The regional transit agency compelled hundreds of light-rail riders to wait in line Friday to enter University of Washington Station after both downward escalators to the train platforms became stuck.

Share story

To the average person, a stalled escalator looks like a flight of steel steps.

But to Sound Transit, that’s an off-limits safety hazard.

The regional agency compelled hundreds of light-rail riders to wait up to 40 minutes in line Friday to enter University of Washington Station, after both downward escalators to the train platforms became stuck.

An ode to escalators

I like a escalator, man, ’cause a escalator can never break, it can only become stairs. There would never be a escalator temporarily out of order sign, only an ‘Escalator temporarily stairs. Sorry for the convenience.’ ”

— Mitch Hedberg, comedian (1968-2005)

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

Security guards stood at plaza entrances and directed people to the elevators, until technicians fixed the problem at 7:15 p.m., more than three hours later.

At UW Station and Capitol Hill Station, which opened in 2016, there’s no staircase to reach the train level. A third station, U District Station to open in 2021 near Northeast 45th Street, is being built the same way, to fit a limited space.

To some riders, the precautions Friday seemed excessive.

“I would have much preferred walking down a stalled escalator to the train platform, than waiting 40 minutes for an elevator,” said Patricia Kloster, commuting home from UW Medical Center to Tukwila International Boulevard Station.

Sound Transit board member Paul Roberts, of Everett, who chairs the Operations Committee, said Tuesday he wants to ask questions about the incident at the next meeting April 5.

“Is this a liability question? Is this a safety question?” he wondered. Are there other options to help users reach the trains?

Sound Transit mentioned steepness as a factor in closing stuck escalators this past year — the platform at UW Station is 95 feet deep. But despite a long descent, the dimensions of the steps are standard size.

The rise per step is 8 inches, or an inch higher than the 7-inch-tall concrete stairs in other transit stations.

However, the escalator-elevator industry’s safety foundation and Washington state government advise that stuck escalators not be walked upon.

“Escalator step height greatly varies when an escalator is stationary, especially at the top and bottom, creating a potential tripping hazard,” said Patrick O’Connell of KONE, which built and maintains Seattle-area transit escalators. Sound Transit says its policy is based on international building codes.

Vancouver, B.C., TransLink takes a more lenient line.

“Standards in our area permit us to use the escalators as stairs,” said spokeswoman Jill Drews, who points to high ridership and crowds that must stay mobile.

Vancouver has two stations that provide only escalators and elevators — no stairs — to boarding platforms. They are Granville Station downtown, where 34,000 people a day pass through, and Waterfront Station, where the SeaBus ferry crosses Burrard Inlet. A future renovation for SeaBus will add stairs.

Drews said she’s never heard of multiple escalator failures blocking access — but to be fair, Friday also marked the first time Seattle transit riders were held at plaza level by escalator stalls.

LA Metro tends to let people walk on stalled escalators, and wait to set yellow barricades until technicians arrive, said spokeswoman Anna Poem-Ann Chen. L.A. also has no stations that lack a staircase option, she said.

The aging Washington, D.C., Metro system often has prolonged escalator failures, where people walk on the steel steps.

Even when escalators in Seattle stop, Kloster said, “until they get them blocked off, we walk down them all the time, probably at least a couple times a month.”

With 18,400 people entering or exiting, UW Station is the second busiest in today’s 21-mile corridor that ends at Angle Lake in SeaTac.

“I think it’s just going to become a bigger issue as they open more stations,” Kloster said. Extensions to Northgate and beyond will double the area where students and staff may commute to the UW by train.

Reviewing video-surveillance footage, Sound Transit found one escalator stopped at 1:30 p.m., but it wasn’t reported to the control center until 4:22 p.m. The other stopped at 3:34 p.m. and wasn’t reported until 4:16 p.m.

Protocols for Securitas, which employs the station guards, will be changed to require frequent escalator checks, Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said.

Once alerted to the breakdown, KONE technicians took 2 hours, 35 minutes to arrive, Patrick said. They were apparently tied up fixing elevators at other locations, so Sound Transit will talk with King County Metro, which operates light rail, about how to improve KONE’s response, he said.

Kloster said she considered taking a taxi or Uber back to Tukwila, but she heard people were already doing so to reach the airport, so her odds of finding a private ride weren’t great.

Alexander Wheeler, a UW administrative employee, said he walked across campus to the U District and took a bus to Capitol Hill, rather than wait in line.

“A lot of folks like myself will continue to be patient and supportive, as we invest in this amazing infrastructure,” Wheeler said.

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said in a statement Tuesday:

“The inconvenience caused to our passengers departing UW Station on Friday afternoon was unacceptable by any measure. Despite our success in restoring the overall reliability rates of the UW escalators, our passengers should not have to tolerate major slowdowns due to failed equipment.”