Metro managers froze plans to release findings of an investigation into chronic problems with escalators and elevators after unionized workers vowed yesterday to fight a key recommendation: replacing Metro mechanics with private labor.
A panel of outside experts, which has been studying Metro's mechanical problems since September, concluded that people are as much to blame as balky equipment and that Metro should remove its mechanics as well as their managers, according to sources familiar with the panel's work. The experts also said Metro's training program for mechanics is a failure, sources said.
Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White was scheduled to present those findings to board members today. But after a two-hour private meeting with 102 unionized mechanics yesterday, during which several angry mechanics yelled at White, he canceled today's briefing.
Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann said White decided to indefinitely postpone the release of the panel's findings because the meeting with union workers went well. "We heard a lot of things that came up today that hadn't come up before," he said. "We thought rushing ahead with a course of action without getting full benefit of input from mechanics was not a good idea."
Union leaders described the meeting as confrontational and said Metro officials postponed action after labor protested the recommendation to get rid of Metro mechanics.
"A lot of people moved here from Philly, Chicago and New York to take these escalator and elevator jobs, and now they're trying to put them out to pasture," said Charles Hicks, president of Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, representing Metro's 102 mechanics.
The union's contract says Metro cannot hire outside labor for union jobs that would result in the layoff, transfer or demotion of a union worker, Hicks said. "We have to fight it," he said. "They cannot disavow [parts of the contract] and expect us to lie down and say this is okay."
Metro managers asked labor leaders to meet privately Dec. 13 to negotiate changes.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who represents the District on the Metro board and has been pressuring Metro management to fix the escalator problem, said he worried that Metro was losing sight of the immediate crisis. "This is all about trying to solve mechanical problems that really distress our consumers," he said. "What we need are solutions that address those problems, and we need them quickly."
Metro has never been able to recruit enough skilled mechanics to work on escalators, and the division is regularly hurt by the departure of experienced mechanics for more lucrative jobs.
Metro has 572 escalators and 219 elevators -- the most of any transit system in the world. A typical passenger must ride at least two escalators to reach a train. Age, exposure to the elements and poor maintenance have combined in the last several years to cause an epidemic of breakdowns of elevators and escalators.
Many of the worst escalators are in the busiest stations and are out of service more often than they are operating. Metro's most notorious escalator, at the Brookland station, broke down 147 times in 365 days beginning July 1, 2001.
Metro's escalator maintenance operation has been troubled for the past decade as Metro created its own maintenance division -- rather than have contractors do the work -- to try to save money and give the agency more control over repair schedules.
Five years ago, the maintenance operation was rocked by scandal when investigators found that inspection records had been falsified. Maintenance work that was supposed to be done was never performed, compounding mechanical problems for years to come. Five Metro managers lost their jobs, and one was demoted.
In 1997, Metro launched a two-year school that teaches recruits to repair and maintain escalators and elevators. The idea was to wean Metro off outside help as it graduated in-house technicians.
But the expert panel found that goal unrealistic and said Metro's training program is inadequate, according to sources familiar with the panel's work.