As the Puget Sound-area shakes off pandemic isolation and people return to light-rail trains, they’ll notice one thing that hasn’t changed: broken escalators in the downtown Seattle transit tunnel.
A dozen escalators and one elevator in the four downtown stations remained broken as of last week.
Sound Transit is making progress, though.
When the year began, a full 28 of the 58 escalators and elevators were inoperable at the stations when King County Metro handed over maintenance duties to Sound Transit. Nearly all are more than 30 years old. A tall upward escalator at University Street Station, blocked by yellow barricades because of dangerous vibrations, hadn’t worked since May 2019.
Sound Transit has hired a new contractor and budgeted $8.7 million to nurse the old equipment along through 2023.
The 36 downtown-tunnel escalators functioned an average 34% of the time in January, improving to 61% in June. The goal is to someday reach the transit-industry standard of 95% performance.
The first new escalators will arrive next year. The agency will replace every escalator over five to seven years, the biggest cost in its $96 million tunnel-renovation budget. They’ll be stronger “transit grade” units, to better withstand moisture and roughhousing.
“We have a plan moving forward, but we want our passengers to know that it’s not going to be fixed tomorrow,” John Carini, Sound Transit deputy director for vertical conveyances, told the agency’s board. “A lot of work needs to be done. It’s a big undertaking.”
Failing escalators plague North American transit stations built in the late 20th century, especially the deep Washington, D.C., Metro subways.
Breakdowns in Seattle were easy to ignore in 2020, when ridership plunged 80%.
But full access to the train platforms will become essential by Oct. 2, when new Northgate, Roosevelt and University District stations attract curious opening-day riders, followed by Husky football and Kraken hockey fans. UW’s fall semester and South Lake Union tech firms also will bring commuters back.
When full demand returns, which could take years, the three new stations are projected to boost pre-COVID ridership of 80,000 daily trips to 125,000.
The race is on to get as many escalators working as quickly as possible.
“We’re opening these up and not doing every nitpicky thing that needs to be done. We’re trying to get it operating. We have to keep these moving until we get to replace them,” Carini said.
A Seattle face-palm
Patrick Taylor remembers the December afternoon in 2019 he passed through Westlake Station, after watching the “Dina Martina Christmas Show” at ACT Theatre.
“We were on the escalator. Everything was going normal, and there was a loud bang, and everyone jerked to a stop. It was like the upper stairs buckled,” he recalled. Some people walked over a gap in the shattered steps. Others backtracked down to train level.
“It was full. I was surprised people didn’t get hurt,” Taylor said. “It’s shocking and almost embarrassing that our world-class transit system can’t get the escalators to work.”
Seattle-area residents pay the nation’s highest taxes to expand transit, including more light-rail extensions to Lynnwood, Redmond and Federal Way in 2024. People expect a hassle-free experience.
“I feel their pain and personally feel that frustration as well. That is why we’ve created a team that we have and put the resources that we have,” said Sound Transit Deputy CEO Kimberly Farley.
Escalators made headlines in 2017 when the new components inside University of Washington Station repeatedly failed. A few times, customers had to wait in crowds at the entry plaza, or 90-feet deep at train level. Sound Transit apologized and hired a new contractor, who has UW Station’s 13 escalators working full time.
Downtown requires longer to solve.
Why didn’t Metro and Sound Transit — supervised by some of the same politicians — get ahead of the problem by replacing old equipment sooner?
King County managers believed Metro’s limited money was better spent on keeping more buses rolling, said Diane Carlson, Metro capital projects director. Puget Sound-area transit trips increased nearly 50% in the last decade.
During the Great Recession of 2008-09, the county spent down its capital reserve fund, she said. That tactic averted harsher service cuts, higher fare increases, bus-driver pay cuts, and even a suggestion by auditors to eliminate electric trolley buses.
Within the shared bus-rail tunnel, which opened in 1989, equipment began to wear out.
Metro won a $5.3 million federal grant in late 2010 to perform repairs, but the agency wasn’t able to replace the aging conveyances, Carlson said.
By the late 2010s, passengers found themselves again walking around yellow escalator barricades to find stairs or an elevator.
The last Metro bus passed through the tunnel on March 23, 2019, leaving only rail by Sound Transit, which is expected to finally buy the tunnel from Metro later this year.
In hindsight, Carlson said she doesn’t think Metro could have made Sound Transit chip in for new conveyances, if Metro installed those in the 2010s.
“Overall, the escalators are in poor condition and have exceeded their service life expectancy,” said a mid-2019 study by Vertical Transportation Excellence. The average life is 25 years, but only one was newer than 32 years, it said.
Light-rail ridership was growing, as was tension over escalators.
At times, the two assigned mechanics from KONE, Metro’s longtime escalator-elevator maintenance contractor, weren’t immediately available for repair calls, according to Metro emails.
A KONE supervisor suggested a contract change in early 2019 that would increase its two full-time technicians to four in the transit tunnel. Three techs could handle emergency fixes and basic maintenance, but not complete major repairs, he thought.
KONE also advised Metro to invest in new escalators and elevators, company spokesperson Joseph Kang said.
Metro kept the contract at two full-time mechanics and agreed to hire more on a case-by-case basis, Kang said last week. Certain kinds of damage — tampering, feces, urine, water leakage, excess wear, stolen parts — were “not covered under the agreement” to provide 95% reliability, the company maintains.
Metro paid KONE $75,000 a month for downtown tunnel service, Kang said.
Sound Transit needed those escalators running, especially inside Pioneer Square Station, where a construction project starting Jan. 4, 2020, would force riders to switch trains for 10 weeks.
KONE managed to get every Pioneer Square escalator and elevator moving shortly before the project began.
But the repair backlog continued.
In aggregate, Metro’s 36 escalators at Westlake, University Street, Pioneer Square and International District/Chinatown stations operated only 76% of the time during 2020, based on spreadsheet logs The Seattle Times obtained through a public-records request. That means 1 in 4 were broken.
To right the ship, Sound Transit’s governing board approved a plan in October 2020, crafted by Farley with Metro’s cooperation, to take over downtown escalators and elevators Jan. 1, 2021.
“We wanted to do this as soon as possible. When additional riders use the system, we want to be able to handle them,” said Paul Roberts, an Everett City Council member who chairs the board’s operations committee.
Sound Transit, richer than Metro, was finding success with new escalator-elevator contractor Schindler at UW Station, bolstered by a $100,000 parts reserve and a contract requiring a one- to two-hour response to call-outs and 48-hour parts replacements after a stall.
Those gains at UW Station made it thinkable to take over the downtown tunnel early, said Sound Transit facilities director Robert Taft.
Metro terminated KONE’s contract late last year. Metro denied a local KONE supervisor’s request that her team finish repairing one broken escalator, and told KONE to remove all tools by Dec. 31.
Race against time
Sound Transit is restoring the elevators first, because outages block wheelchair users and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Next come the up escalators, followed by down escalators.
Reliable escalators are crucial for riders with physical disabilities. Blind and visually-impaired people trained themselves to follow a certain path off the trains, so a single shutdown throws people off-course, said Anna Zivarts of Disability Rights Washington.
One morning in May, no fewer than four repair teams were on the job at Westlake Station.
Two technicians stood waist deep under temporary braces and cables, where they were replacing an escalator gearbox that leaked oil.
In another unit, a worker scrubbed the charcoal-colored tray beneath, where spilled fluids and small garbage accumulate.
Nearly all escalators will receive new step chains this year, to rotate and pull the steps from below. “It’s like a bicycle chain. Typically they’ll start to stretch out,” said Carini.
Across the tracks, an escalator banged in rhythm, as a brown oil streak appeared to the right side. Long streaks are typically a symptom of leaking gear oil, or a misshapen roller piece.
“It needs to be addressed, but that’s definitely not an emergency,” said Carlos Trujillo, vertical conveyance manager for Sound Transit.
Only one downtown elevator remains broken, at the steep northside entrance to Pioneer Square Station. Replacement parts should arrive this summer, Trujillo said.
Sound Transit added stairs to its nearly completed University District Station mezzanine, and promised stairs in future aerial and tunnel stations, to ensure riders have options if escalators fail.
However, riders may find that even after Oct. 2, only two-thirds of downtown escalators work. Sound Transit set a cautious goal of 70% performance by the end of 2021, said Sound Transit spokesperson John Gallagher. Crews will need to block a few during repairs, followed by replacements starting next year.
And as groups of train riders walk onto the steel steps again, managers think the old machinery might periodically fail.