OTTAWA – Politics may have its ups and downs, but Parliament Hill’s cranky elevators often have politicians stuck going nowhere.
Maintenance records for elevators operating in the parliamentary precinct show that stepping into the sometimes geriatric devices is not always an uplifting experience.
Over the last two years, wayward elevators have trapped several dozen people, emitted fearful noises, stopped erratically, opened doors halfway between floors, and swallowed keys, files and phones.
The Centre Block of Parliament Hill, location of the House of Commons and the Senate chamber, is home to several independent-minded elevators that seem almost haunted.
In June last year, for instance, several “people (were) stuck in the elevator that goes up and down non-stop,” says one of almost 250 trouble calls registered since 2007. The names of the trapped were not provided.
Another rogue elevator would “stop for no reason at all when going to a floor, then start again, in irregular patterns.” Still another “keeps on moving on its own, and won’t stop,” while a fourth was “not going to the expected floors, (and) is erratic.”
Almost as unnerving to passengers were the smells, sounds and bits of hardware emanating from the unruly devices.
Trouble reports refer to burning smells, grinding noises, metal-on-metal sounds, cables dragging and oil dripping.
“It stopped on 5th floor, the doors were a quarter open and it was making noise as it went up to the 6th floor,” says one report. “You could hear some parts falling down the shaft.”
The elevators also seem to swallow possessions the way a plush sofa absorbs small change. Among the missing goods were several sets of keys, a letter and even a walkie talkie, all dropped through the cracks between the floor and the elevator door.
Maintenance records for the period January 2007 to September 2008 were obtained from Public Works by The Canadian Press, under the Access to Information Act.
None of the reports refer to the identity of victims, though one case of an elevator that refused to stop level with the floor was red-flagged: “This is high priority as this is the PM’s (prime minister’s) designated elevator.”
Politicians and bureaucrats weren’t the only ones caught in mechanical limbo. At least 13 trouble calls involved the quaint elevator that ushers tourists up the Peace Tower.
“Peace Tower elevator is stuck on the first floor, doors closed, people trapped,” says a report from early 2007.
A Public Works spokeswoman said most of the 12 elevators in the Centre Block, which date from 1953-54, are due for replacement.
The historic East and West Block buildings had far fewer trouble calls than the newer Centre Block-only about 120 between them, with just four entrapments of people.
These two buildings also registered complaints about burning smells, strange noises and the clang of metal parts tumbling down shafts.
The five elevators in the East Block were renovated between the 1970s and 1990s, while the West Block’s four elevators date from the 1950s and are due to be renovated.
A spokeswoman for the Ontario non-profit safety authority that inspects the Parliament Hill elevators said the group does not keep statistics on reliability.
But Michelle Vanek noted that modern elevators are built to shut their doors when something goes wrong.
“An elevator is designed to entrap, so it’s a hard message to sell, but you’re safest inside the car until the problem is fixed,” she said from the Toronto headquarters of the Technical Standards & Safety Authority, a non-government body.
“We’ve adopted codes that have made falling out of elevators less likely because that’s when serious injuries and fatalities occur, when the doors are open.”
A Public Works spokeswoman says the department spends more than $200,000 a year on service contracts for Parliament Hill’s elevators.
“We conduct ongoing maintenance and repairs to our inventory, as well as annual third-party safety inspections, to avoid breakdowns as much as possible,” said Lucie Brosseau.
The prime minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive had only three trouble calls for its single passenger elevator, none serious, despite the building’s reputation for crumbling infrastructure. The elevator hasn’t been modernized since its installation in 1951.
Across the street, the three passenger elevators at the Governor General’s residence, Rideau Hall, had just eight minor trouble calls.
None of the 27 trouble calls at the National Press Building on Wellington Street involved entrapments of reporters, whatever the wishes of government officials.
But another news-media building owned by the government on Sparks Street had nine entrapments out of 52 trouble calls – or about 17 per cent of all such calls.
The building also had the only injury recorded in the parliamentary precinct for the period, when an unidentified man hurt his neck as an elevator lurched to a stop.
That 17 per cent entrapment rate is significantly higher than the average for the Centre Block, or indeed for all Public Works buildings in the Ottawa area, which are both about six per cent.
There were 16 incidents of people imprisoned inside the five passenger elevators at the Supreme Court of Canada, just west of Parliament Hill, out of 79 trouble calls – a 20 per cent entrapment rate.