Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Is the D.C. Metro escalator problem getting worse?

March 28, 2012 - 10:35 AM
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Foggy Bottom crowds from last year. (Photo: flickr/brownpau)

WMATA continues to have an escalator problem. The transit agency replaced its first 15-year-old escalators last summer at Foggy Bottom, but this morning, major escalators throughout the system broke down during the morning rush hour. Why? About 700,000 people travel through the Metrorail every day, and such dysfunction creates a nuisance as well as raises safety concerns. The escalators, despite all vaunted improvements, continue to fail at key moments — and when three major stations encounter problems in the same morning, it hurts commuter confidence.

Earlier this year, WMATA announced that rather than replace a few escalators, it would replace 94. That number runs counter to what WMATA proposed in another Jan. 19, 2012 document: "WMATA is seeking comments from the escalator installers and manufactures relating to the replacement over 100 existing escalators in the Metrorail system with new APTA standard, transit grade escalators." 100+. The full cost is unknown. That document suggested more than $100 million but $150 million was what was slated when most escalators would be rehabbed rather than replaced. Replacing more than a hundred escalators now will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, by my estimation. WMATA reports that its escalators worked 85.5% of the time in 2011, and earlier this month, announced it has "rehabilitated or replaced 14 escalators and two elevators so far in FY12 at a cost of $11 million" and plans to rehab or replace 13 more escalators over the course of the next half year.

Yet according to WMATA business documents, the aspired 100+ replacement of escalators may not even be possible. Recent rules require all entrances to include canopies and Metro has explicitly said in these documents that if it can't get approval for a canopy at a given spot, it will scrap plans for replacing escalators and simply "modernize" the existing ones if it can't waive the canopy requirement. "It is possible/probable that WMATA may not be able to obtain permits to install canopies at all locations slated for escalator replacement," Metro noted in the January procurement document. "The primary reasons for non-approval of canopy installation relates to aesthetic issues raised by approval authorities." I've called Metro for clarification on both the number of escalators to be replaced (is it 94 or 100+?), how canopy approval will affect that number (aesthetics over safety?), the overall cost now associated (it surely can't be just $150 million overall now), and if there's any insight into this morning's commuting chaos (which included new escalators) and will let you know what I find. (Update: Here's Metro's account of the morning)

But such replacement and better maintenance may well be necessary. See what unfolded this morning at Foggy Bottom, Rosslyn, and Dupont Circle — some of the busiest Metro stations in the entire system:


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