Wes Vernon Commentary
October 2011

Metro's Escalators - Again?

Metro rattled some cages when its management announced that it would be shutting down, possibly for an entire year, the 19th Street entrance to the Dupont Circle station. The inconvenience, occasioned by replacement of often dysfunctional escalators, is slated for implementation early next year.

A full year's shutdown in 2012 likely will drive many Metro riders back into their automobiles. Oh, goody! We don't have enough traffic in downtown Washington. We need more, right?

The announcement stirred some memories for longtime Red Line riders. You see, at the end of 1996 and the beginning for 1997, that same entrance to Dupont Circle, Metro's fifth busiest station, was shut down for months on end.

While one of the reasons for shutting down the entrance at that time was the desire to install a shelter over the escalator entrance at 19th Street, improvement of escalator reliability also figured in the "temporary" inconvenience. This time, Metro says, it will be necessary to tear out the escalators and replace them with new ones.

This is personal too

Nowhere have I read or heard any current news account that mentions the lengthy 96-97 closure of the same busy downtown entrance. Either we have short memories here, or there has been a nearly complete turnover in the usage (and journalistic reporting) of that facility. This is an instance where institutional memory would come in handy.

A Washington Post report informs us that the south escalators at 19th Street are the least reliable of Metro's 588 escalators. Again, if that's the case, does it mean the earlier upgrade fell short of the mark? The upcoming work is estimated at $12 million, courtesy of the taxpayers, the fare payers and those of us who feed dollars into both coffers. How much more will it take to get this right?

The reason for my own recollection is that in the earlier time, I was employed at a downtown office that was very convenient to the 19th Street entrance. When that earlier era escalator shutdown occurred, I had to walk the extra distance required between the office and Dupont Circle's more northerly Q Street entrance. It was no small matter. Navigating the Circle on foot, especially in rush hour (and even in good weather), presented some challenges, in time and extra effort.

After a few days of that, I opted for the lesser of two evils by using the Farragut North station instead. Long walk there too, but more conducive to pedestrians.

But why?

The question that comes to mind is twofold:

(1) Did it occur to anyone in the late nineties that these escalators (more poorly performing than all the others) required something more than a band-aid repair job? The impression that was left with the public then was that they had undergone a complete overhaul.

(2) What other miscalculations of that era ultimately have led to the possibility of a full year shutdown in 2012?

Speaking of institutional memory . . .

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles says the 19th Street escalators "are the bane of every customer that goes through there," and that next year's stoppage will be "short-term pain for long-term gain."

Putting aside that many customers would regard a possible full year's stoppage as hardly the sort of pain that qualifies as "short-term," the question persists: Should this not have been dealt with in 1996/97?

That was long before Mr. Sarles arrived on the scene, and thus he cannot be held accountable for mistakes that occurred in the earlier era. Yet there would have to be some records somewhere that provide a semblance of continuity regarding input to these earlier decisions so that we can know what mistakes to avoid in the future.

Another issue

News reports say one reason the entrance may have to shut down for an entire year is that the facility was made for only two escalators rather than the current three, thus limiting work space for the construction job.

Correct me if I'm wrong (at deadline, I had not been able to ascertain this from WMATA), but if memory serves, a prime reason for the long shutdown in the earlier above-referenced decade was to add the third escalator at that time. This would suggest we may in fact be dealing with escalators that were new just 14 years ago. That's a pretty short life span - unless WMATA fell behind in proper maintenance.


Published reports have pinpointed 1997 as the time frame in which it was revealed that Metro's escalator maintenance records were falsified. But if that was discovered in 1997 at about the time the current escalators were installed, would one not reasonably assume that special care since then had been taken to make certain that required maintenance was in fact performed in the last 14 years? In '97, heads rolled over the scandal. Have we learned nothing in the interim?

In the Metro's early years (late seventies/early eighties) after the station opened, there were never any escalator malfunctions at Dupont Circle that I can recall. And I assumed that the agency, knowing this would be one of the steepest escalators in the entire system, had taken extra pains to make sure there would be no such animal as a shutdown of the escalator facility, with routine maintenance occurring in the hours when the trains were not operating.

Other issues

Metro cites another problem: Previous escalator companies with whom the transit agency has dealt are no longer in business, thus depriving WMATA of spare parts.

"We want to put new ones [escalators] in there that will be more reliable and much more durable," Mr. Sarles tells us.

Okay. But this time, is it for real? Or in another 14 years, after many current riders have moved on, will this treadmill be with us yet again? Or do we, at long last, learn from our experiences?