Broken PATCO escalators to get federal scrutiny

A broken escalator at the PATCO Ashland station last month.
A broken escalator at the PATCO Ashland station last month. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 18, 2013

Broken escalators and elevators continue to bedevil PATCO commuters, as the transit agency moves this week to hire a new contractor to fix the equipment at its stations.

And the Federal Transit Administration has launched an investigation into the failures, following a complaint that PATCO is not providing the required access to handicapped customers.

The PATCO board is slated to vote Wednesday on a $1.39 million maintenance contract with Fujitec America Inc., a subsidiary of the Japanese manufacturer of most of PATCO's escalators.

Hiring the manufacturer to fix the broken escalators should make it easier to get parts and prompt service, said PATCO spokesman Tim Ireland. Previously, PATCO hired Otis Elevator Co. to maintain its escalators and elevators.

"It's borderline incompetence," fumed commuter Richard Cushman, 36, of Oaklyn, who found escalators broken Monday when he boarded at Westmont and when he got off at Eighth and Market. "How can every mall keep escalators running and PATCO can't?"

"All we want them to do is run the trains on time, keep the escalators running, and maybe keep the stations clean," said Cushman, a public-relations executive who travels to Center City daily. "They do usually run the trains on time."

In August, PATCO's record was woeful: Its escalators were working only 55.8 percent of the time, far short of the agency's goal of 90 percent.

After The Inquirer reported last month that PATCO had allowed its maintenance contract to lapse July 31, officials of PATCO and its parent, the Delaware River Port Authority, apologized to the public and promised to move quickly to fix the problems.

PATCO turned to neighboring transit agency SEPTA, which has its own repair crews, to fix its elevators and escalators. SEPTA worked on eight PATCO units and was able to return five to service, at least temporarily, said Jeffrey D. Knueppel, SEPTA's deputy general manager.

SEPTA will bill PATCO $12,397 for the work. Its temporary contract with PATCO ended Friday.

Customers welcomed the fixed escalators - while they lasted.

"At Westmont, people were literally cheering and laughing when the escalator was working for a little while last month," Cushman said. "But after four or five days, it was out again. Now people just shrug their shoulders."

Cushman said the long-term outages are especially difficult for handicapped and elderly customers, who struggle with the stairs.

The FTA said it received a formal complaint last week that PATCO was failing to meet requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The FTA said its investigation was likely to take several months, as it will request information from PATCO, review PATCO's response, and then determine what actions, if any, are necessary.

If voluntary efforts fail, the FTA, which has provided millions of dollars to PATCO to improve access for the handicapped, could cut off federal aid to the transit agency.

One customer, Constance Lyford, 70, of Center City, said she filed a complaint with the FTA on Aug. 16.

On Monday, she said the problem had gotten worse.

"Yesterday . . . I was going to Ashland. I checked PATCO's website and noted that Ashland's escalator was not listed as out of service," she said. "When I got there, it was not running and the yellow barricades were up, so they must have known."

On Monday, PATCO's website said escalators were broken at four of PATCO's 11 escalator-equipped stations: Westmont, Broadway, Eighth and Market, and 12th-13th and Locust. The escalator at the 12th-13th station was so badly damaged in June that it will be demolished and replaced, said John Rink, who became PATCO general manager in 2011.

In the long term, PATCO plans to install elevators at all of its stations. The elevators are supposed to be in place by 2017, at a cost of about $15 million.

The DRPA board in July approved a $1.9 million contract for design and construction monitoring of the new elevators. Eighty percent of the money will come from the FTA.

The six PATCO stations that have no elevators installed or where they are under construction are Ashland, Haddonfield, Westmont, Collingswood, and City Hall in Camden County, and the 12th-13th and Locust station in Center City.

Two elevators will be installed at the City Hall and 12th-13th stations, and one at each of the four others.

An elevator was opened at Ferry Avenue in April, and the delayed opening of an elevator at 9th-10th and Locust is scheduled for late this month.


Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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