Pregnant? Asthmatic? Don't Like Rollercoasters? Stay Away From NYC Elevators And Escalators

Unless you’re willing to risk being stranded with 14 other passengers several stories underground in a cattle car elevator on a hot summer day, or plunging at extreme speeds down an escalator with a broken chain, you might want to steer clear of NYC’s subway system lifts. The New York Times has published the results of an extensive investigation that includes tales of daily breakdowns, comically undertrained mechanics, and about $1 billion spent over the past decade.

Probably the most disturbing finding is that the subway’s mechanics are released into the system with 4 weeks of training, compared to 4 years for elevator repairmen in the private sector. By contrast, mechanics hired by Washington, D.C. metro system now receive 4 years of training, and those hired by the San Francisco metro system receive 2 years of training.

The worst offender is the 181st St station for the 1, 9 trains. As passengers familiar with the station know, you have to take giant elevators several stories underground to reach the subway lines, and they suffered over 100 breakdowns last year. The article highlights one breakdown where 15 people, including two women who began to suffer from asthma attacks, were trapped for 40 minutes last summer. The same elevator “had broken down five times in the eight days leading up to the event. Each time, mechanics came, made minor adjustments and put the machine back in service — only to have it break down again.” After the 15 people were let out, the elevator was put back in service, only to break down again later that afternoon.

But it sounds like it’s the plunging escalators you really have to watch out for—or at least have strong ankles and the ability to leap and roll when you reach the bottom:

On June 6th, during the evening rush, the chain snapped with a bang and the escalator stopped moving. People began walking down the escalator. The last person on was Magaly Diaz, a pregnant woman on her way home from work.

Suddenly, the escalator sprang back to life. Freed from the hold of the drive chain, the steps began freewheeling downhill, quickly picking up speed. It all went so fast that Ms. Diaz cannot even remember if she screamed.

“It felt like a roller coaster,” said Ms. Diaz, 40. “You know how it feels when you’re at the top of a roller coaster going down? That’s the kind of momentum it had.”

Most people jumped or stumbled off at the bottom. But a friend standing in front of Ms. Diaz fell at the bottom and Ms. Diaz landed on top of her. Both women were taken to the hospital. Ms. Diaz had two badly twisted ankles, though she was grateful that a sonogram showed no injury to her fetus.

Coming soon: the MTA will use this as a reason to call for fare increases.

“$1 Billion Later, Subway Elevators Still Fail “ [New York Times]
(Photo: Pro-Zak)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Elijah Otis was able to put an automatic brake on elevators something like 120 years ago…but escalators can just freewheel? Wild.

    /”escalator temporarily stairs”

  2. apotheosis says:

    Interesting. I’d have thought escalators would have some sort of ratchet safety or braking system to prevent that, like elevators.

  3. maddypilar says:

    I don;t use elevators in the subway because I don’t enjoy the smell of urine.

    I feel bad for wheelchair bound and other passengers that need to use them. They are horrible.

  4. Parting says:

    Wow! NYC subway sounds a great place for thrill seekers. Just imagine advertisements :

    ”Drop down in defective elevator! Ride a ”deadly” escalator. And bring back BED BUGS as a free souvenir!”

  5. When I go to the Target in Marble Hill — my number one dread is always the 168th St. station, when you have to take that elevator down to the number 1 train. They have a bank of 4 cars, and only one is working. It’s such a pain in the rear…

  6. ptkdude says:

    That escalator thing happened in Atlanta’s subway on New Year’s Eve. Three escalators failed at 2 different stations within minutes of each other. The system originally blamed “rowdy revelers” for jumping on the crowded escalators, but quickly changed their tune when every single witness said that was BS. They eventually announced a system-wide safety review.

  7. ViperBorg says:

    @apotheosis: No one learns from Otis, I guess.

  8. Mistrez_Mish says:

    Awwwww that’s a photo of the 53rd and Lex subway escalator of doom. Take it every day on my way home from work – I find it fun. Gives an Indiana Jones feel to the daily commute.

  9. thesabre says:

    They should install these free-falling escalators down here in DC. That will teach the tourists not to block others in the deep stations like Woodley Park. I’d pay extra.

    Wheaton station has the longest single-span escalators in the western hemisphere. Free-falling on those would probably rip your face right off.

  10. sgodun says:

    Hardly unique to the NYC subway scene. I take NJ Transit into and out of Penn Station every weekday, so that’s a minimum of ten escalator rides to/from the platform every weekday. (Sometimes there’s two escalators, depending on which track the train is on.) I would say, without exaggeration, that the escalators at Penn Station are out of order at least 70% of the time.

  11. Dean Kamen? James Dyson?

    Someone please reinvent the escalator?

  12. anarcurt says:

    @Mistrez_Mish: It’s never on! Who needs a gym when you got MTA & the Stairs of Doom.

  13. Trai_Dep says:

    Considering that it’s Manhattan Real Estate owners we’re talking about, I’m shocked they don’t charge an extra Entertainment Fee for the rollercoaster-castic elevator plunges. They’re getting soft, I tell you, SOFT!

  14. nycaviation says:

    About two years ago, after at least a year and a half of construction, MTA opened three new elevators at my old home station, 179th St on the F. Later that week, the one on the Manhattan-bound platform broke down. A couple days later it was working again, and the day after that it was out of service…and so it remained for another 6 MONTHS. Ever since it’s been operational only sporadically.

    They’ve been building another new one at 57th and 7th on the N/R/Q/W for over a year. The sign that said it would be completed in April has now been covered in electrical tape. It looks like it might be done by July.

  15. sponica says:

    I like when the escalator is stopped and then suddenly goes in the REVERSE direction. I was near the bottom of the one @ Columbus Circle intending to go down into the station, well the escalator came to life and decided that it was now going out of the station.

  16. inno says:

    “I like an escalator, because an escalator can never break. It can only become stairs. You’ll never see an ‘Escalator Out of Order’ sign, only ‘Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the convenience.'” — Mitch Hedberg

  17. iMe2 says:

    From Wikipedia:

    To enhance passenger safety, newer models of escalators are equipped with one or more of the following safety implementations, as per ASME A17.1 code:

    Handrail speed sensors – located somewhere inside of the escalator unit. These sensors are usually optical, they are positioned to sense how fast the handrail is going. In case of a drive chain/belt breaking, in order to protect the drive and people on the escalator, if the sensor notices a speed difference between the handrail and the steps it will sound an alarm, wait for a couple of seconds, then stop the escalator. A hard fault is generated inside the controller, and therefore must be serviced by authorised personnel.

  18. azntg says:

    Except for the 63 St / Lex Av. station and the other known “deep underground” stations, I gave up on escalators. I guess I’ll build some quadriceps by walking up or down the stairs.

    I personally never had the courage to step into the claustrophobic, dangerously hot and humid elevators that the MTA runs (at least that’s what others tell me)

  19. bdgbill says:


    Agreed! I would happily support the death penalty for anyone caught urinating in an indoor public space.

  20. agency says:

    “On the morning of August 28, Lisa Chiou, 33, got off a subway train at the Bowling Green station in Lower Manhattan and got on an escalator that would carry her up and out of the station to Broadway. She placed her right foot (she was wearing flip-flops) on the lowest step, and as the escalator rose, she put her left foot on the step below it.

    Except all of a sudden, there was no next step. There was a crash, and Ms. Chiou looked down to see that the escalator step that had been under her left foot had fallen out of the machine. It sheared off three more steps below it, and Ms. Chiou found herself slipping backward into the void.

    “It was literally a split second,” Ms. Chiou recalled. “My left foot was still on that step when it fell in. My foot sank in with it, and I just kind of pulled my leg back out. So I got scraped by the metal and stuff.”

    Ms. Chiou managed to stumble up the still-moving escalator and make her way to the top. She had a small cut on her leg that required two stitches. “If one foot wasn’t on a sure step,” she said, “I would have fallen in, and I would have been eaten up by the escalator.””

  21. theglassrat says:

    This article is inaccurate – the 181st St. station is only for the 1 train. The 9 train hasn’t run in, oh, a decade or so…