Replacing the Bethesda escalators could take two and a half years. (WMATA photo)

Metro is about to launch one of the most challenging rounds in the program to improve what it calls its “vertical transportation” — the escalators. The specific target is the bank of three long escalators between the mezzanine and street at the Red Line’s Bethesda station.

This is not a rehab. This is a replacement, something like what Metro did with the escalators on the south side of the Dupont Circle station. But this effort, scheduled to begin in early October, may be even more complicated than the one at Dupont.

In letters, as well as in comments during my online chat Monday, riders have expressed concerns about a project that could take 2 ½ years to complete. Comments focused on Metro’s announcement that the station might temporarily close to avoid overcrowding on the station platform.

It’s easy to understand why that possibility provokes concerns. The location on Wisconsin Avenue is about a mile from the Medical Center station to the north and about two miles from Friendship Heights to the south. People who arrive at the Bethesda station entrance and find it temporarily closed are likely to look for alternatives other than walking to the next station. People already aboard a Red Line train that has to bypass the Bethesda stop won’t be inclined to walk back to their original destination.

Metro says that in such emergencies it will set up free shuttle bus service between Bethesda and Medical Center. But setting up these bus bridges in emergencies takes time, especially at rush hours, when the buses get stuck in traffic. The Bethesda station is an important hub for Metrobuses and Montgomery County Ride On buses, but even the bus lines with the most frequent service can’t match the speed and capacity of the Red Line.

Several people asked how the station platform could get overcrowded during the project if one of the three escalators is shut down for replacement during each phase of the project. But I think riders who have experienced platform crowding at rush hours can picture the circumstances that would trigger this: A disabled train has to unload all its passengers; a problem with the tracks or a train requires other trains to share a track around the problem; a train has to stop because of a sick passenger; there’s a power problem; or a signal problem. These problems are all too common, and within minutes of any such occurrence, the platforms get crowded.

That not only would create a potentially dangerous situation on the Bethesda platform during repairs, but would also make it more difficult to evacuate the station, since one of the three escalators would be unusable.

Given the need for caution, Metro says it will have transit police and rail supervisors at the station to monitor conditions. Riders will see a monitoring station on the mezzanine level similar to the one that operated at Dupont Circle during those escalator replacements. Repair crews will be on standby should problems develop with the two escalators still in service, an event that’s almost inevitable during the lengthy rebuilding.

The other main question riders ask is how it could possibly take so long to replace three escalators. Metro asks us to consider these factors:

  • The Bethesda escalators are the second-longest in the Western Hemisphere, second only to those at the Wheaton station, on the other side of the Red Line.
  • They have to be removed and replaced one by one. (Biggest difference between Bethesda and Dupont Circle is that Dupont Circle had another bank of escalators on the opposite side of the station.) That’s part of the reason this job is more complicated than the original installation of the escalator bank more than three decades ago.
  • For the safety of riders using the open escalators, the work will be done only during the overnight hours when Metrorail is closed. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the project involves more than 100 crane moves of multi-ton escalator parts, an activity riders won’t want to be standing near.
  • Closing the station completely would allow the workers to complete the project in less than 2 ½ years, but such a shutdown would last an unacceptably long time for the riders disrupted by it.

See also
Dupont Circle Metro repairs require many layers of safety