Expect escalator problems to endure
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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