Home U.S. Transit SystemsWMATA An escalator epidemic grips DC’s WMATA

An escalator epidemic grips DC’s WMATA

by Benjamin Kabak

A glimpse up WMATA's Woodley Park escalator. (Photo by flickr user magandafille)

When I lived in Washington, D.C, my primary Metro stop was over 200 feet deep. When I would enter or exit at Woodley Park, I usually relied on the escalators to exit the station because the climb was just too long, and at least one of the station’s three escalators would invariably be out of service. The DC escalators, in fact, have a reputation for unreliability, and a recent report from the WMATA does nothing to dispel that stigma. As the Washington Examiner reports, the Metro’s escalators are breaking down more frequently, and repairs are taking longer and longer to complete.

The details themselves are actually pretty sad. Metro’s escalators average just 153 revenue hours of service — or a little over a week — between breakdowns, and it now takes the WMATA crews an average of 14 hours to repair the machines. Age isn’t the only culprit as some of the oldest escalators are the most reliable and some of the newest the least, and the elements are to blame as well. A systemwide plan to install canopies covering all outside escalators fell short of its goals when the authority ran out of money.

The real problems seem to stem from overuse and poor maintenance procedures. The WMATA simply isn’t equipped to handle the wear and tear on their escalators, and as I shift my gaze north, I see similar problems in New York. At those stations that have escalators, oftentimes, they’re out of service. For instance, Transit currently reports 18 out-of-service escalators, including two that have been offline for repairs since November.

For deep-cavern stations similar to those in Washington, escalators make sense, but elsewhere, they’re just inconvenient. They don’t increase accessibility enough to make an elevator unnecessary, and they cost a lot to maintain. The new Second Ave. Subway stations will likely have escalators, but maybe, they shouldn’t. At the very least, the MTA and the WMATA should remember Mitch Hedberg: An escalator can never break; it can only become stairs.

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Jake S February 9, 2011 - 2:59 pm

What about elevated stations? I live near the 125th St. 1 stop, and that climb can be murder on your legs.

Christopher February 9, 2011 - 3:18 pm

Part of DC’s escalator problem is a problem with the whole 60s-era technological hubris that built the system (and the Bay Area’s BART) — that engineering alone would solve the world’s problems. That computers would allow trains to arrive every 30s. That only two tracks were needed.

So there’s no redundancy anywhere in DC. (The Bay Area has attempted to add redundancy over the years.) This has been partially to blame for WMATA recent horrific accidents. There just isn’t any failsafe way to prevent them, because the assumption is that computers alone would prevent accidents.

So with escalators too. DC has them EVERYWHERE. Even just short mezzanine to platform changes. Really it needs to find ways to add in more stairs. But again of course, cost is a problem with no dedicated funding source and few financial options for raising money. DC is kind of screwed by it’s management structure.

(An interesting aside, one of my Iowa-based aunts is deathly afraid of escalators — there are few in Iowa — and she wont’ ride Metro when she visits because of this.)

Alon Levy February 10, 2011 - 2:37 am

Strangely, all of the things Washington tried to do have been done successfully abroad: two-track subways with high acceleration rates for reasonable average speed, driverless trains, express trains with passing sidings only, full accessibility using escalators and elevators, 90-second headways.

Just because WMATA has a terrible safety record doesn’t mean everything it tried to do would be bad even if it were done right.

SEAN February 9, 2011 - 3:48 pm

Another issue is that WMATA doesn’t have the ability to get proper parts for it’s escalators, so they use gineric ones. I read not all that long ago that the manufacturers told WMATA not to use that type of escalator & they did anyway.

Interestingly the MTA was told by the vender of the current Metrocard not to install this system because it is already out of date. Rather they were steared toward a tap card system similar to the one that WMATA & others use currently. But of course the MTA didn’t listen.

John-2 February 9, 2011 - 4:01 pm

Problem No. 3 is that the designers of many of the Metro entry/exit portals treated Washington D.C. as if it were a southern city. Below the Mason-Dixon Line, yes. Southern, and not prone to winter storms that at times can be as bad as anything 100-200 miles to the north? Not quite.

Leaving the escalators open to the environment, including long ones like on the Connecticut Avenue route on either side of Rock Creek Park, means that you’re just asking for future reliability problems. The interior station design that also snobbishly eschewed stairs in favor of single-option escalators (one up, one down plus the ADA elevator per entry portal) means that when something goes wrong, you can’t just shut the thing down immediately and repair it, because there’s no other way to get to the fare control mezzanine from the platform.

The City of New York took some shots for overbuilding on the IND while making the design as pedestrian as possible, but at least they didn’t design a street-to-platform pass through system that assumed nothing would ever go wrong, and there would never, ever be a need for more ways to access the platforms if passenger loads increased. Style over substance, which is why WMATA is desperately in catch-up mode right now.

Hank February 9, 2011 - 4:03 pm

It always shocked me that DC poured so much money into escalator repair, yet could never get it together to install canopies over the escalators. Hopefully the MTA is not so penny-wise and pound-foolish on the Second Ave line.

that being said, the MTA could learn well from WMATA on countdown clocks, tap systems and station maintenance.

Christopher February 10, 2011 - 12:43 pm

Well remember like with everything in DC. A “simple” canopy has to be approved by Federal and local planning organizations concerned about protecting historic vistas within the monumental core of the city. Nothing is ever simple when it comes to that combination of Federal and local in DC.

Ryanb February 9, 2011 - 4:07 pm

“Escalator temporarily stairs, we apologize for the convenience.” – Mitch Hedberg

astonvillan February 9, 2011 - 4:17 pm

The problem with the escalators is an epidemic, getting home today I encountered 2 out of 3 out of service at my station, Van Ness, causing the thousand or so people who get on between about 3-4 (three high schools plus UDC and some people who work in office building) to walk all the way down a very long escalator causing large backups. The fact that WMATA hasn’t replaced all of the escalators with different types that are easy to fix as well as getting a larger staff to work on them (or just using the Elevator and Escalator Unions people!) would do the system a world of good. I’m just glad that the original plan to have no mezzanines wasn’t adopted so that we had even longer escalatiors

Jaime February 9, 2011 - 4:27 pm

Woodside 61 is hell !

Daniel Howard February 9, 2011 - 5:09 pm

Another beef if that escalators tend to make artificially narrowed stairways. I hope they can get their canopies erected. Hopefully they are triaging which stations to canopy based on escalator repair costs.


Subutay Musluoglu February 9, 2011 - 5:37 pm

The problem with subway escalators, especially here in NY, is two fold – 1) The pressure to go with the lowest bidder results in the purchase of escalators that are prone to repeated breakdowns. I’ve always felt that certain items, such as escalators, should be exempt from the lowest bid rule, because once you factor in life cycle maintenance costs, you have completely negated whatever money was saved; and 2) NYCT’s escalator and elevator maintenance staff suffers from neglect – it’s understaffed, inadequately trained, and does not have access to the best resources. Furthermore, the inadequacies of the escalator infrastructure is either ignored or worse, tolerated at the senior management level and by the MTA Board level. If the rate of escalator breakdowns was scutinized by the board, in the same manner as subway cars are with the metric of MBDF (Mean Distance Between Falures), I’m sure the situation would be quite different.

BBnet3000 February 9, 2011 - 5:40 pm

Strict lowest bidder rules are a great way to get shoddy jobs with cost overruns exceeding higher bids anyway.

Subutay Musluoglu February 9, 2011 - 6:33 pm

Agreed – that is what plagues the capital program in general, and its effects are visibly apprarent in the station rehabilitation program for example. A complete lack of accountability on the part of the procurement department plays a big role – they walk away after bid opening and pat themselves on the back for securing the lowest price for the agency, but there’s never any follow up with respect to how this approach is costing the agency much, much more in the long run. A complacent board only exacerbates this situation.

Matt February 9, 2011 - 6:51 pm

DC also has a union problem.

It worries me with the Second Ave Subway that there will be many more mechanical components to the stations: escalators and HVAC units for A/C) to name two. Both of these items will require constant maintenance (like any mechanical, moving system) to remain operational. Only time will tell if the MTA will be able to keep up with the heavier maintenance requirements of these new stations.

Peter February 10, 2011 - 2:45 pm

In escalator news a little closer to home: the new A/C/E entrance at the southeast corner of 42nd and 8th (which SAS featured a few weeks back, http://bkabak.wpengine.com/201.....-entrance/) finally opened on Monday and this morning one of the escalators was already out of service! Workers were on the scene, so maybe it won’t be for long, but still: not off to a great start.

Benjamin Kabak February 10, 2011 - 3:16 pm

I haven’t been inside that entrance yet so this is not a 100 percent informed comment, but: If I had to guess, I’d say that escalator is the responsibility of the new building’s management company. The other problem with NYC’s escalators is that many of them are under the purview of the building into which the entrance leads, and they’re not very good at maintaining those entrances.

Matthias February 13, 2011 - 12:16 pm

Most, if not all, of WMATA’s escalators have been covered by now, but breakdowns are still epidemic. It’s common to see a sign that says “Escalator rebuilding project — Scheduled reopening Feb 2010 June 2010 Sept 2010″

All of the short ones should be replaced with stairs. Escalators don’t make good stairs at all–they are very narrow and the steps are too large.

The MTA’s escalator problem :: Second Ave. Sagas February 24, 2011 - 11:32 am

[…] we recently learned from Washington, D.C., transit agencies and escalators just don’t mix. Government agencies that are forced to take the lowest bids on projects often end up with […]


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