Additional reporting by Ann Choi
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It’s been just over a year since the worst escalator in the subway system broke down — and records show it will remain at a standstill until late September.
The escalator is supposed to take riders at the Lexington Avenue-53rd Street station to the E and M train platform. But it’s instead covered in plywood with signs that hint at the difficulty of holding its owner accountable.
“This privately owned, non-NYC Transit escalator is out of service for rehabilitation work,” read the notices from the MTA.
Maintained by Metropolitan 885 Third Avenue, the notorious escalator has been out of service since Jan. 20, 2019, while racking up multiple city Buildings Department violations and testing the patience of riders at the subway system’s 10th-busiest station.
Trains sometimes have to skip the station because the platform gets so backed up.
“This is too busy a station to have that escalator be out of service for so long,” said Kenneth Remy, 50, who was waiting for a train on the platform. “When you come in here at 8 or 9 in the morning, it’s like a zoo with so many people down here.”
The Worst and the Best
In use since 1985, the escalator last year had a 24-hour availability rate of 4.9%— by far the worst-performing of the 42 privately maintained escalators in the subway system, MTA data shows. The second-worst of the non-MTA escalators, at 14th Street-Union Square, had a 24-hour availability rate of 54.67%.
Meanwhile, the 10 most reliable escalators in the entire system — also all privately owned — had 24-hour availability rates higher than 99%.
The owners are contractually responsible to operate and maintain the machines under agreements with New York City Transit. In return, they received permits from the city for bonus floor space or building levels when their properties were built or renovated.
“Poor private escalator performance and lax oversight cannot be normal,” said Colin Wright, of the advocacy organization TransitCenter. “Reining in bad actors is key to improving systemwide escalator performance and convincing the public that progress is being made.”
An analysis by THE CITY of MTA records shows that the privately run escalators last year were, on average, available 86.4% of the time, their lowest mark in a five-year period.
They were annually outperformed by the 232 escalators maintained by the MTA, which last year hit a five-year 24-hour availability low of 89.6%. The MTA pinned the decline in reliability of its own machines on systemwide safety inspections that, starting in March, caused some escalators be taken out of service for extended periods.
“When we have an escalator go down, we get to it as quickly as possible,” said Tim Minton, an MTA spokesperson. “It’s a priority for us.”
Escalating the Issue
The MTA appears as frustrated as commuters with Escalator 254X at Lexington Avenue-53rd Street, a subway complex used by nearly 65,000 riders each weekday.
A March 13 letter from the MTA to John Perdios, a senior real estate manager for Metropolitan 885 Third Avenue, notes that in 2011, the transit agency was “ignored” after it “strongly encouraged” that the aging escalator be replaced. Instead, the letter notes, a “short-term fix” was put in place.
“And now, seven years later, once again the escalator is out of service and has been unreliably in and out of service since then,” wrote Robert Paley, the MTA’s director of transit-oriented development.
Calls from from THE CITY to Metropolitan 885 Third Avenue were not returned, and Buildings Department records indicate violations remain open for the “hazardous condition which affects several thousand people attempting to egress subway platform.”
Riders can move between the station’s mezzanine and its E and M train platform via stairs, an elevator and three other escalators. But when one of the other escalators fails, Paley wrote, trains sometimes have to skip the station because of overcrowding.
Wright, of TransitCenter, said the MTA needs to strengthen contractual penalties so owners of failing escalators pay for every day a machine is out of service beyond its legal allowance.
“Private escalators should be the best performers in the system, not the worst,” he said.
On the subway platform at Lexington Ave-53rd Street, some riders said they have little faith in seeing the escalator back in working order even by Sept. 30.
“Anything in New York where anyone says they’re going to be done on time, I don’t believe,” said Brianna Wright, 21, a college student who uses the station daily.
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