For the first time in more than a decade, Metro has a new escalator that isn’t in a new station.
The pristine escalator unveiled during Monday morning’s rush hour at the Foggy Bottom station is part of a $6 million project to replace three at the entrance, install a staircase and build a canopy to cover it all.
It’s part of Metro’s overall effort to solve one of the most vexing problems for riders: moving staircases that don’t move. On Monday morning, 110 of Metro’s 588 escalators were out of service.
Metro plans to spend $150 million during the next five to six years to rehab and replace 140 escalators. But after years of deferred maintenance, it’s not nearly enough. At least nine new escalators will be installed — three at Foggy Bottom, three at Dupont Circle’s south entrance and three at the Pentagon. The rest will undergo a major rehab.
During Monday morning’s rush, a Metro employee stood near the new escalator, directing people to it. At lunchtime, few commuters noticed it because there was a tall black wall beside it. All three escalators at Foggy Bottom were working Monday afternoon — a rarity.
“We didn’t even notice there was a new one, but we’ve certainly walked up and down plenty of broken ones,” said Laura Bradford, 40, who, with her four children, was visiting the city from Kuala Lumpur. Her kids ticked off eight broken escalators they had climbed in the past week.
Many of Metro’s escalators are old and haven’t been well maintained. To complicate matters, there were once seven manufacturers of Metro escalators, but four have gone out of business.
“They’re just old,” Deputy General Manager Dave Kubicek said. “Vendors couldn’t service what was in there. No matter what we did, we weren’t going to be able to service them to the level of expectations.”
Metro used to contract out its service and maintenance of escalators and elevators but brought these back in house in spring 2010. If parts can’t be found on the market, Metro makes them or takes ones from elevators no longer in service.
The escalators at Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom are special because they were custom-built, Kubicek said. That makes finding replacement parts even tougher.
Metro officials said they are now buying off-the-shelf escalator technology, which will make it easier to find parts and to service the machines. More escalators could be replaced with new systems based on their condition and cost. Because so many escalators are exposed to the weather, Metro is also making sure the new units are more durable.
“We’re buying escalators now that are of the same standards for doing work in the mining industry or millwork,” Kubicek said.
“We need escalators and parts that are used to being exposed to the elements and the extreme heat and extreme cold,” he said. “The steps, the gears, the motor drives, controls and electronics all have to be up to standards that can undergo extreme conditions, humidity and moisture.”
The new escalator at Foggy Bottom is made by Switzerland-based Schindler Group, one of the largest manufacturers of escalators and elevators in the world.
To test the new escalator’s durability and safety, Metro put 15,000 pounds of lead plates — the equivalent of the weight of about 100 people — on the treads and tested whether the steps still went up and down and whether the brakes worked.
“They did,” Kubicek reported.
Foggy Bottom won out as a location for new escalators after Metro officials ranked the system’s most problematic ones. The station was near the top because it has only one entrance. Riders must use either the three escalators or a single elevator to access the station. During rush periods, commuters frequently form long lines trying to get out of and into the station.
Last summer, Metro’s perennial escalator problems prompted General Manager Richard Sarles to bring in Vertical Transportation Excellence to audit the system. The assessment found widespread maintenance problems with the units. In the fall, six people were injured at L’Enfant Plaza when the brakes failed on an escalator. Emergency inspections uncovered dozens of Metro escalator units with brakes that needed to be replaced.
Metro has more escalators than any other transit system in the United States. Worldwide, only Moscow has more — more than 643 — serviced by a dedicated maintenance staff of 3,000 employees, said Greg Hull, director of security and operations at the American Public Transportation Association. Metro’s escalator and elevator department is much smaller: 147 mechanics; 49 people who work in management, inspections and support; and 12 maintenance supervisors.
“You really need to have the capital investment over the years to upkeep these systems,” Hull said. “We haven’t seen that level of capital investment for Metro. You have a lot of competing needs from tracks to rail cars to escalators. So at this stage, to go in and do a complete overhaul of the escalators becomes very unrealistic.”
Metro has beefed up its staff to fix escalators and elevators and created a senior management position to oversee the work. Its board of directors has expressed concern about Metro’s inability to make the escalators more reliable.
“The thing that irritates riders the most is the unpredictability of escalators,” said Tom Downs, a Metro board member from the District. “We let the maintenance go. Equipment should have been replaced, and now it’s gotten bad.”
One question on riders’ minds Monday was how long the new escalators will last.
“They are machines,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “If your shoelaces are untied, or it gets jammed with a flip-flop, they’ll stop. I won’t guarantee 100 percent they’ll always work. But they’ll be more reliable than the 30-year-old ones.”
That gives riders such as Roderick Gaither of Southeast Washington hope.
The 21-year-old, who works at George Washington University, declared the new Foggy Bottom escalator a “good, smooth, comfortable” ride.
“They need more of these,” he said.