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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Subj: Sitting on a stalled escalator at Metro Center

The Thursday morning commute into the District started out reasonably well. The warmer than usual January morning was a welcome experience. As I sat on the stalled Metro Center escalator in my wheelchair listening to the approaching sirens, I thought about all the events that had to take place in order for me to be at that place at just that moment when the machinery shut down for some inexplicable reason.

The MARC train had arrived on time however the funky air surrounding the restroom compartment meant that the mezzanine area was not very crowded. Many of the restroom equipped MARC Commuter cars have been neglected as of late but the bigger issue is the frequency of breakdowns that severely delay or cancel trains altogether. This morning was a pleasant exception from the recent spate of ‘issues.’ We even arrived on the 13 Track where we at least have half a platform. The other half of the width is cordoned off for long neglected overhaul. This arrival and ease of train deboarding meant that I was on schedule but unusually ahead of a typical day in the life of a DC commuter.

Down in the Metro Rail station at Union Station, the fubars were manifest in great numbers. My BB phone was not registering emails so I had been without the heads up that the Red line trains were being delayed by yet another cracked rail. At my count this was the 5th occurrence in less than 2 months. I sent a Tweet that “At #WMATA, I guess we have discovered just how long the steel rails last. 5 cracks in 2 months. A pattern emerges.” My progress toward the place and time of what would euphemistically become known as the “January Escalator Incident” among my friends and colleagues was slowing down.

The first train through the station was so crowded that I passed on taking it. It seemed to be having door troubles, too. The next train was mostly empty so I got on it. Then we sat there for a few minutes due to the backlog of trains ahead of us, including the one I skipped that was now having continued issues at Judiciary Square. All along the line the delays were building due to the rail crack up ahead. One announcement was that a train had broken down in the single track section and was being assisted. What should have been a 10 minute ride to Metro Center was taking half an hour. My decisions to wait on the next train placed me temporally about three minutes behind where I otherwise would have been. The moment I rolled off the Metro Center escalator would have been about three minutes before it stopped for its spurious reason. That is assuming that it stopping had nothing to do with my actual presence. I don’t think it “had it in for me.”

When we finally arrived at Metro Center, I found that the west end platform up escalator had been enclosed in plywood walls for a long term long overdue overhaul job. If the overhaul schedule had been one day later, I would have exited the station in that direction making for a completely different morning experience. Incidentally, this means that the down unit will be stationary during that entire period. The night before, the down escalator was stopped even though it was recently returned to service after its multi-month repair. My commute options were being greatly curtailed. Using a wheelchair in the DC Metro system is a challenge every day even when all the equipment actually is operating.

I knew that the only street elevator at Metro Center was out of service for its long overdue, long neglected overhaul. Had I moved slower through the crowd in the station, or had met one of my commute acquaintances such as Casey or Mary and lingered a few seconds while talking, I might have been met with a stopped escalator when I first arrived. Needless to say, I would not have used it. I exited the system and looked to see if that one escalator was operating on this morning. It was. The other one was torn down and midway through its overhaul job. The third unit had long ago been replaced with granite steps in the first austerity program of WMATA. Actually back in the mid 1990s three technicians had been killed while working on this particular set of escalators. They were crushed when someone re-energized the motor units while they were in the machinery.

The traffic was light and I took a hold of the hand rail and started up ascent to the street. When about half way to the top, a bell rang out and the moving stairs eased to a stop. My reaction was to say, “I can’t F***ing, believe this.” All of the micro-delays and lack of others all added up to the fact of my being halfway up that stair when the motor actually quit.

The woman who had been about 10 feet further along looked back at me. She came close and asked if there was anything she could do. I said she could go tell the station manager. She went back down and made the report. The last I saw her she was walking up the granite steps.

This is where the story gets interesting. An escalator technician arrived and insisted on holding me in place. I told him I was able to hold on myself for as long as in didn’t fall asleep. He said he’d continue to hold on. I wanted them to just restart the steps but he refused saying it was against the safety protocols to restart an escalator with a customer on it. He said the Fire Department personnel would decide what to do. I argued that them carrying me off was far more dangerous than restarting the unit with me on it and him holding on as he was. My logic did not sway his opinion. We waited. If he had not arrived on the scene, I would have gotten tired of waiting and would have done what I did when DC’s only earthquake shook the city and elevators all over the place went into emergency mode. I would have bumped and bounced down the steps one at a time until I was at the bottom. Then I would have tried a different exit. His presence added to the unnecessary hoopla of the day.

I heard the sirens gradually getting louder and closer. Soon there was a host of canvas coated men all standing at the top of the escalator. They walked down and we entered into a discussion about what to do. They wanted to carry me down into the station so I could use the elevator. I pointed out that it was out of service for repairs as were many of the other escalators in this station. That was why I was right there right now. “I will be stranded in the station if you carry me down. Even the Trains are snafued today.”

We consulted on the placed to hold and lift and the placed to avoid. One man produced a nylon strap and we looped it through the frame at placed that were string and would not fail. Thence it was onward and upward to the street. That part took all of about 2 minutes.

While I provided my identification information for the report, the technician turned the key and restarted the stairs without incident. I pointed to them and said, “see there. This was all a big honking nothing turned into a big deal.” I confirmed that I had no residual concerns and went on my way to the office. I pondered what I should do for next few months while they work on the entrances at Metro Center that I use.

Post Script: Some people would say I am an optimist, which I am. Things could have been worse. Really it could have been. This incident could have happened on the next day, Friday, when the District had torrential rains until after 9:30. That Metro Center escalator is one of those ones that are outside under the open sky. Twenty minutes of sitting in the pouring rain would have made the events a whole lot different.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

It's always Something

It's always Something

Roseanne Roseannadanna's dear old dad was astute in his observation. The first week of January 2012 brought a significant number of concatenated failures of the Maryland MTA rail system and the WMATA system in DC. It is bad enough when one thing goes wrong but what it is a series of fubars that culminate in massive delays, one can only fall back on that saying, "It's always something."

After the long breakdown of a MARC commuter train in the afternoon of the last workday of 2011, a Friday to boot, the entire region seems to have succumbed to multiple daily problems. It that first short workweek of January WMATA experienced three cracked rails and a pedestrian was hit on the tracks. Multiple trainsets were disabled due to one reason or another and the elevators and escalators continue to be out of service for the continuing program of renovation. Each incident by itself is bad enough, but when one event leads into another and another, one day can become quite the challenge.

For the many thousands of MetroRail customers who walk into and out of the stations on good feet, have strong hearts and limber joints it is only the trains not moving on schedule that tax their patience. Stalled escalators may be a nuisance with the backlog of fellow commuters queued to walk up or down the stationary stairs, but a few minutes of time will remedy the situation.

For those riders who have difficulty walking the stairs, getting into and out of stations can be a daunting task especially when surrounded with already anxious delayed fellow riders whose rude attitudes rival only their pushy insistence in getting to their job or the transit connection back home.

Then there are the users of wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility devices that make using transit possible at all. Working elevators and escalators are just as important a part of the trip to work or home as is the Red Line trains having doors that work and track signals that allow the trains to move safely from one station to the next.

January 4th was one of those exceptional days when many things went wrong with this one person's trip home to Baltimore. Much to the distress of many WMATA Station Managers and Transit Police Officers, I depend on using working escalators to enter and leave Metro stations even though I use a wheelchair. They sometimes get it in their minds that what I am doing is a danger to myself and others on the escalator. That they fail to understand is that after 16 years of entering and leaving the Metro Center Station via escalator, my ride count exceeds 16,000 events. With that much experience behind me, I think and special danger is long extinguished. There remains, of course, the dangers that everyone who rides an escalator in the Metro Rail system. It could stop, it could throw them off at the bottom. It could try to eat their shoes, loose clothing or unsupervised children. One could get their iPod or Smart Phone ripped off by a fast moving pickpocket. They could be knocked over by an anxious customer who is late for a meeting.

On this Wednesday, I headed for the west entrance only to find the down escalator stopped. My trip to the south entrance found a similar condition in effect along with the center unit barricaded for repairs. The west entrance had no functioning units. I resolved to go to the north entrance and use the elevator, since I already knew the one escalator to be under repair while the other served as a stationary staircase. WMATA had taken the street elevator out of service for several months for a major overhaul. On my way back to the west entrance to try for the D6 circulator bus, I stopped at the top of the escalators. I prevailed upon a woman to go ask the Station Manager if the machine could be restarted. This Manager was helpful and got it running for me.

I already knew that the platform level escalator was torn apart for overhaul and that I had to go to the wrong side platform and then cross over if the other end pair of escalators were both working.

Failure Two

All the while I was trying to get into the station, the same train sat at the platform waiting for authorization to proceed do to trouble ahead. It sat there all the while I was traveling to the far end of the platform and crossing over and back down. It sat there for another 10 minutes before moving on. A woman standing near to the door where we would both be getting out at Union Station kept noting the time and her urgency to get to her 5:10 MARC train.

Failure Three

It was odd that the 438 train departing at a scheduled 5:20 was on the 13 track. Usually they park it on the 16 track and make everyone climb the steps due to the low-level pavement. I even joked with the conductor about our not having to set up a lift for me to get on the train.

A bunch of the Gang was there in our accustomed car at the 2nd car position. We sat. We talked. Soon we wondered when the train would pull out. Five-twenty came and went but we have been used to that happening without dire consequences to follow. This day would be different. At about 5:30 we got the first PA message. We would be delayed due to mechanical problems. Heck, we knew THAT. What we wanted was when we were going to move. One woman was going to miss her league bowling start time. Others were going to miss picking up children at daycare with a penalty.

After the 5:25 train had pulled away we got the update that our train was not going to pull out and we needed to move over to another train. First they gave us a high level platform then they took it away. We had to move over to the 8 track that was low level boarding and I would require the lift. I had decided to go buy dinner at Union Station and catch an even later train. The conductor, however, informed me that "they have the lift all ready setup and waiting for you over on 8." I didn't want to disappoint them or raise confusion if I didn't show up, so I went. About half of the Gang regrouped in the 2nd car where they had set up the lift. The trip was slower than usual after a very late departure. We arrived about 50 minutes late at BWI and there was a massive rush to get out of the garages.

Commuting has become an adventure, and remains so.