Across the former Soviet Union there are many metro stations found deep below ground, with incredibly long flights of escalators linking them to the surface. That in itself is not unusual, but there is one feature of them which is – escalator attendants.
US author Jeffrey Tayler had this to say in the February 1998 edition of The Atlantic:
Stepping onto the rapidly descending escalator at the Belorusskaya Station in the Moscow Metro is like going over Niagara Falls without a barrel: you jump on, and far, far below, at stairs’ end, you discern a sour-faced attendant sitting in her booth, like a boulder you are destined to slam into at falls’ bottom.
The Russian name for the attendant waiting at the bottom of the escalator is «Дежурная у эскалатора» – and their glass booths can be found in every metro station.
Passengers stream past the booth.
While inside the attendants sit all day, their watchful eyes fixed on the passengers riding the escalator.
The booth is only just big enough to fit a chair inside.
Metro stations built decade ago have attendants.
As do newly built stations.
It makes me wonder – do they still serve a purpose, or are they just a holdover from the ‘jobs for all’ philosophy of the Soviet Union?
What does the job entail
The Moscow Times has this to say on escalator safety:
Escalators can be dangerous, as two people found out Thursday at the Kievskaya metro station. Both had their toes crushed when their feet got caught at the top of the escalator.
Escalators at Kievskaya are not the fastest on the Moscow Metro and moved Thursday afternoon at a speed of about 0.57 meters per second. According to a 1996 article in Ogonyok magazine, in the 1970s an escalator at Kurskaya was moving at 0.92 meters per second.
But studies showed that fast-moving escalators do not necessarily mean more people are carried because the distance between passengers increases. The danger of accidents also goes up. According to Ogonyok, a speed of 0.75 meters per second allows the largest passenger traffic. In recent years, many escalators have been replaced by slower models.
But some passengers don’t quite understand their role, as this commuter newspaper Metro revealed in this 2014 Russian language article, after interviewing an escalator attendant:
Some of the passengers ask how to get to the desired station. Others are curious to see my workplace and ask questions: “Where do you pedal? You have to turn the pedals to move the escalator.” I politely explain that they work automatically.
Russian website The Village features more interviews in their piece – Как всё устроено: Дежурная у эскалатора – ‘How Things Work: The Escalator Attendant’ (via Google Translate):
I sit in this glass booth for 8 hours, three days after one day off. Break come once a day – an hour or half an hour we are given.
In the booth, there are three main switch to turn off the escalators. I turn them off when a dangerous event occurs, but I cannot turn them on – only the escalator driver can, even his assistant has no such authority. I have a direct connection to the driver on the phone. The other phone is used to communicate with the station duty officer, and another for communication with a central controller.
There is also a microphone – I warn people to hold the handrails, to watch their step, and so on. We have an entire book with phrases that we can pronounce.
What about the many questions? Often asking for directions. Foreigners the most common. English I do not know, but they have a map, and I gesture giving directions. In general, tourists find a common language.
People are unhappy when, for example, two escalators work, and one is in reserve. But we have clearly prescribed schedule when a escalator works: for everyday hours, for the weekend, there are peak times, there’s a downturn of passengers. We cannot start escalators at the request of passengers.
Our salary is 14 thousand roubles. In general, one can live. We have only one dream: that we work the same schedule as the supervisors at the top. They work 12 hours a day, but two days on and two days off. We 8 hours days but three days on after one day off.
And Russian job board Вакансия also interviewed an escalator attendant, and revealed more about the job (via Google Translate).
I began to work on escalator duty in the metro in 1992. Of course, I was very nervous. I sat, as expected, at the escalator in a booth and followed the procedure. That a citizen will fall – and it is necessary to lift, stopping for this escalator. That someone’s heel stuck – and you need to pick out from the sharp escalator steps. Often boys tried to move down from the escalator steps on the bum. One day, a guy could not resist and took off for a nearby escalator, which was under repair. Well, he broke his collarbone and knocked out two front teeth.
A couple of times I was attacked by passengers. For example, I see that a person behaving like an idiot, grabbing the stone lamps on the escalator. I had warned him that this can not be done. And in this case I have serious authority – to the extent that I can stop the escalator. So, in the end, it happened – I stopped by the stairs and once again asked him not to misbehave. Well, in the end, he stopped clowning around, and I thought that everything was okay. Suddenly I heard a terrible blow to the booth – it turns out that the bully has gone down, crept up to my booth and slammed a couple of times on her leg. I called the police, but he escaped.
In general, I am grateful to this work, because here there found a husband. Once I was sitting in my booth and waiting. Then I was approached by a cadet and asked how to get to such a station. I told him a long time to explain. We got to talking. It turned out he was from Tula, and arrived in St Petersburg on transfer from military school. He thanked me and took my phone number, and then started calling. As a result, we have been together more than 10 years.
It is very interesting to talk with foreigners. I’m not too lazy to learn English and French (of course, the most common phrases). In our system there are often foreigners, and I help them find their way. Some decided to learn Chinese, because the Chinese have become very frequent guests.
What does the future hold
Russian author Georgy Bovt calls the provision of escalator attendants a hangover from the Soviet period:
Anybody who has ridden the Moscow metro has undoubtedly noticed the elderly women who sit hermetically sealed in their little glass booths at the bottom of the escalators. They look as if they have been sitting there ever since the metro first opened in the 1930s.
What function do they serve? From time to time, you can hear them yelling over the muffled loudspeaker in a strict schoolteacher’s tone, “Stand to the right, pass on the left!” or “Don’t block others!” or “Don’t set bags on the handrail!”
And on their glass booths are plastered forbidding signs that remind passengers, “Escalator attendants do not give out information!” But in almost every metro in other countries I have visited, workers willingly give at least some kind of answer to my questions. Most commuters ask how to operate the automated ticket machines or how to reach this or that station if the city is unfamiliar to them. Only in Russia, visibly bored metro workers are cloistered away from the public in their little booths. They watch people go up and down the escalators for hours on end and put up signs telling people to leave them alone.
But in her interview with Вакансия Anna has the last word:
I think that the profession of escalator attendant will gradually wither away. Already, many department stores have escalators nobody watches. Everywhere surveillance cameras bring images to one attendant. But there is a problem that if something happened, and the person on duty cannot immediately respond, because in front of him are 10 different controls. So in this case, to discover where and what happened, and exactly how to do, is not so simple.
The Yekaterinburg Metro website has many Russian language manuals on operating their system – including the duties of escalator attendants.