A nightmare-inducing subway escalator wreck in Midtown last year was caused by the MTA's habit of skipping out on preventative maintenance inspections, according to a new report.
On Tuesday, the MTA's Office of the Inspector General released its investigation into "the Wreck" (we'd have gone with "deathscalator"), which sparked rush hour panic at the 5th Avenue/53rd Street station last February. Photos showed the machine's steel gears badly shredded near the top of the landing, prompting comparisons to similar escalator collapses that left dozens injured. No one was seriously hurt during this incident, thankfully.
"The machinery just kind of crunched and collapsed on itself," witness Lyana Fernandez told Gothamist at the time. "It sounded like a truck had smashed into a wall. I heard people scream. A couple people tripped over it. Miraculously, no one seemed to be hurt."
According to the Inspector General's report, the root cause of the incident was the escalator's worn out guide tracks, which disrupted the meshing process between different mechanical parts. While a basic preventative maintenance visit would have caught the problem, the MTA either cancelled or failed to complete three separate inspections during the nine month period leading up to the breakdown, the report found.
Busted subway escalators and elevators have been a recurring problem for the transit authority in recent years. One study from the NYC Comptroller found that about 80 percent of all MTA escalators and elevators don't get their scheduled preventative maintenance service assignments, and that the authority does not track whether all of the defects found in its elevators and escalators are corrected.
According to the MTA, the average subway escalator breaks down for at least one month of the year. Meanwhile, the very worst escalator in the system — at Lexington Ave/53rd Street — has been out of commission for over a year now, and won't be fixed until September.
“You cannot have escalators wrecking with people on them — especially at rush hour in Midtown Manhattan,” MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny said in a statement. “While it is fortunate that no one was seriously injured, even during an era of resource constraints, New York City Transit must ensure that our stations’ key access points remain safe and operational.”
Frequently, the MTA's justifications for cancelling maintenance visits were submitted in memos after the fact — a practice described by the inspector general as "erroneous and sloppy."
The report does note that the MTA has taken some steps to revamp its escalator maintenance program following the incident — and has agreed to accept the IG's recommendations to improve training and reporting systems.
At the same time, the transit authority still does not keep track of individual escalator’s history of cancelled, delayed, or incomplete preventative maintenance visits, according to the report. So, update your subway fear rankings accordingly.
UPDATE: A spokesperson for the MTA provided Gothamist with the following statement: “As the Inspector General herself noted about the year-old incident, the MTA has already taken significant steps to overhaul our escalator maintenance program, revamping the process when it comes to the frequency of maintenance work. We have also taken a number of steps—among them a full review of how we compensate these difficult-to-find tradespeople—to examine how we can further improve our escalator operations.”