DAVID MENI, PRESIDENT
I’ve had this recurring nightmare that I’m in a full suit in the middle of July, sweating bullets as I make my way up the broken escalator at Dupont South--one of the longest in Metro’s system, and also one of the escalators most commonly out of service.
In reality, this scenario has happened much more than it should. A broken escalator or elevator on the Metro is no fun for anyone, and can be a serious hazard if the need arises to evacuate a station. However, what many riders don’t realize is that some fine-print policies can make their trip more difficult.
More than just an inconvenience, escalator and elevator outages in the Metro can be a serious problem to anyone with a disability--encountering just one along a trip can seriously delay travel times and force riders with disabilities to navigate a maze of shuttles and other temporary accommodations.
That’s not to mention the importance of general ease-of-use in the growth of a public transit system. Even if a heavy rail network is well-established, a recurring problem like escalator outages can hurt ridership over the long term . The DC area is particularly vulnerable to this effect, as the Metro serves many commuters from outer suburbs that elect to take public transit because they can, not because they have to . This means that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)--more than most other urban transportation authorities--must be cognisant of issues that impact convenience and ease-of-use.
So How Bad Are Outages?
It’s actually hard to say.
While Metro’s internal report card may show that recent spending on escalator maintenance continues to perform “above target” at around 92% availability, these numbers are misleading. Escalator and elevator outages are often reported hours or days after they occur, if at all. Thus, the availability measure is over-estimated as a result of missing data. For example, this graph of outage reports, generated by the WMATA API shows a peculiar spike in reports at the beginning of each day, which indicates a large number of broken escalators that went unreported the previous day.
DC Metro Metrics--a site that combines official reporting and crowdsourcing over Twitter--gives a more realistic picture of Metro’s escalator problem: “for every 17 minutes the Metro is open, an escalator goes out of service.” At the time of writing this post, there were 50 escalators and 10 elevators out of service in the system.
Clearly, the problem is larger than we’re led to believe.
What’s the issue?
There tends to be a lot of finger-pointing when a problem comes up in WMATA. A lot of issues with Metro’s escalators and elevators can be chalked up to age: Many of them have been around since Metrorail’s inception, nearly 40 years ago; such machinery tends to have a lifespan of 20-30 years. However, many of Metro’s newest escalators (such as those put in at Foggy Bottom in 2011) are some of the worst in the system.
Many DC political figures blame the internal, unionized maintenance staff at WMATA. Even Tommy Wells, the“progressive stalwart” of the DC city council, has advocated using outside contractors to privatize escalator and elevator maintenance.
However, WMATA’s recent limited use of some private contractors has been plagued with delays and mismanagement.
The “Pick” System
I think the largest underlying problem is a little-known provision in the union contract between WMATA and the ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union) 689, which covers technical maintenance workers:
“In selecting work assignments, pensioned part-time operating employees shall exercise seniority and pick work at a particular location...from a published list of single pieces of work set out for this group during a work selection (pick).”
What this means is that senior workers with more experience get their first pick of maintenance jobs, generally for a 6-month period.
While this “pick” system may make sense on paper, it incentivizes the wrong thing; in many instances, senior workers will pick easier or newer escalator and elevator jobs, continually leaving more difficult cases to less experienced employees.
As David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington notes, the problem can go much deeper: “[The pick system] reduces incentives for more capable mechanics without high seniority to do a good job, since bringing an escalator up to tip top shape will only entice the more senior mechanics to bid to take it away.”
The new WMATA/ATU contract needs to eliminate this ineffective assignment system if there’s any hope of fixing Metro’s maintenance problem.
A Union-Friendly Way
Even with changing the ATU contract to eliminate the “pick” policy, there are still steps that can be taken to close the availability gap in Metro’s escalators and elevators without losing the benefits of union work.
Maintenance worker policy should be prioritize having employees work consistently on a certain set of Metro’s equipment rather than changing jobs so often; this way, they may grow acquainted with a job’s idiosyncrasies instead of having to re-learn them each time. This incentive towards labor specialization can reduce training costs for new workers and drive up maintenance efficiency.
Second, the workforce of escalator and elevator maintenance should be expanded, rather than using contractors that have so far missed goals. Maintenance staff has not expanded at the same rate as the size of Metro system, even as systems age and require more upkeep. This is particularly true with the sudden addition of 27 new escalators in the first phase of the Silver Line.
With the right policy changes, those new Silver Line escalators will be able to age in well-maintained dignity. Perhaps then, the Metro escalators in my dreams will allow me to stand (to the right), relax, and enjoy the ride.
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