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New York City Transit has spent close to $1 billion to install more than 200 new elevators and escalators in the subway system since the early 1990s, and it plans to spend almost that much again for dozens more machines through the end of the next decade. It is an investment of historic dimensions, aimed at better serving millions of riders and opening more of the subway to the disabled.
These are the results:
¶One of every six elevators and escalators in the subway system was out of service for more than a month last year, according to the transit agency’s data.
¶The 169 escalators in the subway averaged 68 breakdowns or repair calls each last year, with the worst machines logging more than double that number. And some of the least reliable escalators in the system are also some of the newest, accumulating thousands of hours out of service for what officials described as a litany of mechanical flaws.
¶Two-thirds of the subway elevators — many of which travel all of 15 feet — had at least one breakdown last year in which passengers were trapped inside.
Transit officials concede that the machines’ performance has often been poor, but say they are finally moving to fix what is wrong.
“There are a lot of problems,” said Howard H. Roberts Jr., the president of New York City Transit. “We’ve laid the problems out, and we’re addressing them one by one, and we are making progress, I think, across a wide variety of fronts.”
The cost of all this goes beyond the hefty capital investment and the roughly $25 million spent each year on maintenance and repair. It can be calculated in terms of people delayed on their way to work, people injured in accidents, people forced to alter their travel routines. And for the disabled, it means that many areas of the subway system still cannot be reliably navigated.
The New York Times spent months examining the system, the money spent on it and the oversight by management — conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing thousands of pages of documents. Through an analysis of more than 10 years of records not previously released by the transit agency, reporters were able to track breakdowns, repair calls and maintenance for every escalator and elevator in the system.
What emerged was a portrait of startling shortcomings.
The more than 200 mechanics who maintain and repair the subway’s elevators and escalators receive as little as four weeks of training, a fraction of what they would receive in other transit systems or in private industry. And transit officials concede the system is so inefficient that many elevator and escalator mechanics spend barely half of their shifts actually working on troubled machines.
Managers often rush balky elevators and escalators back into service without identifying the underlying causes of mechanical problems, leading to more breakdowns.
Many problems occur because of basic design flaws or mistakes made during the construction of the machines, when contractors worked with little or no oversight. Those conditions left many of the machines virtually broken from the outset.
“They don’t have enough competent people with the proper training,” said Michele O’Toole, the president of J. Martin Associates, which the transit agency hired in 2006 to evaluate its elevator operations. “It all reflects back to qualifications, training, capabilities.”
Transit officials say the subway presents unique challenges.
Elevators and escalators are spread out over a far-flung system, requiring more mechanics and slowing responses to breakdowns. There has been little standardization of parts, so mechanics must cope with a bewildering hodgepodge of machinery. And the machines, which operate 24 hours a day, are subject to all sorts of abuse: Elevators become makeshift bathrooms, and escalator steps are pounded by heavily loaded hand trucks.
The number of elevators has grown significantly since 1990, when the Americans With Disabilities Act set off a transformation of the aging transit system. For the disabled, the changes promised to open doors, while thousands of other straphangers —parents with strollers, older travelers —expected a small dose of convenience in a wearying city.
In 1990, about 48 elevators were in the subway system. Today, 167 are in 62 stations, with about two dozen more under construction and many more planned. (New York City Transit has pledged to make 100 key stations fully accessible by 2020.) The number of escalators has not grown at the same pace in recent years, but the agency has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to replace aging equipment.
It is hard to compare the performance of elevators and escalators in the New York subway with those in other transit systems because the agencies that run them compile and present data differently. Across the country, aging systems have struggled to modernize and maintain their equipment. And with five million subway riders a day, New York’s elevators and escalators suffer wear and tear unseen elsewhere.
Still, on several key measures, New York City Transit has clearly failed to keep up, both with other transit agencies and with basic industry standards, including training and pay for mechanics and the use of computers to better track mechanical problems.
“This organization is very, very good at subway car maintenance; it’s very good at bus maintenance. But maintaining auxiliary equipment it hasn’t done as well,” said Mr. Roberts, the transit president. “I think that we are in the process of trying to create the same competence in elevator and escalator maintenance that we have in buses and subway cars.”
Stuck in an Elevator
Grethel Kelly could not breathe. She was stuck with 14 other people last June 15 in a hot elevator deep within the 181st Street station of the No. 1 train — one of five especially deep stations in Upper Manhattan where riders rely heavily on elevators to get to and from the trains.
Ms. Kelly, 42, is asthmatic, and as the minutes ticked by, the air in the elevator became unbearably close. She felt an attack coming on, made worse by a rising sense of panic. An attack a few months earlier had put her in the emergency room — what if she could not get to the hospital this time? She squeezed herself into a corner of the elevator and tried to disappear.
“I’m going to die,” she told herself.
Brendalee Pichardo was also suffering. Already in the grip of a full-blown asthmatic attack, she sat on the floor of the elevator and pumped her inhaler.
To Ms. Pichardo, it felt as if it were more than 100 degrees. In the corner, she saw Ms. Kelly struggling to breathe and handed her the inhaler. A man took off his shirt and fanned the two women.
“It was horrible,” Ms. Pichardo, 29, recalled recently. “We thought we were going to asphyxiate.”
Finally, after about 40 minutes, rescuers were able to force the door open, and the passengers staggered out. Ms. Kelly and Ms. Pichardo were taken to the hospital.
Their experience was extreme, but not rare. Hundreds of subway riders are trapped in elevators every year. Last year, there were 286 incidents in which passengers were stuck inside an elevator for a few minutes to close to an hour. One elevator at the 168th Street station of the No. 1 train (where elevators provide the only access to the platforms) had riders trapped inside 18 times.
In many cases, riders were trapped in elevators where a mechanical problem occurred again and again. Some times, mechanics may have lacked the ability to solve the problem. At other times, transit officials said, supervisors failed to see patterns of breakdowns or felt pressured to put the machines back into operation in a hurry even though they needed additional work.
The elevator that trapped Ms. Kelly and Ms. Pichardo had broken down five times in the eight days leading up to the event. Each time, mechanics came, made minor adjustments and put the machine back in service — only to have it break down again.
On the day that Ms. Kelly and Ms. Pichardo were trapped, a Friday, the elevator had already malfunctioned once during the morning rush, according to agency records. Mechanics did some tests and put the elevator back in service at 2:21 p.m. An hour later, it broke down with Ms. Kelly, Ms. Pichardo and other passengers inside.
After they were freed, the elevator remained shut down overnight, but the next day it was put back in service. Within hours, it got stuck again, this time with seven people trapped inside.
Finally, Joseph Joyce, the transit agency’s general superintendent of elevators and escalators, ordered extensive tests. A major overhaul was needed and the elevator was out of service for two months.
Mr. Joyce said that he often had to rely on quick fixes because of pressure to keep people moving.
“We’re faced with trying to solve a problem,” he said, “but I don’t have the luxury of having all day to do it.”
Four Weeks of Training
In private industry, many workers go through a rigorous four-year training and apprenticeship to become elevator and escalator mechanics.
At New York City Transit, newly hired mechanics, many of whom have no experience in the field, are given a four-week introductory course in elevator and escalator maintenance. They are then issued a bag of tools and sent to work, paired up initially with a more experienced mechanic.
There is no requirement for refresher training. Mr. Joyce acknowledged that more was needed.
“You can be here 20 years and get four weeks of training,” he said. “That’s not enough.”
Ms. O’Toole, the consultant who reviewed subway elevator operations, said that a lack of training was a primary cause of a high rate of machine breakdowns and lengthy service lapses. Her review, she said, found many cases in which problems cropped up again and again without being properly diagnosed. (Her company quit as a consultant in January 2007 after disagreements with the transit agency and another contractor.)
Much of the training in private industry is done by labor unions that represent elevator and escalator mechanics, typically through a program that requires nearly 600 hours of course work.
Inspired by that program, and beset by criticism over persistent elevator and escalator breakdowns, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority created its own comprehensive training program for elevator and escalator mechanics in 2000. It includes a four-year apprenticeship with 1,300 hours of classroom training. Officials there said it had been instrumental in improving operations.
“In those four years we try and set it up so you will touch just about every facet of an elevator and escalator,” said David A. Lacosse, director of the Washington transit agency’s elevator and escalator division.
The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit system puts most of its mechanics through a two-year program with 1,060 hours of classroom instruction.
Mr. Joyce, who took over New York City Transit’s elevator and escalator department in 2005, said he was working to overhaul the way mechanics were trained, with the Washington authority as a model. He hopes to hire a manager this fall to put a similar program in place.
But the mechanics do not simply need better instruction, Mr. Joyce said. The typical mechanic, he estimates, puts in just four and a half hours of “wrench time” during an eight-hour shift. Much time is wasted traveling between subway stations. He is planning a reorganization to keep mechanics closer to the machines they work on.
And for years, records of breakdowns and maintenance have been kept on paper or in what Mr. Joyce called a “home brew” database. New software is being developed to better track performance, and all elevators and escalators are being connected to a computer network that will immediately alert managers about breakdowns.
Mr. Joyce also began an initiative last year to replace key parts before they wear out — which he said has already delivered significant improvements in service.
Runaway Escalator
It was a routine task. The mechanics performing maintenance on an escalator in the Sutphin Boulevard-Archer Avenue station in Queens on May 15th last year were supposed to tighten the machine’s drive chain.
But they did not, according to Mr. Joyce, and the chain, which moves the steps up and down, began to rub on a steel strut. On June 6th, during the evening rush, the chain snapped with a bang and the escalator stopped moving. People began walking down the escalator. The last person on was Magaly Diaz, a pregnant woman on her way home from work.
Suddenly, the escalator sprang back to life. Freed from the hold of the drive chain, the steps began freewheeling downhill, quickly picking up speed. It all went so fast that Ms. Diaz cannot even remember if she screamed.
“It felt like a roller coaster,” said Ms. Diaz, 40. “You know how it feels when you’re at the top of a roller coaster going down? That’s the kind of momentum it had.”
Most people jumped or stumbled off at the bottom. But a friend standing in front of Ms. Diaz fell at the bottom and Ms. Diaz landed on top of her. Both women were taken to the hospital. Ms. Diaz had two badly twisted ankles, though she was grateful that a sonogram showed no injury to her fetus.
Mr. Joyce inspected the broken escalator the day after the accident and concluded that the necessary adjustment to the chain had not been made. “They’re good mechanics, but they missed something that day,” he said. “I think they had a bad day that day.”
‘Heartbreaking’ Letdown
More than 35,000 people push through the turnstiles into the West Fourth Street subway station every weekday, and thousands more use it to transfer between subway lines. So when the New York transit agency said several years ago that it would build elevators to the platforms, riders had reason to expect good things. For those in wheelchairs, it meant that a major hub would be fully accessible to them for the first time. For others, it simply held out the promise of an easier trip with a load of shopping bags or a pair of aging knees.
Things did not work out exactly as hoped.
The trouble started when the agency decided to build the elevators in a cramped space. After construction began, it became apparent that they were not going to fit: There was not enough room on top of the elevators for the mechanisms that operate the doors. Transit officials decided that the only way to make the elevators fit was to install the door hardware sideways instead of in the usual upright position — an idea that turned out to be less than successful.
The two elevators opened in April 2005. By the end of the year, they had recorded a total of 57 breakdowns or repair calls — three-quarters of them related to the doors. Passengers were trapped inside seven times.
“It performed miserably,” said Tom Kenny, principal mechanical engineer in the transit agency’s office of capital program management, which oversees the design and construction of elevators and escalators.
Because of the West Fourth Street station’s central location, the dismal performance of the elevators was a particular disappointment, said Michael Harris, a subway rider who uses a wheelchair and advocates for the disabled.
“Every time you see the casing for a new subway elevator, you always get really excited that, oh, great, here’s another subway station that I’m going to be able to use,” Mr. Harris said. “So when you watch through the entire process of having one put in, and then you see it break down immediately, it really is kind of heartbreaking.”
Built-in faults not only frustrate subway riders; they also siphon off resources in mechanics’ time, equipment and repair costs, sometimes for years.
Five escalators of the same model, two at the Yankee Stadium station in the Bronx and three at Main Street in Flushing, Queens, have collectively tallied more than 6,800 breakdowns and repair calls since going into service — between 1999 and 2001 — resulting in more than three and a half years of accumulated down time.
But the worst lemons in the system may be the 34 escalators installed over the past seven years by Fujitec America at a cost of $65 million.
They include 12 escalators at the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan that have been plagued by a variety of mechanical problems, Mr. Joyce said. The motors in two of them vibrated so much that they were shut down for more than five months last year.
Fujitec began building escalators for the transit agency after its equipment was evaluated by Mr. Kenny’s office to make sure it was robust enough to hold up in the subway. Mr. Kenny said that it was not unusual for a company that was new to the New York subway to have problems with the first few escalators it installed. But he said that other companies had been more cooperative in resolving those problems. Mr. Joyce said that Fujitec was very slow to respond to repair requests, but that in recent months many longstanding problems had been fixed.
“Fujitec did not intentionally delay anything,” said Rick Lockridge, director of business development for Fujitec America. “But sometimes problems can occur in warranty that take some time to correct.”
In response to such widespread problems, the transit agency has changed the way it monitors elevator and escalator construction. For years, contractors installed machines with virtually no oversight from transit employees with expertise in elevators or escalators. In 2006, the agency established a special group of mechanics to conduct tests at key stages of construction.
The Disappearing Steps
On the morning of August 28, Lisa Chiou, 33, got off a subway train at the Bowling Green station in Lower Manhattan and got on an escalator that would carry her up and out of the station to Broadway. She placed her right foot (she was wearing flip-flops) on the lowest step, and as the escalator rose, she put her left foot on the step below it.
Except all of a sudden, there was no next step. There was a crash, and Ms. Chiou looked down to see that the escalator step that had been under her left foot had fallen out of the machine. It sheared off three more steps below it, and Ms. Chiou found herself slipping backward into the void.
“It was literally a split second,” Ms. Chiou recalled. “My left foot was still on that step when it fell in. My foot sank in with it, and I just kind of pulled my leg back out. So I got scraped by the metal and stuff.”
Ms. Chiou managed to stumble up the still-moving escalator and make her way to the top. She had a small cut on her leg that required two stitches. “If one foot wasn’t on a sure step,” she said, “I would have fallen in, and I would have been eaten up by the escalator.”
An investigation by the agency’s office of system safety found that the bolts that were supposed to hold the steps in place had been installed incorrectly and had come loose.
The investigation and an account by Mr. Joyce make it clear that many people had opportunities to detect the problem but either did not do so or failed to alert others if they did.
After the accident, investigators shut down five other escalators with the same type of step. They found that bolts had been installed improperly on two of them.
Ms. Chiou said she no longer rode on escalators if she could avoid it.
For his part, Mr. Joyce said that at a fundamental level, he is hoping to change attitudes — gaining the trust of subway riders through better service and fostering a culture of accountability among his mechanics and managers.
“I’m trying to get these guys to think that, you know what, that could be your mom that’s walking with a cane and needs that escalator,” he said. “Nothing in this world is guaranteed. It could be one of us in a wheelchair next month. And if you want to enjoy the city, you want to be able to utilize our public transportation system. You need that elevator to work.”
Jo Craven McGinty and Annie Correal contributed reporting.