Incentives Matter

This explains why the escalators in the DC metros are so often broken:

According to a source intimately familiar with Metro's escalators, twice a year, Metro maintenance personnel bid on the escalators for which they'll be responsible. Workers with the most seniority get the first choices.

This is called the "pick" system, and it was referred to as a "critical" problem, albeit in a somewhat sugar coated way, in the recent report on Metro's escalator woes:

    • Management is limited in its ability to use best qualified field labor by "Pick" system. To be effective, management must be able to use best qualified field labor to meet equipment service needs. While the "Pick" system would appear to be beneficial in theory, its success is solely contingent upon the performance of the individual worker. The intent of the "Pick" system is to expose each worker to the broadest range of equipment and service scopes, maintenance, service repair, troubleshooting, and adjusting, by rotating work stations semi- annually. It must be realized that not all workers have the ability to perform effectively within each scope.
    • As WMATA's labor force is drawn from a union base, the ability to implement modification of the "Pick" system would require negotiations with the appropriate union representatives. While difficult, the establishment of a mutually beneficial labor relationship is critical to support the implementation of any changes within the current operational model substantial enough to demonstrate significant improvement.
    • Accountability for conditions of the equipment when received after "Pick" rotation were expressed.
So there's some rather bland language explaining the pick system, but here's a more sinister way the pick system manifests itself.

The source said it's very common for someone with seniority to bid on escalators they know to be well maintained so they can slide and and not do anything for the six months it's under their "care."

"They can coast for a while," the source said. "Then when problems start, they can move on," leaving an ailing escalator under the supervision of someone with less experience.

This way of doing things, the source said, "destroys the incentive" of the younger workers who know that if they do a good job, their escalators will be taken away by someone with more seniority.

"There's a culture in which you don't really have to perform to keep your job," they said.

As economists say, incentives matter.

It's not always possible to foresee this sort of thing--I'm sure this scheme didn't sound crazy when it was proposed.  But clearly, it was a terrible idea that needs to be fixed.  Unfortunately, when you're in a collective bargaining situation--especially a government agency collective bargaining situation--it's really, really difficult to change the bad rules.  Workers will by now have come to see this as a perk of the job, and view any change to the system as a material loss for which they should be richly compensated.