Metrorail's elevator outages are making life difficult for some disabled riders. They're being taken out of service for repairs, sometimes for months at a time. It's become a major headache at some of the busiest stations. "The most frustrating thing is probably the frequency of the outages and also not necessarily being aware of where the outages specifically are," said Amy Scherer, who uses a motorized wheelchair. She rides metro daily to get from her home near Ballston to her office near Union Station. She also uses the rail system to get to meetings.
FOX5 navigated the system with Scherer one day this month to see the challenges disabled riders face. She checks metro's website for outages before leaving and uses the transit agency's elevator alert system elStat, but always makes sure to have a plan B. "Basically what I found that works the best is to try and find a second route to try and avoid the elevator," Scherer said.
It's been an exceptionally difficult year for metro's elevators. They were out of service at L’Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place Chinatown, two of the busiest transfer stations, for most of the summer. Sometimes that means, disabled riders must go out of the way to transfer at accessible stations, or get off one stop away and go the extra distance by wheelchair. This summer, Scherer said unscheduled outages at Metro Center would add an extra 10 or 15 minutes to her trip, because she had to double back to get to a working elevator. "If an elevator goes out I get off at Farragut North, switch to the other side of the platform and get on the train going in the opposite direction so I can then access the elevator on the other side," she explained. At Farragut North, trains share the same platform, making it easy to switch to another train in the opposite direction. Metro keeps a list of stations with shared platforms on its website for disabled riders in situations just like this.
Most outages are for long term rehabilitation, although a small percentage do break down unexpectedly. Right now five elevators are out for modernization. One is at Crystal City, three at Stadium Armory, and one at McPherson Square. The repair work sometimes takes four months or longer. "The rehabilitation process really gives you a new elevator in the end of it. You're building a new elevator within the existing shaft," said Dan Stessel, a metro spokesperson. By the time it's all said and done all the parts have been replaced.
That's why it takes so long. The elevator at McPherson square for instance has been out since July, but is due to re-open sometime this month. Plus these are old elevators that have maxed out their 30 year life span. "We're rebuilding starting with the oldest sections of the system first," explained Stessel. "You'll see us then move out toward the end of the lines over the next few years rebuilding elevators as we go."
Riders can call for a shuttle bus if a station elevator is out but Scherer tried that and gave up. "It was over 45 minutes that i had to wait for the shuttle so it really did create a problem with my schedule because I was trying to get to a meeting and I ended up being late to the meeting," Scherer told FOX5.
She thought you had to call when you arrive at the station where the shuttle picks up, but that's not the case metro said. But the signs at the station don't tell you this. Instead the electronic sign inside the station shows a phone number and direct riders to tell a station manager or call the number for a shuttle. Signs posted around the elevator construction note you can arrange for a shuttle if an elevator is out, but neglects to inform riders they can call ahead. Stessel suggested riders call the number 20 or 30 minutes before you expect to arrive at the station for a shuttle. "It's always better to call in advance if you can give us a little bit of a heads up that you're coming that will help reduce the wait times if you get there," he said. During her four years in DC, this was the first time Scherer had heard that.
Metro has 243 elevators in the system, and about 95% are available every day. But for the disabled it's more than just statistics. "If you are using that elevator on a regular basis and you rely on that to get to work or an appointment, even a small number of outages can have a huge impact," Scherer said.
A perfect example is Gallery Place Chinatown. It can take a series of three elevators, crisscrossing the station to exit. That means if one elevator goes down the entire station may be inaccessible. "I literally try to avoid that station if I can," Scherer told FOX5. Instead she usually gets off at Metro Center, one stop away and then takes the street back to Gallery Place Chinatown where she sometimes has lunch at restaurants.
Four more stations are scheduled to have elevators taken out of service for rehabilitation or modernization during the remainder of the year: Court House, Smithsonian, Foggy Bottom and Farragut West. The new elevators are also being equipped with high tech monitors that can tell when an elevator breaks down and notify the control center. This should help speed up repairs. With escalators you can see if it stops working, but to determine if an elevator is broken right now someone has to try and use it.
Another issue for metro is that the elevators were more of an afterthought. The original design did not include them. They were added later after a court order. That's why some stations have elevators in odd locations or just one for the entire station. If the elevator outages are a problem, Scherer always has plan B.