Three sprawling stations opened deep beneath Second Avenue on New Year’s Day 2017 as gleaming showpieces of the city’s troubled subway system.
But the stations’ 32 escalators quickly became the MTA’s shame — breaking down so frequently that only three of them met performance goals during the stations’ first 15 months, an MTA inspector general report obtained by THE CITY found.
“It doesn’t matter if it was the first 15 months or the last 15 months, they should have been watching the performance closely,” said Beth Keating, director of audits for the Office of the MTA Inspector General. “Customers who ride the Second Avenue Subway were complaining from the start and not enough was being done.”
The report says multiple escalator outages have been particularly brutal at the 72nd and 86th Street stops, where commuters have to hike the equivalent of seven to eight flights of stairs if they’re at exits lacking elevators.
Outraged and Exhausted Riders
During a recent evening rush-hour outage of three escalators at the 72nd Street station, a flustered commuter yelled, “This is uncalled for — horrible!” into an MTA Help Point intercom, while others trudged up and down more than 115 steps.
“I feel like I can’t breathe,” gasped Lyne Roxborogh, 65, of Brooklyn, after trekking up one of the busted escalators near the 69th Street exit. “It’s disgusting.”
“These are brand new stations,” said Andy Chiu, 54, of Manhattan. “I don’t understand how this happens.”
The IG report paints a troubling picture of escalator service at the cavernous Upper East Side stations, which cost $4.5 billion and opened as part of the first phase of the long-delayed Second Avenue Subway. The Q line stations are home to nine of the transit system’s longest escalators, ranging from 242 to 269 steps.
During those 15 months, investigators found that just three of the 32 escalators worked at least 95.2% of the time — the target rate set by New York City Transit.
Seven of the new escalators malfunctioned more frequently than the 107 other subway escalators in Manhattan — which, on average, have been in use for 15 years.
The outages along Second Avenue were enough to dent ridership, an MTA spokesperson said, and pushed agency officials to increase pressure on the company that’s supposed to keep the escalators in working order.
MTA Puts Heat on Contractors
Breakdowns occurred most often at the 72nd Street stop: Its 10 escalators, which were installed and maintained by the Schindler Elevator Corp., logged an average 83 outages each during the station’s first 15 months, according to the report.
That’s 80% more than the average number of outages for the escalators at the 86th and 96th Street stops, whose units were installed by the KONE Corp. and are maintained by Slade Industries Inc.
An MTA spokesperson said agency leaders, including New York City Transit President Andy Byford, have been meeting with Schindler brass and warning that continued sub-par performance could put the company’s future contracts at risk.
The firm already is under contract to install 45 escalators and 17 elevators inside the massive Long Island Rail Road Terminal being built 15 stories beneath Grand Central Terminal.
“Transit officials have been able to extract reforms and improvements from this dogged oversight, but the escalators need to perform better and regular status meetings with Schindler continue,” said the MTA spokesperson, Shams Tarek.
A Schindler spokesperson said the company has taken “a number of steps to address all such issues,” resulting in “significantly improved performance.” Among those steps: Schindler increased its ranks of escalator maintenance workers.
“Schindler takes issues involving equipment reliability very seriously and has been actively working with our partners at the MTA to deliver the best possible service to the riders of the New York City transit system,” said Kimberley Hoskins, a company spokesperson.
The company was repeatedly flagged by New York City Transit for an “unsatisfactory” performance at 72nd Street. Schindler failed to adequately do 67% of the required preventative maintenance on the escalators during the first half of 2018, according to the inspector general’s report.
“New York City Transit is responsible for making sure contractors are actually doing the job they are paid to do — and that did not happen the first two years after Second Avenue Subway opened,” Keating said.
The report says managers within New York City Transit’s Elevator and Escalator Department did not “adequately explain why these new escalators are so frequently out of service.” The managers apparently didn’t realize that nearly half the outages at 72nd Street were being triggered by a safety sensor, the report found.
Signs of a Rebound
The escalators at the three new stations showed improvement during the first half of 2019. Data from the MTA Elevator and Escalator Performance Dashboard indicates 12 of the 32 escalators now have availability rates higher than New York City Transit’s 95.2% goal.
In June, 24-hour escalator availability throughout the subway system was 87.4%, a reduction from a year earlier. MTA chalked up the change to escalators being taken out of service as part of a systemwide inspection and repair campaign.
The MTA says it’s still analyzing what’s at the root of the Second Avenue Subway escalator problems. A consultant is also looking for ways to squeeze better service out of the machines.
The report notes that longer escalators generally perform more poorly than shorter ones — something to consider as the Second Avenue subway expands to new stations. As THE CITY reported in March, the MTA also already has run into problems with escalators at the 34th Street — Hudson Yards 7 train station, which opened in 2015.
“The depth of future… subway stations requires high-performing escalators and our office will be monitoring closely,” Keating said.
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