Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What's Wrong with the Escalators Part 3: Availability vs. Reliability

Friday's incident at Foggy Bottom again shows something is deeply flawed, not only with the escalators themselves, but how WMATA "maintains" them. Age is certainly a factor, but near tragedies like L'Enfant and Foggy Bottom should never happen.

Over the past months, Unsuck has tried to get at some of the other root causes Metro could be remedying now, at little cost.

Here's the third installment.
What jumps out in Metro's most recent report on escalators is the focus on availability instead of reliability.

Under an availability ├╝ber alles scheme, an escalator expert said workers are probably doing whatever they need to get the thing working again--quickly.

"They're not getting to the root issues," said a source familiar with Metro's escalator program. "Instead of making good repairs, they're just resetting things" so the escalator is back up and running again but breaks down shortly thereafter.

Why is there this mentality at Metro? Perhaps it's because the escalator teams are not capable of making the kinds of complex repairs needed and are only able to provide Band Aid fixes.

From 1976 to 1991, Metro’s escalators were maintained by Westinghouse, the manufacturers of most of the escalators, and later Schindler, which purchased Westinghouse.

In 1991, as a cost-cutting move, Metro decided to "maintain" the escalators themselves. The new workforce would be members of ATU 689.

Our source said Metro was faced with the extremely daunting task of creating an escalator repair force "out of thin air."

Making it even more challenging was that Metro--because they were trying to save money--was paying less than market for its workers, so attracting and keeping the best workers was made all the more difficult.

So hurried was Metro's attempt to create a viable escalator/elevator workforce, it even went so far as to basically steal the training program from the National Elevator Industry Educational Program (NEIEP) for some time before they were sued to cease and desist, according to the source. NEIEP training is funded by contributions of employers, something Metro doesn't pay into.

Within a few years, escalators started to deteriorate, the source said. Some of them ended up in such a bad state that Metro’s own workers were not able to fix them, forcing Metro to contract out the work to the people who’d been fixing and maintaining the escalators before 1991.

So much for saving money. Metro was essentially paying its own full-time staff and then paying more to bring in people to fix the worst escalators.

This was an untenable situation, and things reached a head in 2002, when Metro commissioned a blue ribbon panel to try to turn things around. How much they paid for the panel is unknown, but what is certain is that Metro didn't follow the recommendations.

The report recommended the escalator maintenance work be given back to those who’d done it prior to 1991, saying Metro could save $10.9 million a year. (That's over $90 million by now.)

Metro took the half step of turning over some of the older, more troublesome elevators to the people who’d done it before 1991, keeping the rest for its own workers.

That arrangement lasted until July of 2010, when the responsibility of all escalator maintenance returned to ATU 689.

This was despite the report clearly stating Metro's escalator workforce was not as experienced as industry averages. In 2002, the report said, "top [escalator/elevator] mechanics in the area are typically in the trade from 12 to 15 years, sometimes more; WMATA average is 3.5 years."

Furthermore, the source said, ATU 689 doesn't provide the constant training outside escalator workers get.

Metro's workers are certified under a program called Certified Elevator Technician, and while our source called the NEIEP "far superior," and the "only program recognized in all 50 states," there does seem to be some debate among elevator escalator workers about the merits of each.

However, it is true that the CET program is under scrutiny because exams aren't proctored and many exam questions are given out before the exams, the source said. They added that the CET further lags behind NEIEP because it's largely computer based and has little classroom instruction.
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