A quietly gliding escalator flows smoothly up from the Gallery Place station of Washington's grand new subway system, depositing riders within steps of stores, banks, the main library and the National Portrait Gallery.

To wheel chair-bond Timothy Flannigan, 26, the mechanism serves only as a reminder that persons like him were overlooked by the system's designers.

Under a scorching sun one day last week, Flannigan jolted and tugged his chair down a two-block stretch of G Street NW to demonstrate what he and other critics consider the hard ship of using Metro by anyone who is not able-bodied.

Flannigan had exited the tunnel two blocks from the convenient escalator, located at 9th and G Streets, by an elevator that was installed at 7th Street only after protests by the handicapped triggered a court order.

In 1972, after nearly a decade of planning for the subway, U.S. District judge William B. Jones ruled that access to trains must be provided for elderly, disabled and other persons who cannot use escalators.

The decision mandated elevators at each of Metro's 82 stops. But attorneys for the suing handicapped groups are still fighting for a judgment that the facilities provide elevator users access substantially equal to that available by escalator.

Attorney James A. Dobkin, who represents the handicapped groups, has contended in court that elevator users at Gallery Place have to go as much as one-third of a mile farther than able-bodied persons to reach points near that station. Flannigan, who is afflicted with cerebral palsy, was attempting to illustrate that point.

Before he began the above-ground haul to his destination, the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, Flannigan had taken a circuitous and disjointed subterranean route to the 7th Street elevator.

Departing an east bound train on the subway's Red Line, he rolled himself about half a block to the underground intersection of 7th and G Streets, then turned into a dimly lit and empty section of tunnel that is still under construction. Another block's distance brought Flannigan close to 8th Street on G, underground, where he took an elevator to the mezzanine level.

"The library's that way, but we're going this way," he said, going back toward 7th Street on the mezzanine level to take another elevator to the surface. He exited two blocks from the library.

During an afternoon of subway rides and long distance travel between elevators, in comparison to escalator locations, Flannigan repeatedly pointed out what he considers evidence that "they (transit officials) don't want us."

Ralf Hotchkiss, of the Center for the Rights of the Handicapped, said he knows of many occasions when elevators did not respond, and disabled persons had to ask passersby to summon attendants.

Flannigan also noted the absence of any reserved space on subway cars for wheelchairs, except near doorways. Another sore point is the lack of access for the handicapped to farecard machines, a situation that causes long delays while attendants punch them in and out of the automated system.

At L'Enfant Plaza, where subway riders will exit directly into the shopping arcade when an entrance is opened there next fall. Flannigan traveled about four blocks to reach the mall area from the single elevator now planned for the site.

After going one block uphill, with assistance, to 7th and D Streets SW. Flannigan traveled a part of the way in the street because there were no curb cuts to allow his wheelchair onto the sidewalk. On another leg of the same trip, Flannigan held up traffic in an underground garage to get to an elevator beneath the shopping plaza.

"There is still time to do something" about that location for the handicapped, contends Richard Heddinger, one of the principal plaintiffs in the access suit, because "the mail entrance won't open until October."

Metro officials have estimated that it will ultimately cost $60 million to add the elevators to the $4.6 billion system. Metro attorneys are now seeking removal of the still unresolved issues from the court's jurisdiction.

The transit agency believes the matters should be determined by the federal Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, or some other agency, according to William A. Hutchins, attorney for Metro.

Dobkin said such a decision, which Metro is seeking in a motion before Judge Jones, creates a "catch-22" for the handicapped plaintiffs because the compliance board already has removed itself from jurisdiction in the case, saying the matter is pending in court.