Metro Opts to Fix, Not Replace Escalators
By Alice Reid
Metro has spent nearly $17 million on new heavy-duty escalators that, it turns out, do not work as well as the older models they replaced, say transit officials who now have abandoned a much-touted replacement program in favor of overhauling existing escalators.
The failure of the three-year-old program that was to have spent about $50 million on heavier, weather-resistant stairs is the latest in a series of escalator frustrations for Metro. The transit agency has struggled to retain enough escalator mechanics, increasing out-of-service times for stairs needing repairs, and has had trouble getting parts for the new stairs, some of whose manufacturers have gone out of business.
Persistent escalator problems have angered many Metro riders, who have complained about having to climb as many as 150 steps at some stations on hot summer days, an inconvenience that adds time to commutes and can be hazardous to the elderly or those with health problems. Now, transit officials are acknowledging that the agency's poor management of replacement contracts is partly to blame.
Metro General Manager Richard A. White said that the agency, which is just three years away from completing its planned 103-mile rail system, "is set up as a building organization, but we're not set up to be a rebuilding organization, which is what we need to be as the system ages."
When transit managers began promoting the program to replace many aging escalators about three years ago, they argued that the new stainless steel models would be tougher. The new escalators, they said, would be better able to withstand the harsh weather that undermines Metro's many unsheltered escalators and be better able to withstand the pounding of the subway system's 275,000 daily riders.
It hasn't worked out that way.
Twenty of the 28 replacement escalators installed during the past three years have not met Metro's standard for reliability, which calls for an escalator to be working at least 90 percent of the time. Several of the new escalators were out of service an average of 50 percent of the time last month, Metro records indicate.
Among the problems: design defects in brake coils, malfunctioning software that monitors mechanical problems and safety features that sometimes shut off the machinery for no reason, Metro officials said.
With 543 escalators in its 76 stations -- including three 230-foot-long models at Wheaton that are the world's longest -- Metro is the most escalator-dependent subway system in the world. Almost any trip requires a ride on at least three, and the absence of moving staircases, especially on sweltering summer days, is one of the first service problems passengers notice.
"These escalators hardly ever work," complained Catherine King, a 24-year-old advertising coordinator, as she emerged Friday from the Metro Center entrance at 12th and G streets NW, where two new moving staircases work about 75 percent of the time. "Actually they seem to work only a few days a week, and it's kind of frustrating."
Metro managers say that they have heard such complaints from riders and vow that the agency's decision to overhaul escalators, rather than invest in new, less reliable ones, is a reflection of that.
"I can't afford to make a major investment in escalators and then have problems at Metro Center," said White, who has emphasized passenger convenience during his two years as general manager.
Noting that Metro is about to begin receiving an additional $80 million to $100 million a year from local governments to help keep the 22-year-old subway system in good condition, White and Metro board Chairman Cleatus E. Barnett said the agency would have to improve its oversight of maintenance contracts.
"I've observed that Metro can absorb just about any sum available to them. I think the board will have to carefully examine every proposed program," said Barnett, who represents Montgomery County on the board. "After that, the board has to rely on management."
White said he is trying to develop a cadre of managers to scrutinize projects such as escalator overhaul and replacement just as closely as engineers now look at the building of new rail cars.
That way, White said, problems could be spotted and dealt with before they became daily headaches for passengers.
Meanwhile, Metro is withholding nearly $1 million from the contractor that built eight of the troubled new escalators.
As part of the escalator-replacement program, Metro has replaced moving stairs at 10 of the system's busiest stations, including a $5 million project to put three 150-foot-long models in the south entrance to the Dupont Circle station. But transit officials now say that refurbishing existing escalators will not only save money but also could produce more reliable service.
"We can get more bang for the buck that way," said Metro operations chief Charles Thomas. "The cost of an overhaul is about half that of a replacement."
The difficulties with the new escalators come on top of other problems in Metro's escalator-maintenance operation, which has been troubled since the agency created its own maintenance division -- rather than have contractors do the work -- to try to save money and give it more control over repair schedules.
Last year, the maintenance operation was rocked by scandal when investigators found that inspection records had been falsified. Five managers lost their jobs and one was demoted.
Metro never has been able to recruit enough skilled mechanics to work on escalators, and the division of about 75 was hit hard this year by the departure of 10 experienced mechanics for more lucrative jobs in the booming private sector.
An apprentice program for about two dozen trainees has gotten off to a bumpy start. Community colleges, both local and in neighboring states, have not yielded any recruits, Metro officials say.
That's a problem throughout the industry, escalator specialists say.
"We're not getting the kids into the trade we used to," said Mike Barbee, whose company is installing new escalators on the Green Line. "And they're not staying."
The average age of those in Metro's apprentice program is about 30, officials say, and many of the participants have worked either in escalator manufacturing or have been mechanics' helpers.
"I came over here for the long-term prospects," said Vaughn Jones, 30, who was a mechanic's helper and left the private sector to enroll in Metro's apprentice program. "The economy rises and it drops. With Metro, there's stability."
Jones and seven other trainees attend a class on Thursday nights, but so far Metro has not found a licensed escalator mechanic to teach the group. Instead, a more general mechanic was guiding the trainees.
Metro, which used to have one kind of escalator in its stations, now has stairs from a half-dozen manufacturers. That complicates the task of stocking parts and keeping workers current on the different kinds of equipment. Because some of the original manufacturers have gone out of business or have been bought by competitors, some parts are almost impossible to get.
An escalator at the Foggy Bottom station is idle, waiting for a chain to be fabricated in Austria. To get all of the 4,000 replacement steps it needs every year, Metro sometimes has to go as far as England, officials said.
"There are many things that Metro does as good or better than anyone else does. Escalators are not one," said Metro board member Kirk Wineland, of Prince George's County, who heads the agency's operations committee. "We are working on it every day. . . . Unfortunately, I think it's a war with many fronts."
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