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Escalator Troubles Rooted In Metro's Original Design

By Alice Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 1998; Page B01

Metro's current escalator problems began 30 years ago, when engineers decided to dig subway tunnels deep underground, avoiding mushy, unstable soil closer to the surface. Long, moving stairways would link the deep stations with the street.

The engineers' motto was "Deeper Is Cheaper." Not only would it have been more expensive to dig tunnels through the shifting rubble, but constructing stations in it would have been more difficult.

And so designers put Metro stations such as Rosslyn and Dupont Circle as deep underground as a skyscraper is high, and put their faith in the most massive escalator system of any subway in the world. Moving staircases got preference over regular stairs and elevators because, engineers figured, they would transport riders to and from trains more easily and evenly.

But in recent years, the design has blown up in Metro's face.

As the Metro system has aged and the need for maintenance has increased, escalators have meant headache after headache for the subway system, which carries 275,000 riders a day.

An understaffed band of mechanics struggles to maintain increasingly sophisticated equipment as the public complaints about idle stairways rise. Metro is under increasing pressure to install more safety devices on its 543 escalators, including electronic sensors that automatically shut down the stairs when an object becomes lodged in them.

Hundreds of passenger injuries and five deaths on escalators -- including that of a Palmer Park woman who was strangled last week when her clothing got caught in a staircase at the Mount Vernon Square-UDC station -- have created a public relations problem for Metro.

"It's like fighting a nine-front war," said Metro board member Kirk Wineland, of Prince George's County. "You've got mechanical problems, the [design] history. . . . But we have the escalators, we chose to have the escalators, and we have to make this thing work."

Metro General Manager Richard A. White told board members this week that having many stations hundreds of feet underground "may sound cool, but it does present challenges. Particularly as the system ages."

Metro officials are reluctant to take out escalators altogether -- "We don't want anyone to have to walk," said board member Carlton R. Sickles, of Montgomery County. But Sickles and some others on the 12-member regional panel want to revisit Metro's 1992 decision to create its own division of escalator mechanics, rather than have outside contractors maintain the machinery.

Transit officials created the division because they wanted more control over escalator maintenance. But with similar jobs in the private sector paying higher wages, Metro has had a difficult time filling all of its 95 mechanic jobs. There now are 86 mechanics; efforts to hire more through a trainee program have had little success.

Meanwhile, Metro investigators again are looking at allegations that some escalator maintenance records have been falsified, just 18 months after a similar scandal resulted in the firings of five maintenance managers.

"I think we would be better served if we contracted it out, even if it's a little bit more expensive," said board Chairman Cleatus E. Barnett, of Montgomery. "If it's more effective, it would be worth it."

Maintenance headaches continue to plague some of the system's newest and most expensive escalators. Just this week, one of three new $1.3 million escalators at southern entrance to the busy Dupont Circle station broke when a machine arm came off and fell into the drive shaft of its 750-horsepower motor. It could take months to fix the escalator, which was installed 20 months ago and now is open, but idle. If one of the station's two other 170-foot-long escalators has to be shut down, mechanics say they will keep one escalator moving upward, but passengers headed toward the trains will have to walk down.

Many Metro riders complain bitterly about even having to walk down idle staircases, a fairly common sight in subway stations.

"I've had to walk down several times in the last few weeks, and it's an inconvenience. After a day's work, you want to get home as soon as possible," said Tom Juma, 29, a salesman from Gaithersburg who regularly uses the southern entrance to the Dupont Circle station.

"I see all these elderly people, and they have trouble walking down," said Ramadan Shahid, 22, a coffee shop cashier who works near Dupont Circle.

Metro is trying to prevent mishaps on escalators that are in service by encouraging riders to stand still when on the moving staircases. But many riders walk, run or sit on the moving stairs, increasing their risk of injury. Officials say that more than 65 percent of the escalator accidents on Metro are the result of slips and falls on the stairs, which glide up and down at 90 feet per minute.

"It's not like a department store," where most people are content to stand while an escalator takes them up or down, said Fred Goodine, Metro's safety director. "And remember, at the holidays we say, 'Don't drink and drive, take Metro.' Those individuals end up in Metro."

Intoxicated riders are more likely to fall or sit down on steps, officials said. Other riders horse around and can trip and fall, and some adults who ride with children don't hold on to their hands.

Metro is considering whether to spend up to $8 million to outfit all of its escalators with safety switches that might have saved the life of Glenda King Weeks, the woman killed on an escalator last week, as well as a man who died of asphyxiation 18 months ago when his clothing got caught in an escalator at the Navy Yard station.

The switches stop an escalator when pressure is exerted against the comb plates at the top and bottom of the stairs -- often the place where riders' clothing or feet become entangled. Four of the five deaths on Metro escalators since 1985 have involved such plates.

Sixty escalators, including the system's newest staircases, are equipped with the safety device. Metro's plans call for installing nearly 400 more over the next 20 years. Some safety experts are urging the transit agency to do the entire installation now.

It takes about a week to install the sensors on an escalator. Once they are installed, the escalator can be stopped by mistake if someone jumps on a comb plate and triggers the pressure-sensitive sensors. That could provide Metro officials with more frustration.

"We want to be the safest system in the world, but we are so escalator dependent," White said. "Every time we put in more safety devices, we are making the escalator more sensitive [and more likely to stop unnecessarily]. The customer sees the escalator out of service and says, 'Why can't they keep up these escalators?' "

ESCALATOR SAFETY

Sixty of the 543 escalators in Metro stations are equipped with the comb-plate sensor, which automatically stops the moving stairs down if there is an obstruction.

NUMBER OF ESCALATORS WITH SENSOR:

Station

Glenmont 7

Franconia-Springfield 5

Dupont Circle 14

Entrance Escalators Only

Crystal City 3

Potomac Avenue 3

Minnesota Avenue 1

National Airport 4

(North mezzanine)

Brookland-CUA 2

Foggy-Bottom-GWU 3

Stadium-Armory 3

Capitol South 3

Pentagon Station 3

Gallery Place-Chinatown*1 4

Metro Center*2 2

Rhode Island Avenue 3

TOTAL 60

1 New entrance at 7th and F NW only

2 12th and G Street NW only

SOURCE: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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