Metro Risks Passenger Safety
by Encouraging Standing on the Side of their Escalators

The Washington Metro

The other Washington (Washington, DC) has a subway system which, in its 86 stations, has a total of 588 escalators. This is more than any other US public transportation system, and Metro includes the longest escalators in the Western Hemisphere (Wheaton)

The subway, when built by Morrison-Knudsen (opened approx. 1976), was a state-of-the-art system. It features carpeted cars, with Automatic Train Control (ATC) allowing the trains to precisely align their stops. Back in the late 1970s and early '80s the trains and stations were remarkably clean. (Now it's one of the more dirty systems in the country.)

One of the "upgrades" is the institution of mostly meaningless announcements:

"Please move to the center of the car." -- The center of the car is always the most crowded part of the car.   (Most locals know to move away from the center, but tourists obey these announcements as if they are intended to have meaning, with the resultant crowding of the center doors.)

"Please use all doors." -- WTF? I thought passengers naturally use all open doors. The vestibule doors are not used in Metro. Do passengers need an announcement not to use the unopened doors on the opposite side?

"You'll notice people [on the escalators] standing on the right." -- and what does that mean? That you advertise that patrons engage in dangerous practices? The posted signs say to stay away from the sides precisely because escalator balustrades (sideplates) are dangerous. (The announcements should clearly state, "Please stand to the center of the escalators, away from the sides. Do not walk on an escalator.")

photo of Wheaton
escalator by Toytoy
Wheaton station, Wikipedia photo by Toytoy

The Escalators

Escalators are unique in that they move people:
1. Freely across exposed stationary objects
You can reach over to the balustrades and let your fingers sweep across the surface

2. Move at an angle to the horizontal or vertical.
That's why moving walkways are safe to walk on whereas escalators definitely are not. (Modern escalators also have a horizontal portion to allow safe entry/exit to take place at the horizontal portion.)
As a result, since the introduction of the escalator in the 1890's, care has been taken to avoid clothing and shoes getting caught between escalator components. In fact, the balustrade was invented to reduce hazards.

The problem is that articles of clothing, shoe soles, shoelaces, etc. can get caught between the balustrades and the steps, and sometimes between the steps. (Remember the non-horizontal movement of the steps.) Generally this is not a problem because the steps themselves are clearly marked. Unfortunately this is not the case with Metro.

The Metro escalators have three additional problems:

1. Exposure to weather, including moisture, especially in the summer, and salt from snow removal. (After running into substantial problems, many of Metro's escalators were covered by canopies, but with limited effect. If you had a $3,000,000 machine that costs $50,000 / year to maintain, wouldn't you provide more than a cute awning? Oh, I forgot -- this is taxpayer funded so cost doesn't matter.)

2. A tendency of people to stand to one side, which results in uneven wear and causes the steps to pull against their guideways. This results in premature wear and frequent breakdowns.

3. An unusually slow operational speed, which encourages unsafe practices such as walking on the escalators. Typical escalator speeds are 0.8 to 0.9 m / sec. (50 to 55 m / minute); the Washington Metro escalators are run at a substantially slower speed.[1] While the slower speed makes movement easier, the result is very obviously encouraging large number of people attempting to walk on the escalator.
While it's obvious that more can be done to protect escalators from the elements, this is mostly a mechanical issue.

The standing to the side is more problematic because it is a serious safety issue. Instead, Metro has fomented a "skoozeme, skoozeme" culture of pushing on the escalators.

Malfeasance and Ignored Safety Standards

According to the Escalator Safety Foundation, the steps should be clearly marked to indicate that riders should stand away from the side.[2]   This disregard for safety has a number of consequences.

Most or all escalator steps come from the factory painted with yellow boundary markers. (Some of the yellow paint from original installations may still be evident on close inspection.) The purpose is to discourage people from standing to the sides, which are supposed to be clearly marked. According to one Metro employee, the boundary markings are removed by Metro; however, it is unclear whether the boundary markings were removed, simply allowed to wear off, or if the steps were ordered without markings.

Lawsuits are not a serious issue. Metro is a tax-supported organisation, so the cost of lawsuits and lawsuit settlements is simply factored into the costs of operation, with no further economic consideration.

The general accessibility of the system is adversely affected. I know at least one person who does not use the system because of the danger from the pushing. She could avoid the escalators (Metro was forced to provide elevator access to all stations), but the "skoozeme, skoozeme" culture extends to the platforms.

The pushing encouraged by Metro certainly adds to Washington's reputation for rudeness, and advances an adverse image of the city to visitors.

There are several items which suggest that WMATA is well aware of the safety hazard situation:

The prior accident history on Metro escalators

The elimination by WMATA of side markings or step markings on Metro escalators

The slowed (0.46 m / sec) operating speed that WMATA sets as the escalator to

WMATA's infamous platform announcement, "You will notice people stand to the right."[3]
This would necessarily include lack of any remedial action by Metro.

WMATA's modified safety notice, specifically changed from the notice prepared by The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)/American National Standards Institute Escalator Committee. The ASME notice recommends standing to the center and not one side!

The ASME notice:
"Here are some steps you can take to prevent escalator injuries:
* Make sure shoes are tied before getting on an escalator.
* Stand in the center of the step and be sure to step off of the escalator at the end of your ride.

. . .
* Avoid the sides of steps where entrapment can occur."
CPSC Press Release #08-264

The WMATA (Metro) notice:

"Elevator Safety
    ← (That's an interesting name for a warning.)
Stand to the right, facing forward
. . .
Stay clear of moving parts. Keep your hands, feet, and clothing clear of the side panels of the escalator. Make sure you have no dangling clothing or loose shoelaces. Baggy clothes, rubber boots, and loose shoelaces can get caught in the moving parts of the escalator.
. . ."

(To their credit, they do suggest removing baggy clothes, etc. Please send photos, but be selective!)

The "moving parts" wording is particularly bizarre for a prepared statement, since the only exposed moving parts on an escalator are the steps and the handrail. It's the stationary parts (e.g., the balustrades) that should be avoided, but that would directly contradict Metro's "Stand to the right" statement.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), together with the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, published a transit brochure on escalator safety. The WMATA "Tips" are in apparent contradiction with their own industry agencies' recommendations:
· Stand toward the middle of the step — away from the sides and face forward. Don't lean against the sides.

. . ."

Apparently Metro's "Stand to the right" statement directly contradicts its own industry association's published safety brochure!

There are other public transportation agencies that differ from the industry standard warning. Consider PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson Railroad of the Port Authority of NY and NJ), which states:
        . . .
seeInternational Escalator Safety Tour (including India, Korea and China)

Sub-Minimum Speeds

WMATA runs its escalators at sub-minimum speeds[4], which has two very notable effects:
1.   It encourages an inordinate number of people to attempt to walk on the escalators
This creates a safety hazard for both the walkers and innocent riders who are shoved by the Skoozemes. Moreover, this promotes Metro's skoozeme-skoozeme culture elsewhere in the system.

2.   It results in an unusually amount of failures and breakdowns.
These repairs are a major contributer to high system operating costs.
(The Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit (SMRT) system figured this one out in less than five years![5])

Therefore, all of WMATA's efforts at promoting walking on the escalators comes at a high financial cost, with no tangible advantage to riders.

Why are there no edge markings?

The simple expedient of adding (or restoring) the edge safety markings on the steps would dramatically reduce Metro's escalator breakdowns and failures[5] as well as significantly improving safety.

It's difficult to fathom why WMATA refuses to include contrasting edge markings on their escalator steps. One reason not to include edge markings is that the contrasting colours may clash with riders' outfits. Of course there's also the cost of yellow paint. Oh yes... edge markings would severely impact the "skoozeme-skoozeme" culture and address a safety issue.

Safe Procedures

It is possible for riders to improve their own safety, despite the "skoozeme, skoozeme" culture formented by WMATA.
Stand toward the middle of the step — away from the sides
Proper use of the escalator is to stand at the center or near the center, as dictated by comfortably grasping the handrail.

Imagine that the steps are still marked with the yellow boundaries that were painted there by the manufacturer, and stand away from the balustrades.

If travelling with a small child, hold xyr hand.
This may make it difficult to keep the child away from the balustrade, but it is important to keep the child from slipping. Due to the pushing and shoving, it's best to stay to the left.

Never walk on an escalator,
except on the horizontal portion at the ends.

Consider using a wheeled carrier for an attaché case.
In addition to discouraging the skoozeme, skoozemes, it will relieve muscle strain.

If carrying substantial luggage, it's best to use an elevator.

Of course when you encounter a skoozeme, skoozeme, try to be polite.
If told, "You're supposed to...", the answer is "You're not supposed to walk on any escalator."

Try to avoid using stopped escalators as staircases.
According to regulations in some places, including Maryland, an inoperative escalator should be blocked off. Needless to say, WMATA routinely ignores this procedure. Most escalators on WMATA are paralleled by elevators.

But Moving Walkways Have "Stand to One Side" Signs.

Moving walkways (e.g., at airports) are horizontal conveyances. It's safe to walk on a moving walkway, and this is recommended by their manufacturers.


[1]^ ,   [4]^   Metro operates their escalators at 0.46 m / sec (28 m / minute), compared to 0.60 m/sec. (36 m / minute) of typical escalator operation. Washington Post, 16-May-2004 Normal operating speeds are 0.50 to 0.75 m/sec (30 to 45 m / min.), and normal speeds in transportation systems are 0.60 to 0.75 m/sec. (36 to 45 m / minute)   In Miles per Hour, that's Metro's 1 MPH as compared to a lightning-fast 1.3 to 1.7 MPH for typical transportation systems.

[2]^   The American Society of Mechanical Engineers/American National Standards Institute Escalator Committee set a voluntary standard for escalators. The standard requires that each step have painted foot prints or brightly colored borders. (Brightly colored borders are of course far more common.) from Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reference
The CPSC includes the following statement:

"Here are some steps you can take to prevent escalator injuries:
* Make sure shoes are tied before getting on an escalator.
* Stand in the center of the step and be sure to step off of the escalator at the end of your ride.

. . .
* Avoid the sides of steps where entrapment can occur."
CPSC Press Release #08-264

[3]^       This is basically a "Please sue me" announcement by WMATA. The reason is any jury would interpret the announcement for what it is. More significantly, one could also conclude from the peculiar wording to be disingenuous. The statement would be construed as an admission by WMATA that they clearly know that the advice to stand to the side is dangerous, and at the same time an obvious attempt to avoid responsibility.

(This is not intended as legal advice. For legal advice, please retain a lawyer in your jurisdiction who practises in the particular field of law.)

[5]^  ^       The effect of standing to the side instead of to the center of the step was discovered by the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit (SMRT) system as an unintended side effect of Korea's campaign in 2002 to encourage people walk to the right. (The campaign was intended to reverse a "walk on the left" policy imposed by the Japanese during colonial rule.) The result was people began to stand to the side on escalators. From a 2007 article in Hi Seoul magazine:

The Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit ... announced last week it is going to ban people from walking up station escalators because of an increase in accidents, according to a Korea Times report.
    . . .
"In 2002, there were 16 accidents on escalators on subway lines 5 to 8, but the accident rate increased to 87 in 2006, mainly due to walking passengers on escalators," SMRT spokesman Kim Wan-gi was quoted as saying ... "We urge passengers not to walk on escalators because it is dangerous."

Kim said the weight of all the passengers standing on the right also has created mechanical problems, the report said.

Hi Seoul (Seoul Municipal Govt. newsletter) may be dead link
Stars and Stripes article based on Hi Seoul story

International Escalator Safety Tour
Is Metro Authorised to Tell Passengers Whether They Can Drink Coffee in Virginia?
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Courtesy of Stan Protigal

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first posted 14-Feb-10; rev 29-Apr-18 This page copyright 2010, Stan Protigal

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