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A look at Metro's escalators

[This post has been updated]

We frequently hear complaints from readers about Metro's operation--or lack thereof--of its aging escalators. Commuters often find that one or more in a station is out of order, and that to make it worse, station managers haven't ensured that the remaining ones are running in a manner most conducive to the flow of rush-hour traffic.

The Post's Ann Scott Tyson recently detailed the problems in a March 19 article. Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles announced May 4 that the agency is bringing in consultants to review the problem.

The Post will check in from time to time and take a look at whether performance is increasing or getting worse. As of today, Metro reports that 60 of its approximately 588 escalators--more than 10 percent--are not functioning, in addition to 12 elevators.

The stations with the most broken transporters are Pentagon (5); Van Ness-UDC, Gallery Place-Chinatown, and Franconia-Springfield (4 each), and Friendship Heights, Federal Center SW, L'Enfant Plaza, Bethesda and Metro Center (3 each).

Thirty-three outages are reported to be because of unexpected breakdowns; 9 are out because of safety work orders; 9 are out for modernization, with several not expected to re-open until July; 7 are at this moment intentionally toggled to 'walk' mode; 6 are down for major repairs, with one at Pentagon out since September; and two are out for inspection.

What do you think: How is Metro doing at maintaining its escalators; choosing appropriate times to take them down for maintenance; and managing operations when stations are functioning at less-than-full elevator and escalator capacity?

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By Luke Rosiak  |  May 14, 2010; 6:17 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags: escalators  
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Next: The weekend and beyond


In my dreams the "modernization" efforts would be stopped until somebody is able to convince me that "modern" design will actually succeed.

WMATA's been down this road before and most of us have zero confidence in these "modernization" efforts to keep the escalators running.

The design of the current fleet is clearly deficient; they were not designed to be exposed to the elements and/or cannot handle the passenger load. Stop rebuilding the escalators to inadequate specifications. Call in the Russian escalator consultants.

If more than 10% of the escalators are out of service, there is no 'good' arrangement. Stop "fixing" the escalators; solve the core problem.

As the "modernized" elevators come online, it would be news if ANY of them was out of service. All maintenance would be completed off-hours. Like I said, in my dreams.

Posted by: KS100H | May 15, 2010 7:49 AM | Report abuse

We're about a month away from expected release of an NTSB report on the Metro crash of June 22, 2009. The February 23-25 hearing included much testimony about what went wrong. The NTSB investigation found a failure in the Metro's primary safety system, the track circuits that detect the presence of trains within each of its hundreds of signal blocks.

Testimony included manufacturer warnings before the accident about mixing track circuit components from the two main manufacturers, Alstom and Ansaldo, but that was a distraction. The investigation report found problems only with new components that had been installed five days before the crash [Signal & Train Control Factual Report, document file ID 435125, February 4, 2010, from a document index at].

The Metro rushed to provide a warning system that would quickly detect such a problem in the future. However, there are likely to be many other failure modes of the complex signal system. One such different failure nearly caused a disaster four years before, prevented only when alert operators kept three trains from colliding in the Orange and Blue Line tunnel under the Potomac. That incident was not reported to the NTSB, so there was never a similar investigation. [Lyndsey Layton, Trouble In Tunnel Delaying Subway, Washington Post, June 14, 2005, at].

A question that the NTSB may sidestep is whether there is any practical way for the Metro to install some kind of backup system that will monitor its primary system and prevent accidents if it fails. Such a system would have to include a different way to detect the presence or locations of trains, because otherwise it would be coupled into the same types of failures that can disable the current system.

Although the Metro system is now about 40 years old, newer technology may not offer much better reliability. The San Francisco Muni uses a "communication-based" system on its Market Street line, but that system did not prevent a crash on July 18, 2009, injuring 48 passengers. Bay Area Rapid Transit tried an even more modern system but has abandoned it after many problems. The New York City MTA has been experimenting with other new technology on its L (Canarsie) line since 1999, but so far it has been failure-prone.

So it is not clear whether technology is available that would improve the Washington Metro. The next month, before the NTSB report, would be a good time for a background article looking at the state of technology for rapid transit train control. One source to start with might be a transportation consultant such as ARINC of Annapolis, MD, working with several transit systems and a variety of technology.

Posted by: AppDev | May 15, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Metro should replace all its small (single level) escalators and replace them with wide steps. I'm pretty sure that 50 percent of the escalators are not needed--Franconia-Springfield is a prime example. That would take a bite out of Metro's maintenance costs. It wouldn't hurt some of my fellow commuters to walk up stairs every now and then.

Posted by: abiddlecomb | May 15, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

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