Metro's escalators are admittedly "bad" but a FOX 5 Investigation found the worst escalators spend more time out of service than working. Despite Metro's goal to have escalators working 90 percent of the time, some of the system's escalators operate just a fraction of that time.
Many of these escalators on their last legs creak, grind and squeal loudly. The reaction from riders: "Did we get ripped off when we bought the escalators?" one man asked.
"They could use work," said another rider stating the obvious.
Those escalators need a lot of work.
"Yeah, there are some escalators that are really bad on this system," said Dan Stessel, a Metro spokesperson.
The ten worst escalators in Metro's system are really bad. They are available on average 49 percent of the time. That is one out of every two days.
The failing escalators can pose a danger with some literally falling apart. "Danger" is what Robert Bonner sees when he looks at Metro's escalators. He spent 20 years working as a former contractor installing, repairing and maintaining the moving walkways. That was before Metro decided to move its escalator maintenance and repairs in-house.
"Right now, some of the escalators and elevators are like 20-year-old cars. They have all kinds of mileage on them. You can put band-aids on them, but every now and then, you just have to bite the bullet and buy a brand new car," Bonner said.
Between January and May of last year, here is a sampling of how the worst of the worst performed, including multiple escalators at the same stations. The numbers are based on availability:
|10. Glenmont B11X05||65.93%|
|9. Columbia Heights E04X04||61.96%|
|8. U Street E03E01||60.87%|
|7. Georgia Avenue E05X01||48.85%|
|6. U Street E03E02||46.38%|
All of these escalators are due to be replaced, but not immediately. They are among 94 new escalators going in during the next six years as part of Metro's capital improvement plan.
"Some of it is the age of the equipment. Some of it is how it's taken care of and there's a lot of immediate issues that need to be taken care of," Bonner said.
Metro has been saying the same thing for more than a year now, but with a 35-year-old system, it is grappling with multiple needs to replace tracks, circuits and launch a new rail line. The escalators are one of many needs.
"It's very frustrating from the standpoint of escalator technicians to make a repair on an escalator and have it break down again within a day or two or sometimes even shorter than that," said Metro's Stessel.
Metro's chronic escalator problems go back more than a decade and the agency admits preventative maintenance wasn't done.
"This is something we're seeing across the country," said Robert Puentes, a Fellow at Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. "We do like building new things, we like cutting ribbons in front of new things. We've got to make sure the things that maybe are not sexy, the maintenance of the system is just as much a priority as building the new stuff is."
In the past 18 months, Metro's escalator problems have been magnified by some major meltdowns. When smoke filled the Dupont Circle station in July 2010, panicked passengers climbed up an out of service escalator with a hole at the top.
"The problem with the elevators and escalators is one of the most visible things because everybody, when they leave the transit system, they're going up and down one of these escalators," Puentes said.
Perhaps the worst incident happened at L'Enfant Plaza in October 2010. An overloaded escalator sped out of control, after the brakes failed, and people piled up on the bottom. Then early last year at Foggy Bottom, steps popped out while operating in rush hour.
"Metro has taken over, driven them for quite a long time without doing the proper maintenance, and now they're breaking down," Bonner believes.
Many of the issues Bonner raises, Metro is addressing, such as replacing the worst escalators. The agency is also bringing contractors back to maintain escalators on part of the Orange Line so its escalator mechanics can concentrate on the rest of the system.
Metro's current management team blames a lack of preventative maintenance and decisions made by previous boards that led to the sad state of escalators now.
"I think there was a desire to just kind of let this system go, you know, cruise along and not really make those type of investments," said Stessel. "We're now at a point where we might be in a hold, where there's a whole backlog of this kind of maintenance work that needs to be done, and frankly, it's going to take time to get out of that hole."
Since General Manager Richard Sarles took over, preventative maintenance has doubled to more than 80 percent over the past year. But weaknesses persist.
"We know which ones they are. It's really the top 20 that you've seen, and actually, it's really the top 25 that perform at a percentage of availability that is less than 80 percent," Stessel said.
As pressure builds on the system to move more people in the coming years, it is critical the system functions. To get to Metrorail, riders need escalators.
"It's clearly something that most riders experience everyday. And when one of them is not working, it certainly impacts the trip," said Puentes.
The life span of escalators should be 25 to 30 years, but on some of the last stations built on the Green Line, such as Georgia Avenue, Metro chose a cheaper brand that now needs replacement even though they are just over 10 years old.
"People are looking at the dollar value when they put those out to bid. For the quality and the price, it fit Metro's budget," Bonner recalled.
When the troubled escalators are replaced with new ones, they will be standard industrial strength escalators. Some of the escalators on the green line,
"As a practical matter they have not performed to the standards we would expect for an escalator on the metro rail system," Stessel said.
Metro is now equipping all 588 of its escalators with an onboard computer and sensors that are tied to a central monitoring system. This tells real time when an escalator goes down. About 50 percent of the escalators are connected, and by June, every escalator should be on the system. That will allow Metro to respond more quickly when an escalator shuts down.
If you look at Metro's bottom five escalators, Metro's mechanics will stay busy. The bottom five escalators have a dismal record.
|5. Huntington C15S01||45.16%|
|4. Friendship Heights A08N04||44.60%|
|3. Bethesda A09X02||44.57%|
|2. Friendship Heights A08N03||38.46%|
|1. Georgia Ave. E05X03||34.17%|
The worst two escalators are out of service about three out of every five days.
"I have a Metro app. It tells me how many escalators are down and it's a long list," said one Metro rider.
At their worst, escalator failures can cause disaster like at L'Enfant Plaza. At their best, riders must trek up and down endless steps. For people with physical difficulties, that can be more than just a nuisance.
"I had a boot on my foot. I fell down because they were not working and a lot of times, they don't work at all," said another rider who tried to limp up the escalator with an ankle injury.
At Foggy Bottom where the steps fell apart, the escalators are now brand new. It is Metro's first big milestone. Now Metro begins work at Dupont Circle on February 1. The entire south entrance will be shut down to put in new escalators. When all the work is done, Puentes warns the danger is complacency again.
"As we plan for these systems in the future, we've got to make sure we're building in these long-term life cycle costs because it's going to come up over and over again," said Puentes.
Washington's economy and workforce depend on Metro. Without the investment, failing escalators could cripple the system. In the meantime, Metro is proposing fare increases starting in July. That money would not go toward new escalators, but preventative maintenance. Increased subsidies from jurisdictions would cover the cost to replace and rehabilitate old escalators.