Skip to main content

Yes, light rail station escalators do break a lot. Here’s why

caption: KUOW listener Audrey Farmer was curious about why escalators on her commute seem to break down so often.
Enlarge Icon
KUOW listener Audrey Farmer was curious about why escalators on her commute seem to break down so often.
KUOW Photo/Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

If it feels to you like certain light rail escalators tend to break down often, you’re not wrong. Some escalators break so frequently, in fact, that Sound Transit is paying more than half of what it originally spent on those escalators in order to fix them.

The agency has paid more than $1.5 million to fix and maintain escalators at the University of Washington light rail station since it opened in 2016, according to data obtained by KUOW.

The original cost of the equipment was $3 million.

KUOW obtained the data on escalator maintenance after three listeners asked why escalators in the Downtown Transit Tunnel and along the light rail line seem to break frequently. Readers wondered how much it costs Sound Transit to repair them.

Read More: Some moms too anguished to speak, attorneys for asylum seekers say

Some escalators are a lot more expensive than others. Escalator maintenance at the UW station, for example, has cost five times more than the Capitol Hill station just one stop down the line.

The reason? Sound Transit opted for cheaper escalators that were less sturdy. They did contain a few upgraded features, though, such as stronger stainless steel.

“We are always keeping the dollars in mind,” Sound Transit Director of Architecture and Art Julie Montgomery said. The costs of the sturdiest escalators would have been about double, she said.

“We looked really hard at that and then we specified escalators that we thought were the right level of heavy duty for that particular station,” she said.

But it was the wrong level of heavy duty. UW station escalators have not aged gracefully over their short lives.

The UW station escalators weren’t strong enough from the beginning, according to a 2017 report by engineering consultants the Greenbusch Group and commissioned by Sound Transit. The report found the escalators showed much more wear and tear than should be expected for their age.

Major malfunctions this spring angered commuters and embarrassed the agency. In March and April, people waited for around an hour to take an elevator when escalators stopped working at the station. The agency refused to let commuters use the stalled escalators as regular stairs.

The consultants’ report stated that in addition to problems with installation, some of the problems they noticed were “inherent to the design of the escalators themselves.” Those problems include premature wear and tear and the improper alignment of mechanical parts.

Sound Transit is not happy with the high cost of keeping the escalators at the UW station running, Montgomery said.

“A lot of that was due to large problems that were uncovered and have now been fixed. And so the hope is that we will see improvement over time.”

Montgomery added that the way the escalators were designed is “just one piece of the puzzle,” in addition to the way they were installed and maintained over time.

Now Sound Transit has a new policy. In the future, all stations will have heavy-duty escalators.

Plus a new feature right next to the escalators, just in case: stairs. Escalators still cannot be used as stairs, but if needed, the agency will open emergency staircases at the back of stations for use.

Why you can trust KUOW