Out of service escalators at Westlake Station.
Credit: Bruce Englehardt

When Sound Transit takes over the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) later this year, it will take over the DSTT’s escalators. It’s not yet clear whether Sound Transit will be responsible for making them work better.

Sound Transit has had some trouble with escalators. Dramatic system failures crippled Sound Transit’s Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium stations in recent years. Sound Transit has also managed chronic, extended escalator and elevator outages in older Link stations, to the frustration of riders with disabilities. King County Metro, which presently operates the DSTT, has also had escalator struggles.

This fall, Sound Transit announced that they terminated their original escalator maintenance contract for the escalators it currently operates, and committed to replacing the escalators it already operates at Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium by 2021.

All of this failure probably goes a long way to explain why Sound Transit is touchy about out of service escalators. It was heartening that, when we interviewed Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff a couple weeks ago, he said that the agency wanted to improve escalator performance in the DSTT:

We don’t doubt that there needs to be some important renovations and system improvements. We just need to know what those are, and what are the most critical.

…As someone who goes through the tunnel every day, obviously they have escalator challenges that we hope will be rectified before we take ownership, but we are also having challenges with escalators enough… so we will be analyzing that carefully. We really want to provide a quality product when we take it over.

It’s going to be great in terms of being able to provide the promised throughput through the tunnel without risk of slowdowns, so it will be great for the ridership experience.

In a followup, Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick said that the DSTT’s escalator performance may or may not demand improvements, pending an Sound Transit audit of current escalator systems.

Patrick insisted that Rogoff didn’t commit to making any changes—all this despite the fact Rogoff himself identified “[DSTT] escalator challenges that we hope will be rectified before we take ownership.”

So we asked Patrick: does Sound Transit think that the DSTT’s escalators work well?

Patrick declined to say whether Sound Transit considers the DSTT’s present escalator performance satisfactory. Patrick said that escalator maintenance is currently Metro’s responsibility, and they were the ones to ask about DSTT operations and improvements.

So we asked Metro—do the DSTT’s escalators work to their satisfaction?

Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer wrote:

Since 2011, Metro has been engaged in the process of refurbishing these conveyances with the goal of extending their life and improving reliability. Escalator refurbishment was 2011-2014 and elevator refurbishment started in 2016 and we anticipate completing these projects in 2019.

The escalators are considered heavy duty and able to safely convey the volumes of customers we see on a regular basis.

However on any given day an escalator or elevator may be taken out of service and returned to service following spills or cleanups, or taken out of service for several days due to an injury and required state inspection, or taken out of service for several weeks due to broken equipment and the required time to order, install and inspect repairs.

Metro is in the process of discussing the transfer of oversight and ownership of the DSTT with Sound Transit. We will continue to [maintain the escalators] until such time as there is an agreement between the agencies to do otherwise.

In short: the escalators weren’t working, but they’re being fixed, and keeping them running is hard.

The decision of how to proceed—i.e. whether to keep plugging along with refurbishments, or replace the escalators with new ones—will be made after the systems audit Rogoff described. Switzer and Patrick both said that Sound Transit and Metro are negotiating who will pay for whatever course of action is decided on after the audit.

So, until the handover—and probably for a while after—expect the status quo.

34 Replies to “Who’s Supposed to Fix the Escalators?”

  1. “Since 2011, Metro has been engaged in the process of refurbishing these conveyances with the goal of EXTENDING THEIR LIFE and improving reliability.”
    (emphasis added)

    Re-written: “Since 2011, Metro has recognized that ST will be taking ownership of these escalators in just a few years, and has, as a good steward of King County’s money, been spending as little as possible to keep them operational until the transition in ownership.”
    (yes, reading between the lines, just a little bit)

    I, personally, suspect that they are at the end of their useful life and may be in need of full replacement. These are workhorse machines. They don’t last forever. Metro has no financial benefit to making a large capital investment in a piece of infrastructure that they will no longer be maintaining in a few years.

    My evaluation may be a bit harsh, but may also be true. If you were selling your house next summer, had a major failure (furnace, roof, septic, etc) and were faced with a small repair bill to keep it going another year or two, or a massive cost to replace it, which would you choose, knowing that you’ll never possibly recoup the replacement cost?

  2. The DSTT opened in 1990; very few mechanical devices have a life span of over 30 years. If the new escalators at Husky Stadium and Capitol Hill Station work well and provide reliable service ST should plan on replacing all the downtown escalators. The downtown escalators have been unreliable and are likely at the end of their service lives. ST should be asking if a brand new, state-of-the-art, heavy-duty escalator will be cheaper to operate over the next 20 years than maintaining an unreliable and expensive to repair relic.

    1. The DSTT escalators were already breaking down regularly before the ST2 and ST3 votes, so that should have been a sign that they all needed to be routinely replaced. 1990 to 2008 is eighteen years, and it’s obvious that anything with as much moving parts as escalators needs to be replaced every twenty years or so. Buses only last that long too, and even though Metro kept the trolleybuses limping along for a decade or two than their rated life, it’s not what an agency with the resources for proper maintenance should do. The expenses incurred by the band-aid approach include not just parts and labor but also riders who are delayed by unreliable equipment. Now, transit agencies have limited budgets due to tight state and voter restrictions on their budgets, so maybe a higher-level entity like the county council itself needs to step forward with escalator-overhauul-and-maintenance funding. In any case, the escalator audit is welcome, and I’d like more information on how thorough its scope is. We need a thorough evaluation of all escalators and elevators at existing Link stations, a budget estimate of how much it will cost to catch up deferred maintenance and shoddy-equipment replacement, and do proper ongoing maintenance including replacement every 20-30 years. ST needs to be transparent about that and give the public ongoing details. And if it has difficulty affording all the recommended work, it needs to tell us that so the board or a higher-level entity can figure out a solution. Escalators are a basic part of the transit experience, like windows on buses to keep the wind out.

    2. Were any escalators replaced during the 2007-09 shutdown of the DSTT to prepare for Link? If not, I would agree that 1990 escalators are getting old and should be entirely replaced. However, first we need to be sure that we know how to buy reliable, high-grade escalators first.

    3. The DSTT and ST1 Link escalators were never as bad as the UW Station escalators. The earlier escalator audit — the one for UW Station –said that ST bought the wrong level of escalator, light-traffic escalators rather than heavy-duty one.) Worse, they had a 1-year warranty that started when ST began testing them, so the warranty only lasted a few months after opening. And that’s when they began breaking down, so much that people encountered broken ones three or five days a week, and sometimes even four broken ones simuntaneously. The DSTT escalators never did that during their first ten or twenty years. If one went out it might stay out for weeks due to budget limitations or waiting for parts, but you didn’t see all the escalators doing that. And the ST1 escalators and Capitol Hill escalators likewise have never had the problems UW Station escalators have. So the biggest problem is limited to that one station’s order.

      1. When I worked downtown for about 3 years back in the early part of this decade, I don’t think there was a single week when all the escalators at University Street station were in service.

  3. This is most likely the case. King County also does this to any municipality that annexes land. By that I mean they do the bare minimum and usually delay any large capital projects in those areas if they perceive that a city might annex it and foot the bill. One can argue that’s smart management, but I don’t think there was ever a choice since the county is working with a shrinking budget year over year.

    1. Yes, but it doesn’t cost much money to do a thorough audit and at least have a public list of the state of the system and what it would take to get to first-rate quality. Whether the transit agency should do it out of its annual funds or another government entity should pay for it is another issue, but somebody should. And it should be done in a timely manner; i.e., at the outset, or when the escalators first started breaking down, or at worst now. When my family sold their house the marketing materials said “Fixer” and a list of deferred maintenance (something about yard drainage etc) so that the buyer knew from the outset. That’s what we need for the DSTT stations. Especially since it’s a public entity and the taxpayers have a right to know, even if there were no Sound Transit and no sale.

  4. I wish someone in this had the vision to understand three basic truths:

    1. Escalators are complicated pieces of machinery and break down. Once a station gets a certain level of demand, redundant escalators are needed for those times. A place like Westlake will need many more escalators — especially when all the Link lines cross there.

    2. As pieces of machinery, they are less reliable when exposed to temperature variations. A few places like Edmonton have designed escalators to be “indoors” — but not Seattle.

    3. A segment of the population needs down escalators. It’s probably about 10-20 percent that can’t really walk down stairs without great difficulty, and another 10-20 percent who have some difficulty.

    In sum, escalators are as much a design issue as well as an operations issue. I keep waiting for this simple observation to be front and center. We are building 45 new stations that need better strategies for making the escalators better in most cases. Several of the existing 16 stations have issues too.

    1. Some New Years’ encouragement: We’re not alone. If our own present trajectory continues, we could have some valuable world contacts to draw on:


      And along with PCC streetcars- here’s an example of what I mean by “Conservative.”


      But a fitting New Year’s thought from The Other Other Washington:


      The Government it houses is its other perfect example of the dangers of Deferred Maintenance.


  5. I think it’s easy to forget that the DSTT stations were built before ADA design requirements were issued. Those problems are grandfathered.

    Is there any report identifying what should have been built to meet current ADA standards? Was this an issue when rail was introduced several years ago?

    1. The problem isn’t so much that the DSTT escalators and elevators are too few or in the wrong locations or the wrong size or don’t have the right handrails, but that they break down. You don’t need ADA to tell you that station access is impeded when the only escalator or elevator to a platform is broken, or at least the only one that doesn’t require walking an extra block or two to get back to that entrance. Some in the disabled community also believe that Metro intentionally turns off the elevators at rush hour to prevent people from packing them, which then leaves wheelchair passengers stuck. Whether it’s true or not, some disabled people say security guards have told them that and the rumor spreads to the rest of their support groups. Even if it’s not true, the elevators and escalators are broken regularly to an unacceptable extent.

      I can see some problems with the elevator and escalator locations, such as not interfacing well with ORCA reader locations for tapon/tapoff. The original designers did not think proof-of-payment or turnstyle circulation very well. And how could they think the original mezzanines needed to be so big for future TVMs? They could have looked at existing BART stations with three or four vending-machine sized TVMs. But oh well.

      1. I suspect that the large mezzanines were created in case the operator wanted to add turnstiles in the future. Ironically, that logic did not extend to add escalators or elevators.

      2. But where did they anticipate the turnstyles would be? Did they even plan that? The logical location would be at the top of the platform escalators. But many of the elevators are not there; they’re on another side somewhere. Would they have their own turnstyles? That’s a lot of turnstyles. The elevators should have been located where both the escalators and elevators would be behind one set of turnstyles.

      3. Good point, Mike. Of course, I wouldn’t consider ST as the best rail system designer.

        One only has to observe that the TVM’s are inside of where the ORCA readers are to illustrate the pervasive bad layouts of our rail stations. It’s what happens when local architects and local staff with little experience with busy rail stations are making design decisions. It’s like asking a local high school baseball star to play pro football.

      4. I’ve got an easy zero-cost fix for placing the card readers. Make possession of a pre-paid ORCA pass be considered Proof of Payment. Since majority of the passenger public already thinks it is, should be quick cheap info item.

        While we finally concentrate on matters like escalators. But here’s my question. Is there any way, or argument for or against, that we hold back on future spending in any other area until our vertical travel is covered?


      1. What about when both of them are broke — for more than one month? That happened this year in the Chinatown/Int’l district tunnel.

      2. OK but that’s because theyre almost forty years old, not because of the elevator code when they were installed.

    2. Except the DSTT has elevators so I’m not sure what this claim is that it doesn’t meet ADA. It may also be shocking to some people but things break down especially due to heavy use, age, and misuse. Plus the stations had improvements made in the mid 2000s for Link which included ADA updates hence the yellow platform edge tiles.

  6. …or taken out of service for several weeks due to broken equipment and the required time to order, install and inspect repairs.

    This phrase is the part that worried me about transit escalator maintenance, whether from Metro or ST. They need to find a way to shrink the duration of these outages, at least for the most common experienced failures. The only time I’ve experienced out-of-service escalators in on US transit systems and African shopping malls. Other than that, they work. That includes 2 weeks in 2018 riding subways systems all over Beijing and Shanghai. I also haven’t experienced escalator outages in European metro systems. I’m sure outages happen, but they are infrequent and brief enough that I haven’t encountered any.

    ST needs to upgrade their “escalator reliability” criteria from 95% to 99.8% (a 1-week outage per 10 years per escalator, or in a system with 50 escalators, 5 weekly outages/year). That is more in line with my reliability expectation.

    1. Yes, 95 percent is embarrassingly low. It’s not like being 95 percent on schedule. It’s more like 95 percent of unmissed trips (5 percent of missed trips) — which no respected transit operator would adopt.

      It’s like saying it’s acceptable for an escalator to be out of service 1.5 days a month!

    2. Right. Metro has its own maintenance base for buses, and I assume it stocks spare parts so they’re ready when a bus needs them. And it does regular maintenace checks and tune-ups. It should do the same for the escalators. Even if the labor and parts are contracted out to escalator companies, it should have a supply of soon-needed or just-in-time parts. You don’t see grocery-store checkstands out of service for weeks while they’re wating for parts, and it’s extremely rare to encounter a non-functioning department-store escalator. (I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it in my lifetime, or maybe only once.)

      1. When technology gets old, its spare parts become harder and more expensive to source. And, there are more parts that fail as a system ages. Keeping an inventory of spare parts can become an impossible task.

        When an escalator fails ST has to schedule a diagnostic call, then wait for spare parts and then schedule a window for repairs. Because there aren’t a lot of qualified escalator repair technicians, that means the lead times for diagnosis and repair can be quite lengthy. Maybe once ST has enough escalators and elevators in the system, maintenance and repair could be brought in-house.

    3. At its root, the reigning agency attitude is that escalators are an optional amenity and not a requirement. With trains arriving at a platform every three minutes, it becomes a necessity. Until this fundamental belief is changed, we will continue to see inferior escalator operations.

      The only way to change that is to ask every board member and senior staff member to make escalators how important escalators are, and to vote them out if they can’t recognize the escalators’ necessity.

    4. This explains it:

      2014 – KONE acquired the elevator and escalator business of Marryat & Scott (Kenya) Ltd. and Marryats East Africa Limited, its authorized distributors in East and Central Africa.

      1. les, if the idea is that any connection with Africa means backward…….all the Kenyans have to do is cite today’s whole posting and comment verbatim for the world’s growing assessment of the United States of America.

        And word to the US Transportation Secretary’s boss. Drive off a cliff with your foot to the floor, and you’ll be forever Number One to your own long, loyal, and accelerating following.

        Mark Dublin

      2. “The only time I’ve experienced out-of-service escalators in on US transit systems and African shopping malls”.

        The only commonality between Link escalators and African Mall escalators is KONE.

  7. For stations like Capital Hill Station, UW, and future Madison/Boren, dig platform-level concourses from entrances a comfortable distance away- as big-city systems have been doing since beginning of transit. Served with moving walkways and battery-powered carts like the ones at Sea-Tac?

    And set every elevated station into a partly-elevated Transit Oriented Development landscaped for sloped ramps and walkways to platform level. Between Chinatown, IDS, King Street Station and a future Colman Dock, I can see an all-glass set of horizontal buildings.

    Maybe set into the old shore-line of the lagoon whose north shore Jackson Street used to front. http://vallandingham.me/seattle_maps/ et. al.

    Both future and retrofit, add up all the costs and I think construction and landscape-architecture will out-weather our every vertical mechanism over the future that, on the World scale, is just barely gettting started.

    Mark Dublin

  8. Does anyone have any experience with construction, mining, or emergency escalators and elevators? Even if it had to be manned during all service hours, would be worth getting into the the habit of actual action.

    Mark Dublin

  9. I always thought it was a shame that the Boeing Vertol streetcars didn’t work out better. The effort really was commendable- shift war production to the best of civilian purposes. Valuable industrial design lesson, though. Rocket science doesn’t work for bulldozers.

    But if Vertol could’ve retrenched and stayed in the game, the transit world of Oslo, Gothenburg, San Francisco, and a certain northwest American city and county would’ve gotten a lot higher grade machine for all four of our lowliest bids. Also, maybe blue-collar nostalgia, but would’ve considered Boeing Vertol rail division the best Company whose Town Seattle could possibly be.

    So Boeing, since motion in question here is still Vertical, no chance your Transpacific Trade Zone can’t use a new global manufacturer whose motto is: “Our Treads Can Take It?” Just a thought. Always good to start a New Year in an Elevated frame of mind.

    Mark Dublin

  10. I’m curious, when Sound Transit takes over the DSTT, will it actually operate the tunnel itself? Or will it merely contract with KCMetro and pay them to continue operating it?

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