Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Ups and downs: The Metro escalator problem escalates in the media

July 5, 2011 - 05:30 PM
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The infamous Foggy Bottom escalators. (Photo: flickr/brownpau)

Everyone seems to hate WMATA's sad, creaking escalators lately. It's true. And between last week's sober GAO report assessing the mass-transit system's lack of coherent, long-term strategy and a sudden burst of anger surrounding escalators, the week can't be an easy one for WMATA.

The problem, of course, is nothing new. Who among us hasn't tweeted in rage over a busted Metro station's escalator? It's a frequent enough problem. Earlier this summer, the Dupont Circle station's northern escalators never seemed like they would fully functional, for instance.

Right, largely due to planned rehab efforts. ^DS RT @atuss: Report: #Metro missing mark on working escalators #wmataless than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

Why now though? What caused people to bubble up with rage over WMATA's escalators, caught in varying stages of repair and maintenance? Let's examine the three big triggers at the start of this post-holiday week.

1)The New York Times slams the frequently broken system. The headline of the July 1st story: "For Washington, a trek to daylight." Ouch. The piece points to the clunky nature of how the system functions, with more than 100 escalators out on a given day. The highlighted problems are the ones you'd expect: age, neglect, the size of the system. And of course we have that characteristic Times flair, with the article's intro conjuring the narrative scene of sweating, pained Washingtonians afraid of a heart attack as they climb broken Metrorail steps.

2)Metro's missing its own goals. WTOP reporter Adam Tuss glanced over a coming presentation for Metro's board of directors (PDF) and found the escalator problem glaring. The number of working escalators suffered a "sharp decline" in May, for instance.

3)Actual, terrible escalator problems today. As if these news stories weren't headache enough for Metro's leaders, today the system suffered from its own debacle at Foggy Bottom. No escalators worked at all, which is the last thing anyone wants to face after a wonderful night of D.C. Fourth of July fireworks. I spent a year commuting to and from the Foggy Bottom station and remember how crowds would swell up as they waited to enter or leave. The idea of this morning's complete escalator breakdown is a breathtaking one, and I'm glad to have missed it.

Yet these complaints, real as they are, do miss a critical element about Metro's escalators. They capture one dimension absolutely correctly, and it's the most poignant, real, everyday one: rider outrage. No one wants to experience that moment (you know the one) where you're exiting a Metro train,  you swipe your SmarTrip card, toss your free newspaper, and then ... there it is. The long line of people snakes back, waiting to climb onto an escalator that doesn't work at all. It's frustrating — people have every right to be mad.

Why are we talking about escalator numbers from May? A system-wide rehab program kicked off in June. #wmataless than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

For now, though, many of escalators do, by all accounts, have the capacity to function. The reason they're not operational is due to maintenance and broader rehab efforts, all part of a broader push from Metro to reverse the damaged, ancient system. It's the right thing to do, in spite of the chaos it so often has been causing throughout the system, among riders, and throughout the broader media of mass transit.

The system does need to be rehabbed in this way for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, from my perspective, is how delicate much of the equipment is reported to be. This very question arose at the town hall held by Metro's largest union of employees. Why are the escalators broken so often? Answers varied. "If it runs," one Metro employee said, "most of the units will be cut off." The reality was, according to this worker, that most of the equipment was water-sensitive, a reality all the more complicated because D.C. was essentially built on a swamp. WMATA's website reports at least nine of the system's escalators are out as is due to "rehab/modernization" work. A glance down the list reveals many problems not related to the rehab effort, but a system-wide rehabilitation of Metro's escalators should hopefully reduce incidents like Foggy Bottom's outright failure today. It'll certainly reduce the noise of the media on Metro's many escalator shortcomings, assuming the effort does fix some of the critical problems affecting the system.

Earlier this summer, Metro's chief spokesman Dan Stessel had mentioned that many of the escalators are more than three decades old currently. He mentioned $148 million going into the system over the next five years to update these ramshackle, weak elements, such as escalators and elevators. The process has appeared quiet and slow but also deliberate and real. Unsuck DC noticed some of these efforts back in March. And as Tuss noted about the upcoming WMATA presentation, the system is increasing its escalator inspection hours these days. Metro's leaders seem to understand they can't have a repeat of last January's L'Enfant escalator disaster.

What escalators need these days is not just outrage — the system needs support, momentum, recognition, and attention to these rehabilitation efforts.

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