In September, an ascending escalator at Back Bay Station careened backward at high speed, sending a pile of riders tumbling to the bottom and then to the hospital. It was a shocking, bloody scene, horrified witnesses said, a freak accident, it seemed. But it was not the first time an MBTA escalator had malfunctioned in this way.
Or the second.
Or the third.
A Globe review of court documents and news archives found three nearly identical incidents since the mid-1990s, and a fourth alleged in a lawsuit, in which ascending MBTA escalators have suddenly stopped and accelerated backward, injuring dozens of people.
The phenomenon is likely a sign of brake failure, said nine escalator experts interviewed by the Globe. And, seven of them underscored, the tragedies are likely preventable with the right level of maintenance. One blamed outdated codes in the escalator industry. Another stressed that proper design, manufacturing, installation, and inspection are equally important as maintenance.
After an incident on an MBTA escalator in 1996, what was then called the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety found the escalator maintenance contractor at the time had not adjusted the brakes correctly. The department recommended the brakes on each escalator be tested and adjusted every month, a mandate that lives on in today’s contract between the T and its current escalator maintenance firm. But the latest malfunction, experts said, suggests that this kind of intensive monthly maintenance may not be happening at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
“We don’t have brake failures on equipment that is maintained,” said Andy Kohl, an escalator consultant based in Chicago. “If they’re going out there monthly and doing their job, this never happens.”
“Proper maintenance and periodic replacement of the brakes mean you shouldn’t have this. It’s that serious,” added Dennis Olson, an escalator expert based in Pennsylvania.
In separate statements, spokespeople for the MBTA and its current escalator maintenance contractor, Kone, said safety is their lodestar.
T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo declined to comment on the Sept. 26 incident or previous escalator incidents. But he emphasized that the availability of all the agency’s escalators — more than 99 percent throughout fiscal year 2021 — reflects the effectiveness of its maintenance program. However, the rate does not include when escalators are shut down awaiting replacement.
In a statement, Kone said, “Safety is KONE’s top priority and our thoughts go out to those who were injured. KONE routinely inspects and maintains the MBTA’s units in compliance with regulatory requirements and the unique contractual terms and specifications of its agreement with the MBTA.”
Kone added “the company does not believe that any speculation serves the public interest.”
Each year, millions of people pass through MBTA stations to catch their trains and buses, and most who use the agency’s escalators glide up and down them without mishap.
Escalators are designed to stop if any inside parts break. If these stops are sudden enough, they can cause riders to fall. But the kinds of incidents that cause an escalator to accelerate downward are more serious. In many of these cases, the brakes that are designed to keep the stairway from free falling don’t hold it in place, causing bloody pileups.
“From an industry standard, a rollback like this is a catastrophic failure, just about the worst thing that can happen on an escalator,” said Olson.
It’s not yet clear what part of the Back Bay escalator initially malfunctioned in September, causing it to stop. The MBTA’s investigation into the incident is still ongoing, and experts who spoke to the Globe about this kind of incident did so without direct knowledge of this particular escalator.
Two families visiting Boston from Louisiana who were injured in the September mishap are suing Kone, claiming the contractor was negligent. The lawsuit says the families suffered “severe personal injuries, including multiple fractures, extensive lacerations, scarring and disfigurement.” They claim Kone failed to properly maintain the escalator and failed to equip it with a secondary brake system despite the previous similar incidents at the MBTA.
Ultimately, however, the buck stops with the MBTA as the owner and operator of the escalators and the entire transit system, experts said.
Transit escalators are especially susceptible to failures like this because of the heavy loads they carry and their exposure to the elements. As escalators age, they can require more frequent upkeep. In 2015, the MBTA reported that 64 percent of its escalators were past their useful life of 28 years, and the average age of the MBTA’s escalators was 27 years. The Back Bay escalator was installed when the current station opened in 1987, according to MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston, making it 34 years old.
Preventative maintenance is essential to catch problems and avoid malfunctions, experts said.
“The machines need absolutely every month to be maintained by a well resourced and competent company,” said Rodolfo Barnes, who has worked on escalators in Argentina since 1988. “Compared with elevators, escalators fail very rarely. But when they fail, sometimes events happen that are much more serious,” he said in Spanish.
In the months leading up to the latest failure, state records and public announcements show that the escalator at Back Bay Station, which connects to the platform for commuter rail tracks 1 and 3, was reviewed by two outside consulting firms by late May, passed an annual state inspection in July, and received monthly maintenance in early September.
But on Sept. 26, the ascending escalator, full of people, hurtled downward for around 10 seconds, throwing people to the ground and causing at least a dozen to pile on top of each other at the bottom, a video of the incident obtained by the Globe through a public records request shows.
The experts posited several potential scenarios: the MBTA’s contractor, Kone, is not performing the maintenance called for in its contract, as alleged in the lawsuit against the company; the MBTA hasn’t allowed Kone to take the escalators out of service long enough to perform the proper maintenance; the malfunction was related to the machine’s design, age, or installation; or state inspections were not thorough enough.
Kone, a Finnish company with US headquarters in Illinois, was first contracted by the MBTA to conduct maintenance on the escalators in 1999 and has won new contracts for maintenance services ever since. In 2017, the MBTA’s board approved a five-year $42 million contract with Kone to continue maintaining the T’s escalators and elevators. The MBTA did not mention information about Kone’s or the agency’s escalator safety record in its presentation to board members about the contract.
The contract ends next June 30.
In 2003, a few years after Kone began working for the MBTA, a descending escalator that the company was responsible for maintaining at Coors Field in Denver accelerated downward at high speed, injuring more than 30 people. Kone blamed the malfunction partially on overcrowding, saying too many fans had jammed onto the escalator. A lab at Oregon State University found that a major safety switch designed to trigger the escalator’s brakes if the steps move too fast was missing from the unit, even though Kone had recently tested it.
Kone’s current contract with the MBTA obtained by the Globe requires exhaustive monthly maintenance on each of the MBTA’s 179 escalators, meant to identify missing or broken parts and repair or replace them immediately.
Each month, Kone is responsible for a visual inspection of every escalator. Maintenance crews must clean, lubricate, inspect, test, adjust, and repair or replace parts such as safety system devices, sensors, brake components, and drive chains, the contract says, in addition to adjusting and torquing the brakes.
The escalator that malfunctioned at Back Bay was last maintained by Kone on Sept. 7, 2021, according to Pesaturo, the T spokesperson.
To accomplish the level of monthly maintenance required by Kone’s contract, experts said, mechanics need to shut down each unit for several hours, remove steps, and examine and test key components inside the machines. Experts stressed the importance of rigorous maintenance to avoid the kind of malfunction at Back Bay in September.
“The reality is that the maintenance is probably the number one thing they need to look at,” said Jim Brownlee, an escalator consultant in Canada.
State inspections are required every year. The Office of Public Safety and Inspections’ records on the malfunctioning escalator since 2010, obtained by the Globe, show the escalator failed an annual inspection in August 2019 because of “steps damaged due to contractors redoing the lobby around unit.” It later passed a reinspection. An inspection in 2012 found the escalator was in an “unsafe condition caused by excessive heat and exhaust from commuter trains” and noted the tunnel exhaust fans needed to be turned on, a problem that did not appear in the following year’s inspection report. The escalator passed other inspections without comment.
Four months before the Back Bay escalator malfunctioned, the MBTA’s assistant general manager for Department of System-Wide Accessibility, Laura Brelsford, announced that the agency had hired two consulting firms, WSP and Lerch Bates, to assess all current conditions of elevators and escalators and develop a long-term plan for their maintenance and modernization, including an evaluation of the MBTA’s contract with Kone.
As of May 24, the MBTA said consultants had completed evaluations of all escalators and elevators on the Blue Line, Green Line, Orange Line, and the majority of the Red Line. The MBTA has not provided those evaluations yet in response to a Globe request made in mid-November. Lerch Bates declined to comment on its review, and WSP did not respond to a request for comment.
The September malfunction is nearly identical to several previous MBTA escalator incidents. Two of the incidents predate Kone’s contracts with the MBTA. The Globe found previous incidents by searching news archives and court records. This list may be an undercount as not all escalator malfunctions result in news coverage or lawsuits.
On Feb. 21, 1996, three years before Kone began working with the MBTA, a different escalator at Back Bay Station, the ascending escalator from commuter rail track 2 to the lobby, suddenly reversed direction, sending dozens of commuters tumbling down, according to a Globe story at the time. Similar to the other Back Bay escalator that malfunctioned in September, this one had been serviced the day before the incident and had passed a state safety inspection five months before, the Globe reported. The malfunction injured 21 people; 15 required hospital treatment, according to a Department of Public Safety report obtained by the Globe.
“I was coming up the stairs and I noticed the escalator was making a weird noise. Next thing I knew, people are screaming and hollering for 911,” Michael Sullivan, a commuter, told the Associated Press in 1996.
The Department of Public Safety found a defective drive belt broke and the brake failed to stop the escalator from plummeting backward. The brake should have been set to withstand almost twice as much pressure. In response, the MBTA’s contractor at the time agreed to adjust escalator brake settings monthly — a feature of today’s contract with Kone — and to replace escalator drive belts quarterly — not required by the current contract.
Just 16 months later, on June 23, 1997, an ascending escalator at the Ruggles T Station stopped and reversed direction at high speed, throwing dozens of people to the bottom, according to news coverage. It’s not clear what caused the malfunction.
“It was brutal — it was like a car accident,” David T. Swett told the Boston Herald. Eight people were injured, including seven who had to be transported to the hospital on stretchers, the Herald reported.
On June 18, 2011, 12 years after Kone began working with the MBTA, an ascending escalator at Back Bay Station full of Bruins fans — the same one that malfunctioned in 1996 — stopped and reversed suddenly, causing five people to suffer cuts and abrasions, according to a Globe story. It’s not clear what caused the malfunction.
“It went down very, very fast. I’ve never seen anything like it. Because it was full, there was nowhere to go, and people fell on us and we fell on people,” Jennifer Nottage told the Globe.
In another incident alleged in a lawsuit, a woman was on an ascending escalator at the Forest Hills MBTA Station on Nov. 30, 2018, when the escalator “suddenly reversed downwards,” according to her complaint against Kone and the MBTA. It’s not clear what caused the alleged malfunction. Kone denied that the escalator reversed and settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount in 2020.
The MBTA is not the only transit system to face this problem.
In January of 2010, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority shut down 100 of its 149 escalators over safety concerns after several similar malfunctions, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The agency later fired its escalator maintenance contractor and spent approximately $1 million on an escalator safety review.
In 2018 and 2019, escalators at two New Jersey Transit stations plummeted downward at high speed, injuring several people.
The Globe reached out to three transit agencies with comparable pre-pandemic ridership to the MBTA to see if they have experienced similar repeated escalator malfunctions. Spokespeople from the Chicago Transit Authority and the Philadelphia-based Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said their transit systems have not. A spokesperson for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said the Metro system has not had an incident like this in more than 10 years. From 2011 to 2019, Metro completed a $176 million investment in 145 new escalators, according to the agency’s website, reducing the average escalator age from 27 years to 11.3 years, and began replacing 130 more escalators this year.
“This is not normal,” Barnes, the escalator consultant from Argentina said of the number of incidents at the MBTA. “The only way I can comprehend how this would happen in one place and not another is the amount of maintenance on the escalators.”
The Back Bay escalator that injured nine in September remained out of service on Monday.
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately describe the MBTA’s escalator availability rate and the correct number of escalators in the agency’s transit system.
Taylor Dolven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.