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Biding time at Bethesda escalator

At Bethesda Metrorail station on Tuesday, the peak of the peak surcharge began uneventfully at 4:30 p.m. The peak of the peak that riders were more likely to notice began at 5:12 p.m. That's when the stopped escalator between the platform and mezzanine started to create its peak crowd of waiting riders.

Now, as crowds go, this did not match the Tuesday scene at Foggy Bottom Station, where problems with the fare gates created lengthy delays. The difference is that Bethesda riders have been enduring their bottleneck since the early spring and will continue to experience it through October.

It isn't a mistake, or a glitch in the system, that has knocked out the Bethesda escalator. This is by design. It's part of Metro's long-term rehabilitation plan for the system's aging and problem-plagued escalators.

The repairs at Bethesda show up a flaw in the design of the station and raise questions in the minds of many riders about the design of the repair program. The riders want the escalators fixed, but they don't believe it should take more than half a year to do it.

If you look at the Bethesda situation as a mechanical problem, Metro's approach makes some sense: Start the rehab by tearing up one escalator and turn off the one next to it temporarily so riders can use it as an up or down staircase. When you're done fixing the one escalator, you turn that one into a walker and tear up the other.

But if you look at it as a people-moving problem -- and that's definitely how the riders look at it -- the situation is different. Even though there's an elevator at the far end of the platform, the bank of two escalators is essentially the only way to move a lot of riders to and from the station's mezzanine.

At 5:12 p.m. Tuesday, the Red Line trains from downtown started to arrive rapidly and empty scores of passengers onto the platform. At the same time, a lot of people getting out of work in Bethesda arrived on the mezzanine. They all had to use the escalator as a two-way staircase.

I watched the scene till 5:45 p.m. and tried to calculate how long it took to clear the platform. My watch had it up to four minutes, but then the unloading trains became so frequent that for about 20 minutes, the waiting crowd at the escalator never fully cleared.

This was not a dangerous situation, but it was really annoying. Many of these people were not done with their homeward commute. They needed to catch buses upstairs. It was less annoying than it might have been because people were pretty polite.

Most striking was that people generally stayed to the right when they got on the stopped escalator. Rarely did anyone bolt up the left hand side, into the path of a downward-bound passenger.

Maybe they've all been doing this for so long, they're just used to it. The repairs on one escalator were completed last week. It's now the staircase while the other is torn up and barricaded.

What to an engineer might look like a three or four month cycle of escalator repair, followed by another three or four month cycle of repair, doesn't look like that to these riders. When you're waiting in a crowd on a platform, a busted escalator is a busted escalator. All you know is that you're in this platform crowd most of 2010.

Travel tip
I walked back and forth between the stopped escalator and the elevator. There never was much of a crowd at the elevator. At most, an elevator rider would have waited by the platform door for one trip before boarding. That was definitely faster than walking the escalator at the height of the Tuesday rush hour.

This isn't a solution. If people take me up on this tip, the elevator line will get longer without really easing the problem at the escalator. That's why Metro should be looking at a modified repair program that lessens the continuing impact on riders at some of these crowded stations.

By Robert Thomson  | August 4, 2010; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, escalators  
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Is there any reason that Metro doesn't do a little planning? Seems pretty simple to me. 1) Get all the parts necessary for fixing or replacing the escalator, 2) work on the escalator 24-hrs/day (in shifts of course), 3) finish it an move on to the next one. Can someone point out the flaw in this plan, please?

Posted by: superdtg | August 4, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Why is David Lacosse (malcontent in charge of metro escalators) still employed?

Posted by: jrutter21 | August 4, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock failed to mention how many workers he saw actually "turning wrenches" on the escalator being rebuilt while investigating this post (standing around or looking in your toolbox don't count).

I'm sure the answer is zero!

Superdfg is right; there is no reason to shut down the escalator until you are ready to work on it around the clock with all of the parts ready to go.

I'm starting the think there is a new and serious issue with the various unions that do work for WMATA (employees and contractors) that could be investigated by the Post. Are we in a "work to rule" situation because of recent worker deaths or are they in the middle of some tough contract negotiations?

Posted by: AIRS91 | August 4, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

I take the red line to Bethesda for work every weekday morning and I have been amazed that a riot has not broken out because of the escalator problem. I have waited for five north-bound trains to come and go (and drop off more customers) while waiting in the same line to get up they escalator. The biggest problem, and the only one I am actually complaining about, is that there has been no organization of the flow of people off the trains and up the escalator. As each train drops off customers, many of those 'new' customers head directly for the bottom of the escalator, rather than joining the huge line that has been there before they disembarked. I am amazed at how rude these people are, but even more disappointed in Metro's inability to control the line. Thanks for this post!

Posted by: rebeccashenson | August 4, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

It can sometimes take 2-3 elevators to get upstairs. Depends on if someone who actually needs the elevator (wheelchairs, strollers, suitcases-- all of which take more room than one person standing) is there. So far people seem to be pretty good about letting those who need the elevator get on first-- hope it lasts!

Posted by: bethesda6 | August 4, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Metro absolutely needs to adjust its scheduling so the time an escalator is out of service is minimized. Don't take an escalator out of service until it's ready to be repaired! If it is broken, turn it off but don't block access.

I'm completely in favor of converting the platform escalators and other short escalators into stairs. This would save Metro a lot of money and eliminate the inconvenient closures for repairs.

Posted by: rme465 | August 4, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

"Don't take an escalator out of service until it's ready to be repaired!"

The problem is that they often have to remove parts from that escalator, and then send them to the shop to be repaired, refurbished, or whatever. So it's not them putting new parts in, there is a wait time while things are being fixed off site. That's why you don't see people working on the escalator 24/7.

I do agree the amount of time alloted seems excessive. It would be interesting if Dr. G could investigate why exactly it takes so long, and maybe we will discover there really are steps to save time.

That being said, complaining is not going to change the fact the escalator will be out of service for awhile. I suggest people take a deep breath and just bring their patience with them. I for one will continue to make examples of the line jumpers who refuse to go to the end of the line and wait their turn (something first graders are able to master, but adults don't seem to be capable of). If I see you cutting the line, I will loudly say "Excuse me, the line starts back there. Get to the end of the line" and hopefully shame you enough to change your selfish ways.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | August 4, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't make any sense for Metro to have to send parts away for repair. They can't get any spare parts? Any? With hundreds of escalators there isn't one replacement part waiting? Maybe they should just tear out half the escalators and use them for spare parts.

Posted by: jiji1 | August 4, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Escalator out until October?

Did Metro specify what year?

Posted by: Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me | August 4, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

I agree with superdig. Metro seems to be able to do that with their track repairs - long weekends - three shifts and be done with it. Lets do it with the escalators and elevators. There must-maybe-perhaps be some record of the escalator parts most replaced so why not pre stock them and also have the off site repair shop available 24/7. Metro's philosophy seems to be "we would be running a great system if we didn't have to deal with those customers all the time."

Posted by: pauls411 | August 4, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

Metro management has complete contempt for its customers. I was floored when I saw that the second platform escalator would be out until late October after the first one took 3+ months to repair. Why not just let riders WALK up the escalator? I figure I would waste about 3-4 hours standing in line over the next few months. However, I solved the problem...I'll get off at Friendship Heights and walk home! Thanks for raising fares too!

Posted by: SF271 | August 4, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Why does Metro need to keep these little escalators between platforms and mezzanines in service? I say turn them into stairs and concentrate efforts on the big escalators that lead to the surface. Metro has more escalators of any transit operator in the Western Hemisphere. In essence it is a Cadillac system. No wonder the fares and the are so high, and it is too costly to keep the old equipment running in a decent state of repair.

Posted by: Liberal4CommonSense | August 5, 2010 1:29 AM | Report abuse

Why does Metro need to keep these little escalators between platforms and mezzanines in service? I say turn them into stairs and concentrate efforts on the big escalators that lead to the surface. Metro has more escalators of any transit operator in the Western Hemisphere. In essence it is a Cadillac system. No wonder the fares and the are so high, and it is too costly to keep the old equipment running in a decent state of repair.

Posted by: Liberal4CommonSense | August 5, 2010 1:30 AM | Report abuse

I think Dr. Gridlock should have emphasized that this has been going on pretty much everyday since mid-April. It's not like it's a week or two! And people can be extremely rude. I was in line yesterday and about 30 feet away from the escalator; a woman just jumped in line in front of me and acted like nothing was wrong. She had headphones on so I guess that was her excuse. Trying to be patient and tolerant...

Posted by: SF271 | August 5, 2010 6:14 AM | Report abuse

the design flaw of the station is amazing - there are only two ways to get to the top of the mezzanine: escalator and the elevator.

Metro should have another flight of stairs installed or at least during escalator repairs, erect a temporary structure to get passengers up to the mezzanine.

Posted by: blackjeep20 | August 5, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

You write of the crowds on the platform and mezzanine: "This was not a dangerous situation, but it was really annoying."

When I've experienced similar crowds due to the problem of the day on the Red Line, I often have felt unsafe. Dr. Gridlock, do you know that the DC or MD Fire Marshalls or an agency like FEMA have to say about the non-infrequent flood of people on platforms and trains in terms of possible violations of capacity? Just curious.

Posted by: amwellwish | August 5, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

"UMDTerpsGirl"= paid metro plant.
She's always defending metro's incompetence in these articles...

Posted by: jrutter21 | August 5, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

I wouldn't help this year but WMATA should consider adding stairs to stations like Bethesda where there is only one pair of escalators from the platform. There is plenty of room for this.

I would like to think that the two completely rebuilt platform escalators will lead to 5 years of zero downtime at the Bethesda station but I expect one of them to be out of service by Thanksgiving (assuming their back online by the end of October).

Posted by: AIRS91 | August 5, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

If Metro doesn't have the resources and/or personel to fix the escalators in a timely manner, then turn the short ones up from the platform into stairs. In the long run, it'd save escalator repair costs too.

Posted by: Hattrik | August 5, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

The repairs on the first escalator looked "finished" long before last week. That's just when they decided to finally pack up their toolboxes and take the barricade down. The blocked-off escalator was all shiny and put back together and I didn't see anyone touch it in over a month. In fact, a pop bottle, among other trash, sat in the same place on the same step for over a month and was never moved. Not a good sign that anyone had been in there "fixing" it.

And, I'm sorry, a 20 minute bottleneck to clear the platform IS a safety hazard. What if a train caught fire? Half of them smell like they're on fire most of the time anyway...

Posted by: ayepenny | August 5, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

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