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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 02/ 2/2011

Escalator problem at Ballston fixed

By Robert Thomson

This morning, a Metrorail rider sent me a copy of an e-mail he sent to Metro's general manager, Richard Sarles, complaining about all the out-of-service escalators he encountered at Ballston during this morning's rush. There was a power problem that temporarily shut down all the station's escalators, though the two elevators remained in service, Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.

I'll give you some more details about that, but first let me show you part of the rider's letter to Sarles, because it illustrates the frustrations shared by many passengers and some of the challenges Sarles faces now that the Metro board has removed "interim" from his title.

The rider's letter opened this way:

Dear. Mr. Sarles,
The Ballston Metro station this morning has all, and I mean ALL 8 escalators dead as of 8:05 a.m. None was working. There were no signs nor announcements to alert riders that they had 4 flights of escalator stairs to walk up. There were no attendants around at all for crises or assistance. Not one.

As I struggled up the 4th escalator, wondering if I could actually reach the top, an elderly lady farther up from me suddenly stopped. She burst into tears and I heard her say, "I cannot make it. I cannot go down. What am I going to do?" Two people helped her up the remaining steps. I saw them at the top, she was barely able to stand and was still crying.

DG: Metro is getting better at organizing its maintenance program and communicating with riders about the service disruptions that result from the work zones. That includes publicizing the weekend and nighttime maintenance schedule for the upcoming month and repeated announcements about the big track work projects that occur on the long holiday weekends.

Its personnel are still less effective in communicating with riders in stations and on trains during emergencies, such as this morning's escalator outage.

A power outage occurred at Ballston from 7:30 to 7:37 a.m., Taubenkibel said. That shut down the station's 12 escalators, but not the elevators. Restoring power doesn't restore the escalator service. Maintenance people have to be called in to restart the escalators. As of 9:05 a.m., 11 of the escalators had been returned to service, the Metro spokesman said.

The transit authority this morning did mark the escalators as out of service on the Web page where it advises riders of problems, though I did find it confusing to see that the "Estimated Return to Service" was listed as Saturday.

The amount of information on that page has improved during the past few months. There's now a summary at the top of the page that gives riders some accountability information at a glance, and there's a link to a glossary page that explains the terms Metro uses to characterize problems.

But most riders aren't going to be checking that page before they leave home for a transit trip. Plus, we're talking about emergencies that may have occurred after they left home. Metro still needs to develop a better system for communicating with customers inside the system.

That's easier said than done. An emergency, like a power outage at a station heavily dependent on escalators, is likely to overwhelm the personnel on the scene, whose immediate tasks will include fixing the problem itself as well as carrying out normal duties. It takes a while to get extra people to a station, and at rush hour, hundreds of riders will have been inconvenienced before any good comes of such measures.

Sarles has focused his attention on the big problems of safety and maintenance. Can't argue with that. But the problems that are most visible to riders and most commonly experienced include the escalator outages, train delays and trains taken out of service, with little or no explanation on the scene.

Three out of four escalators are down at Southern Ave. Riders will also find all 3 escalators between upper and lower platforms down at Metro Center's G and 12th St entrance.

Yesterday's overall outage rate was 12.8 percent.

By Robert Thomson  | February 2, 2011; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Metro, Orange Line  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail  
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I do not mean to belittle the lady who experienced trouble on the escalator, but I can't help but wonder why, if you know you have trouble with walking up those things, you wouldn't try the elevator, given that it was apparently operating properly. That's not to excuse Metro's continuing escalator problems, and I have to say that in a system as dependent on escalators as DC's Metrorail is I cannot understand why they would not have the escalators connected to some sort of backup generator system (consider if this problem had happened at Rosslyn or Dupont Circle or Wheaton, for example).

The other thing about posting the outage information on WMATA's website, aside from Dr. Gridlock's sage point that most people don't check that site before leaving, is that the website does not help people who are already en route. Some people have Internet-enabled phones, but I'd wager that (a) none of them check escalator info while en route, (b) the majority of people do not carry Internet-enabled phones, and (c) the people who would experience the greatest problems with stopped escalators (such as the elderly lady noted in the letter Dr. G posted) are probably the least likely to be carrying such devices. It also bears noting that in this case the outage was sudden and total due to a power failure (which, in fairness to WMATA, is surely an unexpected and irregular event), making a timely update that much more unlikely (compare to when one escalator breaks down and is out of service all day).

It seems to me that the train operators need to be forced to do a better job of making announcements. Some of them do an outstanding job and are easy to understand, but they're in the minority. Information of the sort at issue in this particular situation is the sort that is best-communicated by the train operator when he receives a message from WMATA HQ, but in order for that to work the train operator must (a) speak coherently, (b) speak English, (c) speak loudly enough and slowly enough to be heard throughout the train. It's not enough to say, "Oh, I have a microphone." Anyone who has done any public speaking knows that you still have to project your voice to be heard over ambient noise and the like.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 2, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

The elevators were working.

Most people can handle the three (not four) flights of stairs just fine. For those people, it's not a "crisis," it's a minor inconvenience.

Those who can't handle stairs, like the elderly, should use the elevator.

Posted by: grouchcouch | February 2, 2011 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mr. Sarles,

Congratulations on your appointment. Have you given any thought about what you will say to the family and friends of the next person(s) to die on Metrorail as a result of the system's dilapidation and the incompetence of its employees? Such contemplation would seem to be requisite to any new Metro general manager.

Posted by: bpayne1 | February 2, 2011 1:37 PM | Report abuse

19995hoo and grouchcouch - The point was we did not know all escalators were dead. No signs, no info, no attendants. Most of us can handle one or two levels. But by the time we all realized all levels were dead we could not get out of the packed crowd to turn around. Thus, so many trying to do something nearly impossible. The ride in puts me at the station before the web notice went up. Had there been a sign or staff to tell us what the problem was, many of us would have, indeed, taken the elevator.

Posted by: OldTimeRider | February 2, 2011 2:32 PM | Report abuse

There are 3 flights of escalators (stairs) to get to street level from platform level.

Posted by: seraphina21 | February 2, 2011 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Elevators are clogged with too many fat women as it is, why would you expect them to be reasonably accessible when every escalator is out of service?

Posted by: getjiggly1 | February 2, 2011 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Fatties don't like to walk at all. That's why they're fat.

Old folks & people with strollers should take the elevators. Elevators don't break down anywhere near the rate of escalators.
At least that's my impression.

Why can't Metro buy escalators that don't break down so often? Doesn't one country in the world make a solid, dependable escalator? Is it impossible to buy one?

Posted by: TaxiDriver | February 2, 2011 3:37 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how the elevators worked, or the lights worked, or the trains worked, if the power was out. Shouldn't they just shut the whole station if the power is off?

Posted by: thetan | February 2, 2011 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Emergency generators?

Posted by: TaxiDriver | February 2, 2011 5:13 PM | Report abuse


It was a momentary power outage. Here at my office the lights flickered twice and a couple computers rebooted but most things never had a problem. The key line in the article was this:

"Restoring power doesn't restore the escalator service. Maintenance people have to be called in to restart the escalators."

I can understand why they don't restart automatically but it's stupid to not be able to restart them without maintenance people. I know I'm asking a lot here but surely a station manager could wander over and turn it back on once no one was on it.

Posted by: Razor04 | February 2, 2011 5:28 PM | Report abuse

I've never been on the elevator at Ballston, but the elevators I have used at Van Ness, Dupont Circle, and Bethesday reek of urine. In fact, if urine is the only bodily fluid in the elevator, you're lucky.

Thus, I can understand why the elderly are reluctant to take them. Also, I think many of them fear being confined in the elevator with strangers. The elderly have a heightened fear of mugging and assault.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | February 2, 2011 5:32 PM | Report abuse

The comments by OldTimeRider and Razor04 clarify things a bit more. I had the impression that it would have been reasonably clear that the escalators were down, but I guess what you folks are saying was that it wasn't apparent when you walked up one escalator that the next one would also be dead. That makes some sense, I suppose.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 3, 2011 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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