Fact Check: How Reliable are Metro's Escalators?

When D.C.'s Metro claimed this month that more of its 588 escalators are working than at any point in nearly five years, many rail riders rolled their eyes in disbelief. But then a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics got involved.

According to Metro, for the 2nd quarter of the year (April through June), the system's escalators achieved an availability score of nearly 92 percent -- meaning that more than nine of every ten of them were in service during operating hours.

A curious Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland who has been tracking escalator outages using Metro’s own published data says that figure is mostly accurate, although some escalators are more reliable than others.

“The one point I want to make is 92 percent sounds like a big number but that means at any time, on average, almost ten percent of the escalators aren’t working,” said Lee Mendelowitz, who is studying applied mathematics and created dcmetrometrics.com and the Twitter account @MetroEscalators to track and report every single escalator outage and fix. “It is a system-wide average and there are a lot of escalators in the system.”

Two years ago, only 60 percent of Metro's escalators were functioning at any given moment. Since then, 89 escalators have been rehabbed as part of its "Metro Forward" and WMATA plans to replace another 128.

Read: D.C. Metro's escalators cause transit nightmare

Mendelowitz began tabulating the transit authority’s data in June and has created an up-to-the-minute record of every escalator in the rail system. While the overall picture is much improved, he found some surprising results when he dug a little deeper.

For example, the new Dupont Circle south entrance escalators, which took millions of dollars and nine months to replace, have had some issues.

“The escalator that we are on right now has actually had 29 unexpected outages since June 1. And for some perspective, that’s the 50th most outages out of 588 escalators in the system,” said Mendelowitz in an interview with WAMU 88.5 as he rode down one of three new escalators at the south entrance at Dupont Circle.

“The middle escalator is by far the worst. So even though they were all replaced at the same time, apparently these three escalators weren’t created equally,” he added.

In July, the middle escalator was available 88 percent of time. That figure rose to 92 percent in August. The other two elevators had availability ratings above 97 percent in August, according to Metro data, significantly higher than the older units they replaced.

Poll: Have you noticed improvement since Metro began the "Metro Forward" rehabilitation program?

The transit authority’s own data show breakdowns are still common across the system.

“Since June 1, about 70 percent of escalator outages are unexpected outages and 30 percent are due to routine maintenance or rehabilitation projects,” Mendelowitz said.

A Metro spokesman declined to comment on Mendelowitz's research, but provided a statement about the Dupont Circle south entrance escalators.

"The escalators at the South Entrance are performing as designed,” the statement said. “We are happy with their performance, and so are the 20,000 people who use the station each day and understand how much better their experience is now."

Broken escalators are among Metro riders’ biggest gripes. Mendelowitz, 27, said he took up this project in his spare time because he thought it would be fun, but also because he assumed the public would be interested in his findings.

So far @MetroEscalators has only about 340 followers (compared to more than 8,000 for @MetrorailInfo, an official WMATA account), but he says his account, run by a robot, tweets so often that people don’t want all the escalator reports clogging their Twitter feeds.

@MetroEscalators has tweeted more than 32,000 times since June.

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter.