Taking steps to hold on to our escalator culture

October 02, 2015 14:04
There has been a spate of escalator mishaps in Hong Kong recently. Photo: HKEJ

When exactly did a simple modern convenience – the escalator – become a deadly hazard?

We seem to hear about escalator malfunctions all the time, the latest being an unsettling incident at the Panda Place shopping mall in Tsuen Wan last weekend.

No one was injured, but witnesses said the drama involved the collapse of a metal plate, similar to the circumstances surrounding a fatal accident in Jingzhou, Hubei, in July.

In that horrific tragedy, caught on video, a young mother was killed after falling into the machinery, and her toddler son only barely escaped.

Escalators do not have a particularly gory history, but caution was enforced in their early days.

When Harrod’s department store in London installed a set in 1898, it posted staff with smelling salts at the ends to revive unnerved customers.

Hong Kong’s relationship with escalators began only in 1957, when Otis installed a set in the old Man Yee Building on the corner of Queen’s Road Central and Pottinger Street.

This was pretty late in the day -- the world’s first escalator was installed at the Coney Island amusement park in New York in 1895, and within a few years they were a feature of many commercial buildings around the world.

In Hong Kong, escalators have spawned their own culture, such as the informal “walk on the left, stand on the right” rule.

This practice is now being discouraged.

People do fall, and constant tramping stresses the mechanism.

As late as the 1980s, a certain type of snarky expat could be heard smirking about the “pause, then leap” approach that many Hongkongers employed in entering and exiting.

There’s no record of smelling salts!

Escalators have assumed a greater importance here than in many other cities.

Hong Kong’s peculiar mix of public and private thoroughfares has made them vital links between buildings as well as within them.

Most are reliable, although anecdotal evidence suggests that some, especially those with heavy traffic, seem to be often under repair.

The ferry pier sets and those in the Chinachem Building on Des Voeux Road seem particularly affected.

It’s inconvenient to pedestrians, but the repair signs are at least reassuring.

The multinational makers of escalators, who also usually make lifts and moving walkways, have a long history in Hong Kong.

The big five – Otis, Schindler, Kone, ThyssenKrupp and Mitsubishi Electric – have fine reputations.

Of the 800 escalator incidents reported to the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department in the first six months of this year, only three were caused by equipment failure.

But the construction slowdown in China and the casino downturn in Macau have hit their business.

Last month, United Technologies, which owns Otis, lowered its expectations for China profits on the building slump.

Mainland companies – such as Suzhou Shenlong Elevator Co. Ltd., the manufacturer involved in the fatal mishap in July – have leveraged lower costs to challenge the big makers’ dominance.

The escalator is as integral to Hong Kong’s transport infrastructure as the minibus.

The government must ensure public confidence in the system by maintaining high safety standards and campaigning on their existing excellent safety record.

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A Hong Kong-based writer and editor and former regional editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He has also been published in The Wall Street Journal, Variety and the SCMP. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at HKU.