How is Washington, D.C. supposed to run the world when it can’t even fix its own escalators?
Strap on some steel-toed safety shoes–you’re gonna need them–as Reason.tv correspondent Kennedy investigates D.C.’s dismal and dangerous subway system.
Metro, the sprawling 106-mile rapid transit system that serves 3.4 million D.C.-area residents, is notorious for a lot of things, but nothing so much as the squeaky disrepair of its 588 escalators. On any given day, about one out of eight moving stairs are out of service. Yet Metro’s escalator and elevator maintenance division has a $22.5 million operating budget and 214 staffers, which works out to about one employee for every four escalators and elevators system wide.
The grim history of Metro escalators runs like an endlessly circulating chain of horror stories. In 2002, an escalator at Brookland Station set a record by breaking down 147 times over the course of one year. Poorly maintained escalators have led to broken arms, lost digits, massive pileups, and multiple deaths. In 1991, for example, a 25-year-old student from California lost the top of his right foot on an escalator because a drugged-up schizophrenic station manager at Dupont Station refused to walk 10 feet to hit the emergency shut-off switch, though he did give vague instructions to a non compliant homeless man to do it for him. The same year, a 15-year-old Michigan girl saw her pinkie toe snipped by an escalator at Smithsonian Station.
When heading home from the 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” some demonstrators boarded an escalator at L’Enfant Station that suddenly started running as fast as a roller coaster, landing four passengers in the hospital. In 1985, a three-year-old girl was strangled to death by an escalator at the Minnesota Avenue Station, and four years later, a 40-year-old woman was killed when her clothing became entangled in an escalator at Rhode Island Avenue. The advent of side brushes and better automatic shut-off sensors have reduced accidents on Metro escalators, but more units today are routinely out of service.
Why are Metro’s escalators so bad? The problem stems partly from a decision made 20 years ago. In 1992, Metro got rid of the private contractors that repaired and maintained the system and started hiring and training its own escalator mechanics. The rationale was that government employees would do a better job for less money.
Partway through a planned eight-month-long maintenance project that many riders assume will take far longer, the wisdom of that decision remains an open question. Reason.tv would have loved to talk with WMATA, the government agency that runs the Metro, but it ignored our requests for an interview.
Written and produced by Jim Epstein.