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Expect escalator problems to endure

Metro's rocky ride

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TIMELINE: Take a look back at mishaps and tragedies in the system since 2009.

David Lacosse, director of Metro's Office of Elevators and Escalators, discussed the worsening problems of the people-movers with Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson. Interim General Manager Richard Sarles and Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin also reviewed the history and future of the escalator system on WTOP's Ask Metro show. Summary: You're going to be walking for a long time.

Both Lacosse and Sarles said that there always will be some escalators out of service. Lacosse said the goal is to have no more than 7 percent of them out. That's still a lot of escalators in a system with 588. But lately it's been more like 10 percent.

I think the overall numbers and percentages don't capture what a problem this is at particular stations. Compare Metro's list of escalators out of service today with the list of the 10 busiest Metrorail stations.

1) Union Station: No escalators out.
2) Metro Center: Three escalators out.
3) Farragut North: No escalators out.
4) Dupont Circle: Three escalators out.
5) Farragut West: Two escalators out.
6) L'Enfant Plaza: Four escalators out.
7) Gallery Place: Five escalators out.
8) Foggy Bottom: One escalator out.
9) McPherson Square: No escalators out.
10) Pentagon City: One escalator out.

These are some of the other stations that, according to Metro's list, have multiple escalators out today.

Bethesda: Three escalators out, including the only two that connect the platform and the mezzanine.
Cheverly: Four escalators between platform and mezzanine are out.
Federal Center SW: Two escalators between platform and mezzanine are out.
Federal Triangle: Two escalators between platform and mezzanine are out.
Judiciary Square:
Three escalators are out.
Pentagon: Three escalators are out.
Tenleytown: Five escalators are out.
Van Ness: Four escalators are out.

All that's just a one-day snapshot from Metro's report to riders. There are days when the problems seem out of control at particular stations, as was the case at Dupont Circle last week. And at many stations, such as Bethesda, the problems of out-of-service escalators continue for months.

The problem from the riders' point of view is partly that the escalators break down so frequently. But it's also partly that it takes Metro so long to fix them that riders endure the same choke-points for months. No one is telling us that either problem is going away.

We do have the one ray of hope that the consultant brought in by Sarles will spot something that could provide relief, but the consultant could just as well say the only solution is more money for Metro, a solution that seems unlikely.

Rather, the repairs themselves seem likely to provide significant disruption over the coming year. For example, Sarles talked about the scheduled repairs coming to the escalators at the 19th Street NW entrance to Dupont Circle. Those escalators are problem-plagued and need this major fix. But Sarles noted that this means a major overhaul lasting a year. Each escalator will be out of service for three or four months. When that one is fixed, the mechanics will move onto the next one, and take it out of service for three or four months. "This is what you have to do when you have a system that is 35 years old," Sarles said.

Sarles also addressed these issues on the WTOP show:

Why so many for so long? "Everyone expects every escalator to operate every day and that just cannot happen. Unlike trains or buses, where when you need to maintain or overhaul them you put them in the yard or a shop or in a plant to do that, escalators don't move anywhere. So you have to take some out of service every day to overhaul them. And when you do an extensive overhaul, which is the only way to keep them in a state of good repair, it's going to take on the average three or four months to do that extensive overhaul.

"So people will always see escalators out of service on Metro. In addition to that you have scheduled maintenance."

Can't the fix be made after hours? "Once you take an escalator out for overhaul, you're taking parts out. ... So once you've taken it out of service, you're out of service till the overhaul is complete."

Why so many breakdowns? "Escalators have more and more safety devices on them. ... In addition to that, we do have an issue of these escalators [being] old. They have not been kept in a state of good repair. We're behind the curve on that. We have to catch up."

Benjamin, the board chairman, discussed the problem in light of Metro's design.Planners decided that it would be cheaper to put the tunnels and stations deep underground. "You have to provide some way for people to get back up again," Benjamin said. That created a transit system more dependent on escalators than any other in the Western Hemisphere.

"You may take four escalators on a trip, maybe more," Benjamin said. That's at least eight a day on a round trip. If 10 percent are out because they broke or are being maintained or because there's a safety issue, or they're turned off to serve as staircases, "the odds are pretty good you're going to see one out. That's just part of what the system is and the way it was designed."

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By Robert Thomson  | July 21, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
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You continue to ignore the fact that when Metro reports one or two escalators out of service, the true number is likely to be three or four. Please stop this slavish worship of Metro's own statistics and learn the truth: Metro Lies.

Posted by: jiji1 | July 21, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

It is time to call for the ouster of DAVID LACOSSE, who is in charge of the escalators & elevators in the Metro system. This guy refuses to even grant interviews or talk to the press. Not only that but they need to hire outside consultants to address the problem. Meaning this guy is nothing more than a worthless malcontent. Remember, we are paying extra money for this guys exhorbitant salary. A salary he is paid for doing NOTHING!

Posted by: jrutter21 | July 21, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

"Rather, the repairs themselves seem likely to provide significant disruption over the coming year. For example, Sarles talked about the scheduled repairs coming to the escalators at the 19th Street NW entrance to Dupont Circle. Those escalators are problem-plagued and need this major fix. But Sarles noted that this means a major overhaul lasting a year. Each escalator will be out of service for three or four months. When that one is fixed, the mechanics will move onto the next one, and take it out of service for three or four months"

If it took MONTHS to build a god damn escalator a simple building would take YEARS to build! Thats RIDICULOUS!!!!!

Posted by: jrutter21 | July 21, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Sarles: "Everyone expects every escalator to operate every day and that just cannot happen."

Wow. Customers are only asking to be able to safely get in and out of Metro stations and he's attempting to spin it as an unreasonable demand that Metro operate in a perfect state? Anyone who has ridden Metro knows that's impossible. We just want a safe and orderly experience during our commute and an explanation from Mr. Sarles that doesn't condescend in the meantime.

Posted by: Louise9 | July 21, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Folks it's all about money. Period.

They could work on an escalator 24x7 and do it in one month; but that costs more money.

They could do preventive maintenance more frequently and at night. But that costs more money.

They could do a complete replacement of the old equipment with new equipment. But that costs money.

Stop whining. The Fed, VA, MD, and DC are not going to pump more money into this system. Like everything else, it's a matter of priorities and at the moment Metro is not a priority. If you want that changed, then go vote and elect people who believe in Metro.

I neither ride nor support Metro. I could care less what they do or don't do. But stop whining. It's just about money.

Posted by: rtkx7hwed | July 21, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

First issue: Metro, which has now brought all elevator and escalator "maintenance" (and I use that term loosely) in-house, is incompetent.

Second issue: The escalators were not designed for the functions and conditions in which they are being used. So, "rehabilitation" to that same incorrect "design" specification is not effective.

Whoever thought that taking some of mass transit's longest escalators, exposing them to the elements, and running them constantly was a great plan was obviously in need of some "consulting services." Good thing the new "consultant" is sure to take all of these things into account, and then recommend fixes that Metro can't or won't implement. They won't listen to the NTSB about 1000 series cars being potential deathtraps, you think they will listen to an escalator "consultant"? It's just more of the same from the most incompetent transit agency on the planet.

What will likely finally bring about change is a tragedy caused by these perpetual escalator outages. An evacuation of a station that doesn't happen because they're broken, or people stampeding and trampling each other to death in the process of attempting to evac up broken escalators, or worse.

And even then, Metro will again hide behind the shield of "sovereign immunity" and not accept the blame.

Update: Add to the list: Fire David Lacosse - obviously he has no business being the director of anything, much less the escalators and elevators.

Posted by: nocando | July 21, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

WMATA's escalator management is a failure. I know that Metro has more and longer escalators than anyone in the hemisphere; a line we hear all the time. So why do they manage them like an old shopping mall where "Bob" the mechanic tries to keep them going for another day? Escalators are too important to Metro's performance for wimpy approaches. Where's the innovation? Where's the leadership? Having 7% of escalators out of service ALL THE TIME is not an adequate goal.

Escalators take 3-4 months to rehabilitate? Yes, if you only work on them a couple hours a day. Yes, if you completely disassemble them and do all the work in the station. Yes, if you are keeping the same-proven-to-be-inadequate-to-the-task design.

Where's the innovative modular escalator design where most of the work is done 24-7 in a warehouse somewhere. Where's the tiger team of 20 onsite repairmen split over three shifts that get the in-station work done in a days, not months? If you quickly fix the escalators, we won't mind you being in the way for a couple days.

The current approach of hiring more repairmen but doing things the same way is a failure and is not a plan to achieve the goal of near-zero downtime 10 year from now when ridership will be higher!

Lead, follow or get out of the way. If the current management says that better performance is not possible (which includes pretty much everyone quoted in these articles) then they need to be removed from their positions and replaced with a new team.

By the way, David Lacosse should work to remove the following article from the Internet because it describes his 10 year modernization program (begun in 2000!) that was solving all of these problems. How's that working out? It's not, David. Get out of the way.

Posted by: Habco07122010 | July 21, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Yes, doing a better job will cost more money if we use the same people doing the same tasks in the same way. You are correct.

We either need a LOT more money or we need new people doing things in a new way.

Since you don't ride Metro, I can understand why you don't see with your own eyes how badly these people are doing their jobs. Of course, most of the WMATA board doesn't ride Metro either (free parking!) so they think things are going great.

Posted by: Habco07122010 | July 21, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

"And when you do an extensive overhaul, which is the only way to keep them in a state of good repair, it's going to take on the average three or four months to do that extensive overhaul"
If it takes that long for you to do a major overhaul, you need to fire all your technicians. I run the preventive maintenance depsrtment at a large area university. We have elscelators all over the place. On average it takes two to three technicians about 2 weeks to fully dismanlte, clean, refurbish (or replace) major components and reassemble. This is working regular only 8 hour days.

What are the Metro techs actually doing out there?

Posted by: schnauzer2 | July 21, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad that Metro dollars are going towards plants to go into news articles and give supportive feedback to spin their failures. Glad to know thats where my fare increase went.

Posted by: jrutter21 | July 21, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

There has to be another escalator "design" or "model" that is more modern and efficient. Is there?

Posted by: TooManyPeople | July 21, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

I really just wish they'd turn the mezzanine-to-platform escalators into stairs. Maintenance costs & downtime will decrease dramatically.

Posted by: VelocityAtrocity | July 21, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I lived in Moscow for two years, riding the Metro every day - and never once did I encounter an escalator out of service. The system was designed and built in the 1950's; carries more riders than New York and London combined; operates in -20 degree snow for half the year; and they move twice as fast as in Washington. Washington should hire the Soviets to fix the escalators.

Posted by: newrussianguy | July 22, 2010 6:48 AM | Report abuse

The suggestion that Metro should hire outside contractors is a good one. What if Metro did hire outside contractors to fix, refurbish, and replace broken and old escalators and elevators? Maybe Metro could find alternate forms of payment. Maybe they could grant contractors generous advertising space. The contractors that fixed the long-out-of-service machines would get attention, appreciation, and perhaps a boost in business from those who saw the ads in the metro. Maybe, if this is a good idea, it could be used on the trains, tracks, and card readers that also have trouble. I would prefer Metro employees and directors do everything. But right now it feels like they are doing almost nothing. We need to feel like they care. With no apologies, explanations, or any sign of sympathy, why should Metro riders care about the budget, labor, or red tape Metro deals with? Will Metro even read this, or give it any consideration at all?

Also, maybe Metro could replace ailment-prone equipment with virtually maintenance-free stairs. The smaller escalators could be replaced with wider, easier to share steps. Escalators that break down are narrow and an aggravating, time-eating bottle neck. (Especially when metro riders believe that they have already PAID for expensive, working escalators, not narrow, out-of-order steps.) Wider steps would allow two way traffic, and frankly, force more riders to get the exercise. The money saved on making fewer repairs could be invested in the larger escalators and in more, bigger, faster, and generally better elevators for those who truly do need the help getting in and out of the metro.

Posted by: ModelCitizen | July 22, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Metro's escalator problem is a serious safety hazard. Do people have to get injured or die for this to become patently obvious?

This article is just a snapshot of the problem. Why didn't the reporter asked how much time is it taking Metro to fix an escalator down for servicing? Why wasn't Metro asked what is Metro's policy for prioritizing repair work? Give the report and Metro a grade "D" for quality.

The head of his Metro agency should be fired. No ifs ands or buts. This is a travesty. The replacement should take the safety of riders seriously. It is a DISASTER waiting to happen.

Hello? Is anyone listening!!

Posted by: IggyD | July 27, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

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