Elevation or Escalation?

In the past, I have discussed the issue of non-working escalators, and Ed Drass devoted a column to this yesterday in Metro.

GO is moving away from escalators according to Ed’s column:

Why not replace the units with new ones? Replies Boyle, “The escalators do not perform well in the rather harsh environment that we have subjected them to.” He says the salt and sand that is used on platforms gets into the machinery and causes “premature failure.”

There is also an issue with escalators feeding into crowded platforms and pushing more people out into a space where there is no room. This is an issue at Union Station, and GO is planning to eliminate escalators as they wear out (or sooner if the reconstruction plans go ahead).

At Bloor-Yonge and St. George, the TTC monitors crowding conditions and stops escalators if they have to.

This brings me to a question about the role of such devices on transit systems. Nobody likes climbing up stairs, especially when it’s more than one flight, and escalators contribute to the convenience of moving around in stations. Unlike elevators that are fitted in one per vertical rise wherever they will fit, there are often many escalators to serve demands right where the demand exists.

Imagine if you were on the lower level at Bloor-Yonge and wanted to get to the surface. First you must go all the way down to the east end of the platform, ride the elevator up to the Yonge line level, then come back onto the northbound platform to take an elevator up to the mezzanine, then make your way out into the Bay’s concourse.

For someone who has trouble with stairs, that’s a lot of walking just to get to the elevators, and in many ways it defeats the purpose.

There’s an analogy with vehicle design and the range of options for those with mobility problems. At one end is the Wheel Trans bus fleet, then accessible taxis, then accessible surface transit and subway stations. A major reason for making the base system accessible is that this removes some demand from Wheeltrans and allows those who can get around more or less on their own to use the same system as everyone else.

If we start to treat escalators as things we can do without, this will have a profound effect on accessibility of the system to those with a moderate impairment, not to mention on station design where walking distances to elevators will become an important consideration.

As for GO Transit, this system will evolve from one whose primary mission is to carry hale and hearty folk who sprint up and down stairways, to one with more off-peak travel and customers for whom stairways are a major impediment. Making elevators convenient to get to and reliable will be a vital part of their service.

Keeping escalators running is a major headache for transit systems, but those escalators are just as much a part of “the network” as the buses and trains people ride on.

18 thoughts on “Elevation or Escalation?

  1. Removing escalators from transit stations is a false economy. It is bad for passengers who are unable to climb stairs but who can use escalators. This would also make moving around luggage very cumbersome; suitcases with wheels are easy to roll on escalators but difficult to carry up stairs. This will inevitably result in long lineups at elevators in busy stations. Escalators are also better at moving large numbers of people than stairs.

    Escalators might be difficult to maintain, but transit agencies should be providing more, not less. At a bare minimum, two escalators should be provided, one in each direction; the TTC should retrofit stations with only one escalator at the same time it installs elevators. Major stations (like the future York University station) ideally should be built with more than two escalators in each direction to increase capacity and so that if one breaks down, there is still an escalator in both directions.

    The fact that the escalators at St. George and Bloor-Yonge are frequently shut down due to overcrowding indicates that these stations desperately need to be expanded. The cost might be high, but there is no viable alternative (relief lines and GO will only provide temporary relief).

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  2. Have ridden the TTC since 1958. Back then I think things worked reasonably well but recall long waits, no shelters, cold street cars in winter. Times have changed TTC has not kept pace.

    Escalators: Always being repaired. Some stations, only one. When down, how do the injured, aged, etc, navigate those steps? With great difficulty.

    The Coxwell station, for example is a distribution place to/from Toronto East General but has yet to feature an elevator or second escalator. Why was this station not given priority?

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  3. I agree with your assessment, Steve. It is also a mystery to me why the TTC removed the rolling walkway between the two Spadina stations – and I wonder if this has changed exchange patterns from the subway to the Spadina LRT.

    Also on the topic of escalators, given efforts by the City of Toronto to “green” itself, I am surprised that the TTC has not been instructed to install two-speed escalators that run at a slow speed, thereby saving electricity, when no one is on them, and speeding up gently to the normal speed when someone steps on the pad at the top or bottom, depending on whether the escalator is going down or up, respectively. These are everywhere in European countries. There are also versions that actually stop when no one is on them, but an illuminated blue arrow indicates that they are functioning. They then start up when someone approaches. Perhaps this was somewhat confusing (even though it is not a problem to look at the arrow) so that is why newer installations seem to be going with the two-speed model.

    Steve: Many years ago, the TTC experimented with a demand-actuated escalator at Old Mill Station. If stopped, it would run up or down depending on when someone stepped on the pad at either end. In practice, they found two problems:

    Starting an escalator puts a lot of strain on the machinery because you have to get everything rolling again. This causes a surge in power demand, and also ups the maintenance requirements.

    With a five minute headway of trains arriving at the station, someone is likely going “up” fairly often, even though this is a lightly used station. Also, depending on where people originate from the train, with the long stations, the folks getting off may be scattered over some distance. This continues the “up” demand for a while after the train leaves. “Down” demand arrives randomly from walkings, and in bunches from infrequent bus service at this station.

    The net effect was that the escalator was running a good deal of the time even for light usage.

    The lower speed idea sounds intriguing, although I am sure that the same brilliant lights who brought an end to “walk left, stand right” would find billions of dollars worth of liability lurking in this scheme and would kill it dead rather than expecting people to understand how the escalator actually works.

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  4. The GTAA has installed these dual speed escalators all over the new Terminal 1. You wonder why it is moving so slow until you get on, and they speed up.

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  5. I’m actually a little surprised that it’s GO’s call on this one — I thought the escalators would fall under the Station ownership’s purview, and thus be a City matter. (I guess they count as being part of the trainshed?). And, for what it’s worth, I noticed a brand-new escalator has gone in recently in Aldershot station.

    But yeah, this is really asinine. Perhaps a longer-term solution to the salt/sand problem in the winter is to get those heating tubes installed under the platforms in concert with fixing the trainshed roof so they can dispense with salt and sand altogether.

    In terms of sheer suck-12-bilevels-worth-of-people-from-platform-to-concourse-quickly capacity, wouldn’t one of those slanty-ramp travelator moving sidewalk things be best? Surely if some newer supermarkets can afford them, they can work them into the Union Station reno. They’d be wheelchair accessible, too, so they could dispense with the elevators.

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  6. Steve,

    If GO Transit’s real concern is with undue exposure to road salt/elements then why not enclose the escalators in larger station buildings and/or consider putting a canopy over the entire platform reducing the need for salt/sand considerably?

    If the platform is not an island platform you would also wall off the non-track side to reduce exposure to the elements.

    Most stations (except Union) aren’t big enough to justify the train shed concept, though as GO grows, perhaps this might make sense at select stations, such as those it shares with VIA (Guildwood, Oshawa etc.) or other potentially major inter-modal stations. Many European cities have more than 1 station will a full roof.

    Suffice to say there are a variety of methods to reduce salt/sand/element exposure at a variety of price points. It disturbs me that none seem to have been considered before escalator removal.

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  7. I agree with your assessment, Steve. It is also a mystery to me why the TTC removed the rolling walkway between the two Spadina stations – and I wonder if this has changed exchange patterns from the subway to the Spadina LRT.

    From what I understand, it broke and they didn’t feel like fixing it. That’s it, that’s all.

    As for travel patterns with the 510, I don’t know, but I’m sure the lack of easy connection between the Spadina stations trains [shifts the transfers to] St. George — I go to George Brown Casa Loma Campus weekly at Dupont station and its actually more convenient for me to transfer from an eastbound Bloor-Danforth train to a northbound Spadina train at St. George.

    Steve: I have never understood why anyone would transfer between these lines at Spadina Station. Indeed, Spadina North station only exists so that the TTC could operate that route as a separate, stub line.

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  8. A few points:

    Despite the removal of the Spadina moving walkway, I usually see a great deal of people using the corridor.
    I am still looking into the TTC’s current escalator operating “protocol” for a follow-up column.

    The practice of TTC stopping escalators to facilitate crowd movements in busy transfer stations (I did not know this still went on) may run into disagreement with the TSSA, the body responsible for overseeing such devices. Bernadette Celis, TSSA communications advisor, told me that TSSA strongly discourages walking on escalators whether they are in motion or not. The step and riser dimensions are too different from stairs, and are not really conducive to walking, apparently.

    I’ve posted elsewhere about a recent visit to Downsview station where I found the ‘up’ unit from subway level out of order. The little-used (it seems to me) ‘down’ unit was working, so I asked the collector if it should be changed to go up. (I had thought it was TTC practice to ensure where two units exist one should always go up, to assist the not-so hale and hearty.)

    He said something to the effect that the protocol had changed and that in order not to endanger patrons with vision impairment, units that usually go down are never changed. He said that someone could hypothetically try to board a downward unit, not suspecting the direction had switched, and be surprised and endangered. (Except of course at those alternating units at St. George and Yonge…)

    A few hours later I noted that, of the two side-by-side escalators between concourse and the bus level at Downsview, the up unit had now also stopped. In an obvious unfolding of Murphy’s Law, I then saw the ‘Out of Order’ sign on the elevator…

    So going down two+plus floors from the bus to subway: fine. Going up: your were on your own — no escalators, no lift. Yikes.

    Steve: I suspect that the folks at the TSSA all drive to work and have never dealt with a subway station full of people in their lives. Maybe they will get the building code changed so that all subway stations are built with enough stairway capacity that they will work even if every escalator is out of service. Taken to its logical conclusion, we may just stop putting escalators in stations, and send the TSSA folks to a retirement home, one with lots and lots of stairs.

    As for the blind, that story sounds like a typical lame TTC excuse — never address the question when you can have a cock-and-bull reason for doing nothing. As you note, we already have escalators that don’t go the same way all the time, and it is common to see the “down” half of a pair running “up” when its mate is out of service. I think we have found the escalator equivalent of “traffic congestion”.

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  9. There’s a large and growing number of people who can’t climb stairs, and the elevators just aren’t big enough to carry them all. Even deep European stations seem to have moved away from massive elevators to banks of redundant escalators.

    The upper-level Loblaws stores that have those slanty-ramp travelators also have an elevator, and signs warning strollers (and, I think, wheelchairs) to stay away. Shopping carts are able to use the travelator because they have special magnetic wheels that lock into grooves on the ramp.

    Steve: The important word in your comment is “redundant”. This raises the intriguing question of how many spare escalators the TTC would need to guarantee that at least one of them is actually working.

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  10. Steve: I have never understood why anyone would transfer between these lines at Spadina Station.

    Though people seem to use that walkway – it’s always got people in it when I’ve been there. I’d imagine if you were coming from the Spadina line, and wanted switch to the Spadina street car it would be useful – I can’t imagine that it would be faster to spend all that time transfering to the Bloor line.

    And compared to transfer stations in many cities, the walk isn’t that far. It would be intresting to see a comparison of how long it takes to walk it, compared to taking the subway an extra station to St. George, and back again, when when changing in that direction (southbound Spadina to westbound Bloor and vice-versa).

    As for getting rid of escalators – well if you want to deal with the problem entirely … you’d have no problems at all if you just closed all the subway stations, and got rid of all the passengers … honestly, what are these people thinking. Perhaps if the City of Toronto hadn’t gotten to the point, where they think the answer to 15 cm of snow, is to simply cover it with 1 cm of salt, rather than trying to shovel it ….

    The real answer is to design the stations with redundant escalators. In properly designed stations across the world, it’s typical to see a bank of 3 escalators all side-by-side. Then when 1 fails, you still have 1 up and 1 down. When 2 fail, you can still have 1 up.

    Steve: And the TTC would schedule that one remaining escalator for maintenance.

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  11. Steve ponders:
    “I have never understood why anyone would transfer between these lines at Spadina Station.”

    The moving walkway was like wearing seven-league boots. Walk briskly and the wall whizzes by and the wind ruffles your hair.

    My ride to York U. was Dundas West to Wilson and back. For some reason, I usually trasferred at St George eastbound to northbound, but Spadina southbound to westbound.

    The walkway was one of the fun aspects of the Spadina line, like Arc en Ciel at Yorkdale and the bathmat station (Dupont).

    By the way, Wilson’s north terminal also had a bi-directional escalator, for the first little while. I don’t recall it staying bi-directional for very long, and it had reliability issues as well.

    Steve: Yes, when the walkway was there, it was a nice way to get from one line to the other. The wind in your hair was probably a train, but it’s nice to fantasize.

    However, for someone who doesn’t get around easily, there are other considerations. Both Spadina Stations have their exits at the extreme south and east end of their platforms respectively. This could trigger the need for a long walk that someone would otherwise not have to make. At Spadina South there are no down escalators, and originally no elevators. At St. George, there may be a down escalator depending on the time of day. Making the entire trip, one had to bank on two or three “elevating devices” all working (up at Spadina South, the walkway, then down at Spadina North). The odds of at least one not running are rather high. If you make the change at St. George, the odds are better and it’s a much shorter walk.

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  12. I seem to recall hearing that one of the reasons why the TTC did not replace the walkway connecting the two Spadina stations is because they couldn’t find a manufacturer to supply 135 metre long travelators anymore, and that they’d have to break it up into two shorter travelators in each direction.

    I find it interesting to learn that the Greater Toronto Airports Authority was able to procure new 280 metre long high speed travelators for Pier F.

    Steve, is there any possible business case for the TTC to go back and examine new travelators for the Spadina stations?

    As for why people bother transferring at Spadina, I do it to connect from Spadina north to the 510 Spadina car, and vice versa. During peak hours, it is far less crowded in the Spadina walkway than to fight through the crowd at Spadina South and then another crowd at St. George.

    Steve: Yes, I understand transfering from the 510 to the Spadina subway via that corridor, but what always amazes me is people who make a subway-to-subway connection, yes even the west-to-north one, via the longer walking route rather than just going up and down stairs at St. George.

    As for the travelator, I don’t think you would have an easy business case for such an expense. At Pearson, they’re an integral part of getting people who have to walk long distances with luggage around a big building.

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  13. I was amused to read that GO’s problem with escalators stem partly from salt getting into the machinery. I ride the GO to and from Clarkson on a regular basis, and am always astounded at how much salt they put down — it crunches underfoot with every single step and after a fresh salting, it’s almost like my feet never actually touch the pavement! The same holds for the bus loop at Clarkson. Quite incredible.

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  14. The idea of actually reducing station mobility and throughput by not replacing escalators sounds to me like a complete abandonment of the principle of moving passengers as quickly and efficiently as possible.

    And what about the mobility impaired? Elevators seem to be out as often as escalators, have far less throughput, far fewer of them, and more expensive to repair.

    This is yet another excellent disincentive to taking transit – even more crowded, slow moving station transfers.

    And something seriously needs to be done about the mountains of salt plied at transit stations – in terms of its damage to escalators, and to the environment.

    This is definitely an issue that does need an Environmental Assessment.

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  15. Steve wrote, “Many years ago, the TTC experimented with a demand-actuated escalator at Old Mill Station. If stopped, it would run up or down depending on when someone stepped on the pad at either end.”

    That sparked a memory: correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t they have this at some (most?) of the RT stations originally? At the time of its opening, I worked near the Midland station and used it a fair number of times. I seem to recall that this functionality did not remain for very long.

    Or am I just recalling a dream?

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  16. I don’t know about Old Mill, but there was one at Wilson Station, at the north satellite bus terminal. I remember seeing the actuation pad in 1990, but the demand actuation wasn’t ‘actuated’ then.

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  17. I think I’d rather have redundant elevators for mobility impaired and those with luggage, wider stairs for everyone else. Escalators adjoining stairs cause bottlenecks because (a) people choose the convenience and (b) they can be operating against tidal flow at peak if set that way. In this rather sedentary era it mightn’t be a bad idea for people to make the extra effort of walking.

    However, I seem to remember that on systems like the London Underground, escalators are essentially mandated at deep stations due to the excessive level difference and gradient between concourse and platform.

    I was coming through Pearson T3 via customs on Thursday night with lots of travelators and escalators all functional right through to the Viscount rollercoaster exit – the only unserviceable equipment was one elevator from T3 concourse to the rollercoaster level – and there was a redundant one next to it. In the TTC I’d probably have encountered at least one or two more travelators and escalators out of service. At $20/passenger terminal charge I guess you can easily find $100k for a spare part.

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  18. I realize that salting platforms is common, and Amtrak actually salts the vestibules of its passenger rail vehicles, but really it’s insane. It’s a recipe for destroying the property fast, especially the steel, but also the concrete. Sanding is OK if you have to do something.

    But ideally major stations would have fully enclosed platforms so that none of this would be necessary. Union Station in particular should be fully enclosed, and the escalators would not have any salt/sand damage.

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