Frustrated Muni riders forced to trek up the stairs at downtown stations might feel like the escalators are broken all the time — and they are not far off.
There were 131 reports of broken Muni escalators through the first 11 months of the year, according to maintenance records obtained by The San Francisco Examiner. The statistics mean that once every 2½ days, on average, one of the machines was down — and that does not count the roughly 300 times that escalators were temporarily out of service due to routine maintenance.
Muni shares its downtown stations with BART, so the San Francisco transit agency is tasked only with the upkeep for the escalators that lead from the main station to the ground level.
Combined with its five other stations outside the downtown core, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, has a total of 28 escalators it must keep track of on a daily basis.
The agency shells out $4.65 million to three companies — Kone, Schindler and Otis — to keep the 30-year-old escalators running, according to agency documents. Despite the money and maintenance, though, they do break down.
At the Powell Street station, where two manufacturers — Otis and Schindler — are responsible for two different sets of escalators, there were 66 reports of malfunctioning equipment, by far the worst-performing lifts in the system.
The station with the second-most breakdown reports was Church Street, which had 16.
The outages at Powell Street were due to broken materials, such as faulty microswitches, tension carriages and chains. Also, there was an instance of a stop button being jammed with a combination of chewing gum and sticks.
In 2009, a mouse became caught in the escalator, a problem that shut down service for three hours. In the end, the mouse was declared a casualty.
Steve Fraser, an Alameda resident, said during this time of year, Muni escalators seem to be constantly out of service since they are exposed to the elements.
“I’ve been taking public transit for 30 years, and the escalators have always been broken,” Fraser said. “You’d think they would have come up with a solution for this by now.”
Bernal Heights resident Dennis Hayes agreed with that sentiment.
“I really believe we have the approximation of a Third World country when it comes to our public services,” Hayes said. “And nothing exemplifies this more than Muni’s escalators, because they are always down.”
To help remedy the maintenance woes, the SFMTA is about to embark on an $11 million project to restore the machines, according to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose.
“The bottom line is that our escalators are 30 years old,” Rose said. “Once this project if finished, our escalators will be much easier to maintain — well into the future.”
Burden of breakdowns unbalanced
For most Muni passengers, broken escalators are nuisances begrudgingly accepted. For others, the consequences are more serious.
Bob Planthold, a disabled activist and frequent Muni rider, said broken escalators can be a particular hazard for those in the disabled community. Unlike reports of out-of-service elevators, which must be announced for all to hear at transit stations due to disability laws, warnings about escalator malfunctions are not required.
“When they don’t let us know, we have to wend our ways around crowds, which can be extremely difficult,” Planthold said. “It can be a huge burden for people that have difficulty walking, and it certainly counts as a safety risk for us.”
Planthold said 90 percent of Muni’s disabled passengers are semi-ambulatory, using walkers or crutches to move around. Escalators — not just elevators — are essential for their safe travel.
Denise D’anne, a former member of the Senior Action Network, said coming across a broken escalator presents an enormous obstacle for senior citizens.
“You don’t know it’s broken until you get there,” D’anne said. “And then you have to turn around and walk back to the next escalator. And that walk always feels like it’s a mile long.”
— Will Reisman
Up, up, up
Muni escalators cost millions in upkeep each year.
305 Routine maintenance reports
$1.87 million Annual contract with Otis
$625,000 Annual contract with Kone
$2.167 million Annual contract with Schindler
$4.65 million Total amount of contracts
$1,300 Escalator expenses outside of contract