UW Station is the latest Seattle-area transit stop where escalator failures have become part of the daily routine.
The University of Washington light-rail station isn’t quite a year old, but its escalators are malfunctioning.
Three were idle midweek, after breakdowns at neighboring Capitol Hill Station that stopped a pair of escalators for a couple weeks in December.
Those are the latest in a litany of failures throughout the 20-mile light-rail corridor that have become an everyday condition.
“This poor performance of our escalators is not up to our expectations,” Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said. “We are as frustrated as our riders; we understand the inconvenience. We too are catching Link light rail. It is a very high priority for us, to get to the root cause of what’s causing all these escalator problems.”
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As of Thursday, two UW Station escalators were revived, a third was scheduled for parts replacement and possible reopening Friday — and a fourth stopped working Wednesday afternoon. The station has 12 escalators.
An engineering study was launched this week to diagnose recent breakdowns, and to collect previous data to find trends, Reason said. Escalator glitches are common in other cities.
Many result from component failures, such as brake malfunctions at Capitol Hill, Reason said. Jammed objects can cause shutdowns. Over the years, elevators have closed for repair or cleansing after people soiled them.
More than 30,000 people a day pass through the underground Capitol Hill and UW stations, which opened last March 19.
Because of a 95-foot depth at UW to boarding platforms, escalators are crucial, since a stair climb would be daunting for most riders. Designers didn’t provide stairs, except an emergency set.
Customers can opt for elevators, but they’re sized to carry only a few people.
Wednesday morning, passengers at the closed south entrance, on the sidewalk facing UW Medical Center, detoured 40 steps to find the other downward escalator.
And then at the first mezzanine, a 60-step detour — on gray tile that’s slippery when wet — was required to miss another barricaded escalator and find the working one.
“It’s not a whole lot of hassle, but it’s fairly annoying,” said Vincent Beardsley, heading downtown. “If you’re detained a minute or two and miss a train, you have to wait another 10 minutes.”
UW design student Nouela Johnston, doing reconnaissance for a transit-related assignment, said it’s disorienting to approach an escalator pair when only the oncoming escalator is moving. “I feel like there’s a major safety hazard,” she said, if a crowd of people surge toward damaged escalators, such as after a sports event.
Eighteen miles away, the sole elevator down to street level at the elevated SeaTac/Airport Station was broken. Announcements told people who need an elevator to get off the train at Tukwila International Boulevard Station a mile north, then take an A Line bus down the boulevard to SeaTac.
Local transit escalators are built and maintained by KONE, an international company based in Finland, and managed by King County Metro. KONE spokespeople said they’re working on a reply to questions.
Another rider tweeted a photo of a stalled escalator at Metro’s Westlake Station, where people walked up a short stairway alongside it.
First-world problems, to be sure.
But voters over the years have approved some of the nation’s highest taxes to develop mass transit, approaching $1,000 annually for middle-income households, and they expect quality.
A one-year warranty has expired, Reason said, because construction was finished a few months before public transit service began to UW and Capitol Hill stations. The bill to taxpayers for fixing the escalators has yet to be determined.
In a local escalator incident, King County agreed to pay $1 million, and KONE an undisclosed amount, to the family of Mauricio Bell, who was strangled to death in April 2013 when his hoodie drawstring caught in a downtown transit escalator. Metro spent $6.3 million, including federal grants, to rebuild 39 of its 40 escalators in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel in 2012. The tunnel opened in 1989 and components were wearing out.
When the UW and Capitol Hill escalators stall, transit staff set barriers, instead of converting them to temporary stairs. That’s because their steps are taller than standard, which would cause tripping risk and violate international building codes, Reason said.
Escalators are so unreliable that planners may rethink past assumptions, and require that stairs be included in future stations, Reason said.