to conduct an independent audit of escalators and elevators, and the resulting report revealed serious problems with escalator brake pads and overall maintenance. It also called for refresher training on escalator maintenance and quality control for Metro employees.

That report, coupled with an Oct. 30 incident at L'Enfant Plaza Station, in which six people were hurt when an escalator with worn and oily brake pads failed, led Sarles to order a systemwide inspection. Dozens of escalator brakes were found to have problems, and multiple emergency repairs were made.

Meanwhile, Sarles asked the consultant, Vertical Transportation Excellence, to implement maintenance recommendations and plans to hire more supervisors.

In January, Metro added more information about escalator and elevator outages to its Web site, in an effort to keep customers better informed. The Web site now lists the reasons why specific escalators and elevators are out of service. On Tuesday, 76 of the 588 escalators were under repair, as were seven of the 237 elevators. Metro continues to fall short of its goal of having 93 percent of escalators available at all times: Between July and December, the figure remained below 90 percent.

Metro also recently brought in a new senior manager to oversee the escalator and elevator department. Rodrigo Bitar, a veteran engineer, was named general superintendent of elevator and escalator programs late last year. The longtime escalator and elevator office chief, David Lacosse, now reports to Bitar.

Some of Bitar's priorities will be to supervise the implementation of Vertical Transportation Excellence's recommendations and speed up some escalator repairs and overhauls.

In addition to improving escalator and elevator maintenance, Metro is speeding up a program to overhaul its aging escalators. By the end of this month, Metro plans to have overhauled eight escalators at busy Red Line stations - four at Gallery Place-Chinatown and four at Union Station.

All parts of the escalators, - including steps, handrails, safety devices and electrical units - will be replaced, refurbished or removed.

Last month, Metro began a year-long project to replace the three escalators between the street and mezzanine at Foggy Bottom Station. The agency also plans to add a staircase and install a canopy to protect the escalators from bad weather.

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