Broken Escalators Haunt DC's Metro

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Metro escalator (photo by Jonathan Wilson/WAMU)

(Washington, DC -- Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) Depending on which Metro station you're trying to emerge from, broken escalators can certainly be a hellish sight.

A couple of recent outages at the Bethesda station even prompted an emergency meeting last week between residents, county leaders and Metro officials.

The recent meeting of the Montgomery County Council's transportation committee started with some wry humor from council member Roger Berliner, who chairs the committee.

"When we sent out the notice with respect to tonight's meeting, my staff had prepared it and it said, 'If you take Metro, take the escalator up,'" Berliner said. "I turned to my staff and said jokingly, 'put in the phrase, cross your fingers.'"

Either not enough people heeded the council's tongue-in-cheek advice, or the finger-crossing just didn't work -- because there was another escalator outage on the day of the meeting. That prompted fresh outrage directed at Metro's Superintendent of Escalators and Elevators, Rodrigo Bitar. Berliner set the tone.

"None of us want to be talking about three escalators out at the same time, 175 stairs to climb," he said. "It is not acceptable."

Bitar gave the crowd a detailed presentation, complete with timelines and graphs, aimed at explaining why Metro's 588 escalators -- the largest number of any transit system in the country, and the third largest of any system in the world -- are deteriorating.

"Seventy-five percent of our units are 25 years old, or older," he said. "We have multiple manufacturers, many of whom are no longer in service, so getting parts to maintain this equipment gets more difficult everyday."

Bitar also told the crowd that Bethesda's escalators -- some of the longest at any station -- were last refurbished in 2001 and 2002. He says the life cycle for a rehabilitated escalator is about a decade, so Bethesda's escalators are at the limit of their reliable lives.

The three longest escalators at the Bethesda station -- escalators 2, 3, and 4 -- are the ones that have commuters concerned. Bitar told the crowd that escalator 4 has a service record above the system-wide average. But escalators 2 and 3 have had more problems, and if two escalators break down, it usually means that all three will be stopped: there isn't a staircase at Bethesda, so Metro stops the third to be used as a staircase while it repairs the other two.

Of course, for commuters, it doesn't really matter if an escalator is shut down on purpose or not. If all three are stopped it means a lot of walking. Regular rider Raymond Nelson has bad knees and says climbing a stopped escalator at Bethesda just wouldn't be an option.

"If that happened me they'd have to cart me away in a wheelchair, because my knees would never handle this long run," Nelson says.

During a heat wave in 1998, a man named Richard Hadaway Smith died from a heart attack he suffered after climbing a stationary escalator at Bethesda on an especially hot day.

There are elevators at the Bethesda station, but they're not set up to handle all the people coming through.

Commuter Mike Thorp says the escalator issue is starting to cast another dark cloud over Metro's future.

"It's hurting Metro, it's hurting the confidence in the Metro system -- it's fraying our nerves," Thorp says.

Back at the meeting, Jon Weintraub of the Bethesda Urban Partnership warns that Metro's failure to fix or replace aging equipment will start affecting entire communities.

"Development in the county is targeted at Metro stops," he says. "This development strategy will fail unless we can figure out a way to improve the reliability of escalators and our Metro trains."

What the crowd didn't hear at the meeting were many solutions. Rodrigo Bitar says Metro has what it calls an aggressive $148 million modernization plan over the next five years. But that plan doesn't call for Bethesda's escalators to be replaced until the spring of 2015.

Ben Ross, with the Action Committee for Transit, is outraged about the escalators  -- but he still puts his faith in the mass transit system.

"The roads are worse," Ross said at the meeting. "I think people still like Metro because the roads are worse."

It's hardly a ringing endorsement, but it's one Metro has to live with, at least for now.

You can listen to the radio version of this story here.