Greater Greater Washington

Metro escalator repairs are unlikely to work, part 1: We still don't know why they're breaking

Metro has recently begun implementing a plan to reduce escalator and elevator downtime, based on the recommendations of a report commissioned by GM Sarles. Sarles is to be commended for bringing in experts to provide outside advice.


Photo by Takeshi Suzuki on Flickr.

Unfortunately, after reading through the 300-page report, reading the TOC Audit of escalators and elevators, and talking with former WMATA mechanics, it becomes clear that the current plan for reducing malfunctions and downtime is unlikely to work.

The central flaw in the current plan is that we still do not know the actual cause of escalator and elevator downtime.

Why, Why, Why: GM Sarles has commissioned a report that does highlight several areas in which Metro can improve. But it doesn't tell us why the elevators and escalators are failing.

This can only be done by investigating individual malfunctions and relentlessly asking why, over and over, until getting to the real cause.

Let's consider a hypothetical situation. An escalator has a problem with its brakes and goes out of control. A helpful analysis would find the root cause, not just the symptoms. It might look something like this:

Why did the escalator malfunction? The brakes failed. Why? The brake pads were worn. Why wasn't this found in inspection? The workers aren't given enough time to inspect everything. Why? They spend too much time fixing failed escalators and that cuts into routine inspection time. Why don't we have a dedication inspection team? That's a good question. Why don't we?

It's a question without an answer. Maybe this is the cause. Not worn brake pads, not lazy inspectors, but a problem with the way the inspection and maintenance system is designed.

This was just a hypothetical, but it's representative of the kind of analysis Metro could use. Unfortunately, the report upon which the current repair plan is based doesn't include any causal analysis.

The best place to start any root cause analysis is with the workers closest to the system. And the elevator consultants did ask the mechanics why their work fell short of maintenance standards.

Several key issues of the field labors concern, which are felt to contribute to the difficulty in maintaining the appropriate maintenance standards, were identified in discussions with field labor.
Mechanics complained of "allocation of adequate time to perform maintenance", "unsafe working conditions in the work area", "being directed to return units to service without being given ample time to adequately verify / prove cause of failure".

That sounds like a serious safety culture problem. Are these complaints true? Why do these conditions exist?

It must be clarified that while the field labor concerns identified above were expressed, the verification of all concerns expressed was not included in the scope of this report and cannot be verified by VTX.
For whatever reason, the consultant was not authorized to ask workers why escalators and elevators are failing and follow up on their explanations. As a result, we still don't know why the escalators and elevators are failing.

What to do? GM Sarles is wisely searching for outside expertise. In addition to the advice of escalator mechanics, Sarles should turn to the well-developed field of maintenance engineering which specializes in asking why of highly complex systems.

Maintenance engineering is its own discipline, and has been developed significantly by the defense and aerospace sectors. Lots of consultants and conferences are available to help organizations develop maintenance best practices.

As I have explained elsewhere, by conducting the rigorous root cause analyses that are central to maintenance best practices, organizations can confidently identify the actions and investment required to meet any performance and safety standards.

But this requires maintenance engineers to have conducted root cause analyses to identify and prioritize these issues. Where can we turn?

RCM-2011 Conference: This is the largest annual conference on maintenance engineering and maintenance best practices.

MRG consultants: MRG helped United Technologies, which makes Otis escalators and elevators, adopt maintenance best practices including root cause analysis.

PMA Consulting: PMA is an Arlington-based maintenance engineering consultancy that helps organization adopt these types of maintenance best practices.

I don't know if these are necessarily the right consultants for Metro, but they, and the conference, are a start.

In the second part of this two-part post, we will explore the inevitable consequence of failure to discover which concerns are actually causing downtime or safety issues: a media-driven maintenance plan.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 

Comments

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Preventive maintenance, preventive maintenance, preventive maintenance.

Establish a change out / servicing schedule for part and components that have a know service life length.

Pretty simple. This is how I manage to get hundreds of thousands of miles out of the cars that I have owned.

by Sand Box John on Dec 9, 2010 11:05 am • linkreport

Why don't we have a dedication inspection team? That's a good question. Why don't we? It's a question without an answer.

No, it's the same answer as always: WMATA leadership (in this case the leadership of (escalator) maintenance) is incompetent and clueless.

Someone will probably reply and chastise me for being cynical and non-productive, but seriously. We've had escalator problems for years, and they don't know why? How is that not the very definition of incompetence?

Same thing with the safety issue. It's been known for years that WMATA has no safety standards. So how is that not a sign of utter incompetence, lack of leadership, carelessness and cluelessness?

And who's not holding these folks accountable?

How to fix it? Call another large transit system with many escalators, ask for their maintenance rules, copy-paste-implement. This is not new territory, someone has figured it out.

by Jasper on Dec 9, 2010 11:12 am • linkreport

How to fix it? Call another large transit system with many escalators, ask for their maintenance rules, copy-paste-implement. This is not new territory, someone has figured it out.

Let me preemptively tell you the objection: "I don't feel that transit system X's system properly takes into account the needs of the DC metro area community, and we can't just adopt something like this at a speed of light pace without all voices being heard."

by JustMe on Dec 9, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

Call another large transit system with many escalators

Is there one? Particularly one that uses predominantly the same model of escalator throughout its system? Most urban metro systems were built with stairs. The London Underground is the only system that immediately comes to mind for having lots of escalators. (And we definitely cannot afford to adopt a European-style maintenance/health & safety scheme.)

I suspect that a lot of the issues we're having are at least somewhat unique to Metro.

by andrew on Dec 9, 2010 11:28 am • linkreport

I think the answer is much simpler.

Given that

1) WMATA has a lot of escalators
2) They do see a lot of traffic
3) They are often long
4) They are a often problematic models that have motors in hard to access areas:

It just turns out that preventative maintenance is difficult and we don't have the time/expertise/money to do it right.

Kind of like keeping the cars clean. Why bother? it isn't that important, right?

by charlie on Dec 9, 2010 11:29 am • linkreport

Ah yes root cause analysis, such a useful tool.

Back in the day I always thought it was becasue they were exposed to the weather, but then then they put a roof over all of them, so its clearly more then that.

by Matt R on Dec 9, 2010 11:44 am • linkreport

This post assumes there is a solution, which I'm not sure is the case. We know that 489 of the 588 escalators are a discontinued model with reliability problems. If I had a fleet of 600 Yugos, I wouldn't need to hire a consultant to do root cause analysis to figure out why so many of them were in the shop. They're in the shop because they're old, crappy cars. My solution would be to buy new cars. Unfortunately, WMATA can't do that with all of the old, crappy escalators.

by jcm on Dec 9, 2010 12:02 pm • linkreport

@ JustMe: "I don't feel that transit system X's system properly takes into account the needs of the DC metro area community, and we can't just adopt something like this at a speed of light pace without all voices being heard."

The need of the community is to have the escalators running. How is that different from anybody else that has an escalator?

@ andrew: And we definitely cannot afford to adopt a European-style maintenance/health & safety scheme.

Euhm? European escalators are more expensive because of their evil socialist secondary operation benefits, like 7 weeks of vacation a year?

@ charlie: we don't have the time/expertise/money to do it right.

Then WMATA should state that, and show much extra they need to fix the problem. It is not that hard.

by Jasper on Dec 9, 2010 12:14 pm • linkreport

It's been known for some time that the brand and model of the escalator primarily used throughout Metro's system is a turkey. Continuing to try and fix this substandard 30-year-old model that is no longer manufactured makes little sense. What's needed is a 10-year plan to replace all underperforming escalators and elevators with new, high-quality products. Expensive? Of course. But the alternative--keeping the status quo--is unacceptable.

by Anonymous on Dec 9, 2010 12:31 pm • linkreport

Re: Headline - "We still don't why they're breaking"

They're breaking because they're a substandard product. It's a simple as that. As in any manufactured good, there are quality products and other that are less so. Metro's escalators and elevators fall into the crappy category. They need to be replaced.

by Anonymous on Dec 9, 2010 12:36 pm • linkreport

Preventive maintenance, preventive maintenance, preventive maintenance.

Increasing the scope and iterations of preventative maintenance is not the solution. The more you increase preventative maintenance, the more you wastefully inspect and replace parts that are working fine. And by intruding in a system so frequently, the maintenance itself starts to affect uptime. Finally, this will bankrupt WMATA. We have to know why the escalators and elevators are failing.

by Ken Archer on Dec 9, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

They're breaking because they're a substandard product.... They need to be replaced.

How do you know that? An escalator or an elevator is nothing but an assembly of parts.

You would keep your car for decades if it cost $1 million to buy and you discovered that it was more cost-effective to replace car parts that replace your car wholesale.

by Ken Archer on Dec 9, 2010 12:44 pm • linkreport

The need of the community is to have the escalators running. How is that different from anybody else that has an escalator?

You forget that the "community" in DC that public policies are supposed to serve is not made of up the clients of government services but the providers of government services. And besides, who are you to come in here and tell the respected, middle-class long-time members of the community who are involved in WMATA escalator maintenance that they they're not doing a good job, especially when trying to force us to use the methods of other cities without taking into consideration DC's unique needs and way of life?

I didn't say the argument made sense. I said that's why it's not being solved the way you say it should be solved.

by JustMe on Dec 9, 2010 12:48 pm • linkreport

Remember years ago when it was suggested the escalators were failing because of exposure to rain and snow? That's why they added glass canopies. Has anyone looked at the stats to see if the canopies do in fact result in more reliable performance?

by M.V. Jantzen on Dec 9, 2010 1:03 pm • linkreport

Call Otis, Schindler and Kone. They can fix them.

by Andy Schultz on Dec 9, 2010 1:11 pm • linkreport

An excellent post. Root cause analysis should be done by folks who actually know the details of the situation and who are ready and willing to keep asking until they identify the answers. As much as the smug readers of GGW think they know about the situation, there's tons more that they don't. It's just the nature of a complex situation.
Of course, all the root cause analysis in the world won't make any difference unless management is willing to act. I wouldn't hold my breath on that one....
Maybe to simplify things, they could just implement recommendations on one line at a time, as a way to minimize risk and test solutions before rolling them out system wide.

by Josh S on Dec 9, 2010 1:31 pm • linkreport

@ Ken Archer All machines are just an asembly of parts, and yet some machines are much more reliable than others. Have you read this article?

"There is a ton of them out there, and no one is really happy with them," said Ken Smith, an escalator consultant and a member of the escalator code committee of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The model was discontinued 30 years ago.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Mr. Smith knows more about escalator reliability than you or me.

by jcm on Dec 9, 2010 1:52 pm • linkreport

"There is a ton of them out there, and no one is really happy with them."

And what happens after we wholesale replace the largest escalator system in the Western hemisphere? Do we have the maintenance processes and systems in place to maintain it? We don't know because we aren't doing any causal analysis of our current downtime issues.

by Ken Archer on Dec 9, 2010 2:02 pm • linkreport

@KenArcher: "n escalator or an elevator is nothing but an assembly of parts."

Yes. And why I'd hestite to use a washington post article as a teardown guide, I think this illuminating:

"Unlike most escalators, which have motors and brakes at the top, the Westinghouse is built in segments, with brakes and motors in each segment at different points along the incline."

It is very likely these are breaking down because access to do basic preventive work is expensive and difficult.

To use a car analogy, it is not that a Ferrari engine is unreliable -- it is just that to do basic maintenance you have to remove the engine from the car.

This is the basic blocking and tackling that is not being done here. No need to get fancy.

by charlie on Dec 9, 2010 2:05 pm • linkreport

@ JustMe: You forget that the "community" in DC that public policies are supposed to serve is not made of up the clients of government services but the providers of government services.

Huh? WMATA's goal is to serve WMATA?

And besides, who are you to come in here and tell the respected, middle-class long-time members of the community who are involved in WMATA escalator maintenance that they they're not doing a good job,

They are not doing a good job. If they were, the escalators would be working. I am a nine-year user of the DC metro system that on a nearly daily basis has to walk up or down broken escalators. I am also a tax payer in this regions whose money supposedly is being spent fixing the escalators. I guess that does not make me a provider of government services. so I should not complain?

especially when trying to force us to use the methods of other cities without taking into consideration DC's unique needs and way of life?

Again: What is unique about DC's needs and way of life with regards to escalators? Are you arguing here that DC's unique needs and way of life require escalators to be broken? Perhaps DC'sunique needs and way of life require incompetence?

I didn't say the argument made sense.

Well, I honestly do not understand what you were trying to say.

by Jasper on Dec 9, 2010 3:01 pm • linkreport

"after reading through the 300-page report, reading the TOC Audit of escalators and elevators, and. . ."

You da man!

by Steve O on Dec 9, 2010 3:34 pm • linkreport

I work on modular escalators. They are tanks and the best option for long units like metro has.

You can't put 1 motor up top and expect the chain that it drives to pull you and everyone else up out of dupont or glenmont reliably.

All parts are available for them These things will run for many more years. All they need is competent people working on them. Currently THIS IS THE PROBLEM.

by Bill richardson on Dec 9, 2010 3:35 pm • linkreport

Euhm? European escalators are more expensive because of their evil socialist secondary operation benefits, like 7 weeks of vacation a year?

Let me elaborate on that. European methods of Health/Safety are incredibly thorough, and usually require a lot of money and manpower to implement, and result in projects taking somewhat longer to complete. I worked under this system for a while, and I'm not entirely convinced that it was worth the insane amount of effort it required.

On the other hand, there are far fewer accidents, and you don't see road crews accidentally drilling through the roofs of subway stations.

by andrew on Dec 9, 2010 4:16 pm • linkreport

I think the reason for so many escalator breakdows could be attributed to using generic parts on Westinghouse trusses, there is a reason for having adjustors in the elevator-escalator trade. Westinghouse was the original company to install the metro escalators,why not start with that entity for some advice? just a thought.

by 4OURFUTURE on Dec 10, 2010 5:31 pm • linkreport

From ConsumerWatch:

http://www.consumerwatch.com/workplacepublic/escalators

Escalator Brands with Documented Failures

Examples of some of the escalator parts and systems that have been defective and included within legal action due to death or injury of passengers or workers include:
...

Westinghouse Elevator Company (now Schindler)

The 460 Westinghouse escalators at the Metro stations throughout Washington, DC, are reported to repeatedly have broken steps which then become lodged at the end plates at the top or bottom of the escalator through misalignment. When the steps become lodged, the escalator steps buckle and fracture, which abruptly halts the operating walkway and jars the passengers who are additionally at risk of injury due to metal fragmentation. Seven such incidents occurred in one month alone in December, 1990.

The Westinghouse Elevator Company was found negligent in inspection and maintenance of an escalator on which a three-year-old boy was injured while shopping with his mother in an Indianapolis, Ind., JC Penney store. The boy sat on a step and his arm became lodged in the space between the step and the side panel of the escalator.

...

As this report indicates, WMATA was having major issues with its Westinghouse escalators 20 years ago. Since then problems have continued to regularly manifest, with all-to-often malfunctioning incidents, some dangerous, still occurring.

When is enough, enough? The repair programs that WMATA has instituted to get its antiquated Westinghouse escalators and elevators operating properly obviously are making little headway. Moreover, it's folly to keep throwing money at a poorly designed and engineered product that will likely never meet expected quality standards. WMATA needs to formulate a decisive, workable plan this year to replace these underperforming, failure-prone Westinghouse products over the next decade. Replacement--that's the only true, long-range solution to solving these vexing escalator/elevator issues.

by Anonymous on Dec 10, 2010 8:01 pm • linkreport

Folks although the Westinghouse modular units are no longer produced if qualified mechanics are permitted to use domestically manufactured escalator replacement parts then the escalators will perform as they were intended for many years. Once you eliminate the low bidder concept, that is contained in most government bidding documents, you will get pricing that will allow the contractor to install US engineered and produced parts on an escalator that was manufactured in the US. The escalators would work fine if the contractor were given more latitude than constraints in their bidding. Low prices tend to lead to low results.

by Gary on Dec 13, 2010 6:48 pm • linkreport

@Gary 6:48pm

It's reasonable to assume that substandard replacement parts are part (pun intended) of the problem. Indeed, using high quality, domestically produced products may reduce problematic maintenance issues. But only to a degree. Given the performance and breakdown history of the Westinghouse elevators, it's also reasonable to assume that they're just poorly designed and engineered. If that's the case, then quality replacement parts won't matter all that much. They'll probably help keep the machines running a bit longer, but eventually, as in all low-quality products, something or other will fail.

Let's face it: The Westinghouse escalators and elevators are simply not quality products. Over the years, there have been way to many performance issues to think otherwise. You know those little brushes near the bottom of the escalator sidewalls? Well, they're weren't in the original design and were only installed after kids started to get their fingers mangled between the escalator steps and the sidewalls. There were seven incidents alone in December 1990. (See the comment above.) If that's not a fundamental design flaw, then what is? Geez. You'd think an engineer at Westinghouse would have noticed that having so much space between step and sidewall might be problematic, but they pressed ahead nonetheless. Only after some fingers were lost was corrective action taken.

by Anonymous on Dec 13, 2010 8:01 pm • linkreport

Anonymous:I beg to differ on the Westinghouse design modular units as being poorly designed. Due to the rise of the escalators in the DC system you need multiple drives to move the stairs and people. The design concept was and still is valid. Now to keep it synchronized and running properly is up to the maintenance man/woman, who is properly trained and using quality made parts. If one is to look at all the negatives associated over the 30 plus years then that skews the results downward. Compare the millions of riders who have traveled the units and the injuries associated and statistically the negatives are miniscule. Yes I am fully aware of the brush guards on the sides/skirts of the escalators. What a white elephant.Good for polishing shoes to a degree but I hope you agree they do not eliminate the gap between the step and the skirt. They only cover it up. The only product that truly addresses the gap is the patented device by Carl J White and Associates known as the Side Safety Step Plate. It was a uniquely designed product that wasn't endorsed by the oem's because to do so would admit that there is a problem in the design of the escalator in general. Allow a good mechanic the time he/she needs to properly install US replacement parts and keep the knuckle heads from vandalizing the equipment and you end up with a very good Westinghouse escalator.I can't comment on elevators since the only way to travel is ESCALATORS

by Gary on Dec 13, 2010 8:22 pm • linkreport

Spoken like a true elevator mechanic/adjuster, although I beg to differ on your travel mode comment. I don't know who at local 10 they had to do the initial escalator training for the metro mechanics,but it shows that an engineer from westinghouse clearly should have been a part of that equation or should be figured in from this point on or at lease until they change them over. It's really sad to read the side safety step plate hypothesis, vanity has absolutely no place in this business, I would like to think that it isn't the case.

by Anothernative on Dec 13, 2010 9:42 pm • linkreport

There is a difference between a defective machine and one that breaks down all the time. I see the point about the design defects in terms of open spaces. However, we're not arguing about whether the escalators are safe: we are asking why they break down all the time. Two separate questions.

Now, if the issue was foreign objects coming into the side skirt and damaging the motors, well, maybe.

by charlie on Dec 13, 2010 9:45 pm • linkreport

Good Morning Charlie: I agree with you and was responding to the anonymous point about poorly designed equipment and addressed the side of step entrapment issue as well. Now about the WESTINGHOUSE escalators breaking down "all the time". What about the KONE or Fujitec escalators? Are they down as much and if they are what causes them to shut down? If they are not down all the time is it because of their design or their location or that the area they are in are devoid of vandals? I would compare all the escalators and see if there is something common for their shutting down.IF I were in a position at WMATA I would allow Schindler the opportunity to completely modernize one unit as Schindler deems fit and judge how long it takes and what causes the shutdown. Of course if they modernize it then they would have to meet existing codes not those in the 70's and meeting the present day codes may cause more shutdowns due to the safety switches.

by Gary on Dec 14, 2010 10:20 am • linkreport

In 1998 we have the same problem in montreal metro. 225 escalators were change, a lot of westinghouse models, vikers and montgommery. It s take 2 months to change a escalator for a new one. Your metro need a refresh and the only solution is to have a unique model of escalator.

by Benoit on Feb 29, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

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