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The Fault in Our Stairs: Subway Escalator Reliability Plunges

Three escalators at the Flushing-Main Street station on 7 line are among the five worst-performing in Queens.
Three escalators at the Flushing-Main Street station on 7 line are among the five worst-performing in Queens. Photo: Jose Martinez/THE CITY

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Subway escalator reliability is way down — with 24-hour availability rates sinking to their lowest level since 2010, according to new MTA figures.

The 232 escalators maintained by New York City Transit were, on average, functional 87.4% of time in the second quarter of the year, the first time that figure has fallen below 90% in a decade’s worth of escalator reports reviewed by THE CITY.

Biggest Drop at Major Stations

The worst performing of the MTA-owned escalators is at the No. 7 line’s Flushing-Main Street station, where one unit was only in service 19.9% of the time from April through June. The stop’s three escalators, which shuttle commuters between Roosevelt Avenue and the station, were among the five least reliable subway escalators in all of Queens.

“Every week, three or four times, you’ll see one of these escalators out of service,” said Patel Ashvin, 61, who commutes from the terminal on the No. 7 line. “I’ve gotten used to just taking the stairs.”

Some other busy stations with the lowest availability rates include Times Square-42nd Street with 62%, Grand Central-42nd Street, 70%, and 34th Street-Herald Square with a 69% availability rate. Together, these stops serve roughly half a million people on weekdays. Meanwhile, of the boroughs, The Bronx had the worst service overall.

A year earlier, the systemwide 24-hour escalator reliability rate was at 94.4% — just below the MTA’s goal of having an elevator in service 95.2% of the time.

More Repairs, More Problems

Transit officials pinned the descent in reliability on an increase in safety checks and repairs that began in March. That’s knocked several escalators out of service for extended periods of time.

“We’re wrapping up those inspections and we expect the availability to improve,” said Sally Librera, the head of subways for New York City Transit.

The MTA, according to agency data, has not met its 95.2% escalator availability target since the third quarter of 2014, when escalators were functional 95.4% of the time over the course of 24 hours.

Librera said a dozen elevator and escalator apprentices have recently been appointed as “provisional maintainers,” and will be eligible for permanent positions once they pass a promotional exam. She said the MTA also has “reorganized” its preventative maintenance efforts.

Colin Wright of the advocacy organization TransitCenter pointed to the MTA’s well-documented financial woes as a cause of the sagging escalator rates.

“Poor escalator performance is tied to a lack of maintenance and repair staff,” he said. “The MTA has serious operating budget challenges and all of this is tied to that.”

At Flushing-Main Street, riders said they have grown weary of encountering out-of-service escalators. In the second quarter of this year, the other two escalators there had 24-hour availability of 57.4% and 79.7%, respectively.

“It seems like all the time, one of these escalators is being fixed,” said Luz Gutierrez, 48, who had taken the 7 train to the station. “That’s not good service, that’s bad service.”

An MTA spokesperson said the three escalators at Flushing-Main Street — which are all 20 years old — have “outlived their useful lives” and are supposed to be replaced later this year as part of  the agency’s 2015-2019 capital improvements plan. The spokesperson added that replacement parts can be difficult to obtain.

“Let’s face it, the Flushing-Main Street escalators are basically stairs at this point,” Wright said.

The MTA last week said its plans to replace at least 65 escalators and 78 elevators as part of its 2020-2024 capital plan.

The subway system also has 42 escalators that are maintained by private companies, among them the worst-performing escalator. That one, at Lexington Avenue-53rd Street station, has been out of service since January. The latest estimate on the MTA website projects it will be running again by the end of the year.

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