Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

How Metro explains all the transit system's broken, idle escalators

March 29, 2012 - 09:56 AM
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(Photo: flickr/tvol)

When Metro escalators break, crowds form. We've all seen it happen. You exit the faregates, and then boom, a deluge of bodies swarm around the dead escalators. Nine times out of 10, Metro wants the escalators to work. That's their goal. Yesterday morning, I reported on moments of failure at the Foggy Bottom, Rosslyn, and Dupont Circle Metro stations.

But talk to WMATA. The transit agency wants to do better but clarifies that these incidents will happen in any transit system. General Manager Richard Sarles touts the agency's 90% "escalator availability" in response to scathing pieces from the Washington Times this week. The statistic is partly true. In November 2011, 90.1% of escalators were indeed "available." In December, there were 88.6%, and October, 87.4%. The 2011 average was 85.5% thanks to some very low moments last summer; the year's average was 3.8% lower than in 2010. By that broader metric, our escalators are indeed getting worse. Month-by-month, however, escalator service did improve last year by the end.

How to react to these sights of crowded commuters though? We see all the bodies, the pictures on Twitter and Facebook, the news reports. There's a shock value to those. People face these offloads and escalator delays on what feels like a daily basis and often will snap photos on their phones.

"That's what an offload looks like," Stessel explained, referring to the dramatic photos. "That can look crowded but that's what you have with 800 people on the platform at the same time."

The trouble, in Stessel's view, is that these pictures capture but one moment in time. You'll see all the bodies offloaded and all the people shuffling around the escalators. But what about 10 minutes later when, say, the platform is clear? Or all the invisible communication happening in the Metro Control Center to mitigate crowding?

Yesterday multiple problems did hit the escalators but lasted relatively briefly, according to Stessel. At Rosslyn, the long escalators were all dead from 8:50 a.m., Metro says, until 9:10 a.m. 20 minutes of walking during rush hour — Stessel acknowledges that the availability numbers of late last year are "little consolation" to anyone trudging up those. Riders, I should note, complained that all escalators were broken earlier than 8:50 a.m. According to my Storified reactions, one rider described "not a single working elevator (up or down!!!) at Rosslyn. Metro managers giving attitude instead of service." at 8:40 a.m. via her iPhone, and another rider mentioned "No escalator working at Rosslyn this morning, be ready 4 a forced work out session" at 8:42 a.m., several minutes earlier than Stessel's report (Updated to include a second tweet about the timing, which explicitly addresses escalators). Commuter lies or is Metro's timeline off and minimizing the rush hour problem?

Here's how Metro described the breakdown though. Two escalators were already down due to long-term repairs in one case and a customer injury yesterday in the other; then this morning there were tripped sensors, perhaps due to a "power fluctuation." The Foggy Bottom troubles? Stessel referred to a speed sensor fault that hit the descending escalator at 9, which wasn't reset until 10. At Dupont, WMATA had already decommissioned one escalator due a customer injury involving a lodged shoe. That one will be out for another two days. What resulted: no descending escalator in operation. Contrary to reports, the Dupont entrance was never closed, he said. These Foggy Bottom escalators are so new though, installed just this past summer. How to explain its idleness to someone trying to understand why Metro paid millions to replace the escalators?

"In many cases, they're not breaking at all," Stessel said. "They're doing what they're supposed to do."

Safety measures are built into the equipment, he said, and sometimes they'll briefly stop not due to mechanical failure but because some action has raised these built-in red flags. Other escalators, out of service for repair or customer injury, also ostensibly serve a sense of safety. But these explanations still don't speak to a greater sense of malaise and slowness surrounding the escalators, despite the achievements Metro holds up about rehabilitated and replaced escalators. The agency plans plenty of work on them and has done a fair amount already. But how to explain why the Foggy Bottom staircase isn't open already? Or why the Dupont entrance has to be closed for eight months? The impression frustrates riders. The vision of such crowds, however brief, also raises security fears on a gut level. Security experts have already focused on the safety of our transportation system, as in the Santa Fe-based Redfish Group video above, although Stessel emphasizes all the labor and all the delays are focused on an eventual safer, better system. In the meantime, he stressed that WMATA attempts to monitor its transit as best it can.

"Conditions can change very quickly," Stessel remarked about the system.

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