Wes Vernon Commentary
December 2010

Metro and Its Escalators: Simple Case of Good Old Fashioned Screw-Up?

On November 15, The Washington Post ran a long story purporting to inform us as to why so many Metrorail escalators were out of service at any given time. Such concerns escalated (no pun intended) when several patrons were injured in a pile-up at the bottom of an escalator that did a sudden downward rev-up at L'Enfant Plaza on October 30.

Oh, and by the way . . .

Not until paragraph 28 in the Post story is reference made to a top WMATA official's admission that "Metro has had a fluctuating escalating maintenance plan, a shortage of supervisors, and a failure to adhere to its own standards."

The mea culpa comes from Metro Assistant General Manager David Kubicek, originally brought here all the way from Los Angeles to inform us D.C. dolts that one way to cut back on Metro's expenses was to run fewer trains (or perhaps shut down the whole system?). He says the escalator equipment "has been heavily contracted out, brought in, heavily contracted out--it's kind of been an orphan-type of approach on where you really find a home for it so you can start addressing these issues."

Nobody home?

Lots of retirements contributed to the problem, says Mr. Kubicek. Well, yes, with a mess like this, it would hardly be surprising if supervisors involved should want to grab their retirement portfolios and run away--screaming. Those left behind "tend to work in offices rather than in the field [no doubt keeping their heads down]."

Situation "normal"

Of course, anyone who has been riding Metro over the years was more than well acquainted with the problem long before the recent publicity spotlighted it. On a given day, it would almost seem as if half the machines were not operating.

For 25 years, I worked close to the DuPont Circle Station which had and has one of the steepest escalators in the operation.

Early on, I assumed the reason the 19th Street escalators, unlike those in many in other locations, operated unfailingly every day was because WMATA had some kind of ironclad rule issued from on high that there was no such animal as this particular set of escalators being out of order--at least operating in the up direction--simply because if passengers tried to take on that unmoving mountain, the result might be a heart attack or two.

Wrong. Eventually we had either only the down escalator out of service (which most of us could live with), or both up and down escalators not working or--most inexplicably--the down escalator operating, but not the up direction.

Behind the scenes

A knowledgeable source contended several years ago that there is "NO preventive maintenance performed on Metro escalators . . . etc., and this is why they have failed so badly over the years." Further, this insider added that "maintenance employees who were responsible for [keeping the escalators in shape] never actually did the work, but they made entries in the log books showing they did. They just goofed off and never did any work."

And then this: "Metro eventually contracted with private contractors to do the work while their . . . employees remained on the payroll. The private contractors found that many of the escalators and elevators were so worn from lack of lubrication and preventive maintenance they had to be replaced at huge cost. They were designed to last 30-40 years, but had to be replaced after 15 years of service."

So don't

Now look, this column is just the messenger. What we know about the mechanics of escalators wouldn't fill a thimble, but this claim is passed along here because it adds up as a possible explanation.

So don't look at me

This writer spent a quarter century of his life fighting to get Metro's Red Line extended to Glenmont at a time when that extension was in doubt. I'm a Metro rider who loves the convenience of the system. This is all the more reason to hope that it will operate in such a way that the riders will not be injured, and that the taxpayers and fare-payers supporting it will not be shortchanged.