After climbing 36 steps to the platform at PATCO's Ashland station in Voorhees Township, Varshi Sheth stops to catch her breath.
"They're taking way too long to fix the escalator," the township resident, 60, says wearily.
"Way too long" is way too kind.
For five months, since officials discovered a small foreign object had damaged two of the escalator's moving parts, the 1,800 riders who use the station on a typical weekday have ascended formidable flights of stairs to get to their trains.
Infrequent updates on the PATCO website, and an overly optimistic prediction last month about when work would be finished, have added to their frustration.
"It's a communications issue," says Lois Lewis, who lives in Somerdale and commutes to Center City, where she is an insurance broker. PATCO "should tell me what's going on, even if I may not like it."
"I'm fortunate that I don't need the escalator. But there are people who do," says Richard Busillo, 59, of Voorhees, who takes the train to his Center City job as a financial adviser.
"We want to thank the public for their patience," says Tim Ireland, spokesman for the Delaware River Port Authority, which operates the 14.2-mile line between Lindenwold and Center City.
Ireland says riders don't need online updates. They want an escalator that works.
"They want to use it again. We feel the same way, and we hope to have the project completed by the second week in November."
Evalyn Gelhaus has heard this sort of thing before.
"I love PATCO . . . but this is unconscionable," says the 61-year-old Voorhees resident, who has arthritis and lately has been driving to her job as a library specialist at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I don't know how many times I've just missed the train" because of the stairs, says Adrienne Sellers, 27, another township resident, who has a marketing job in the city. "Maybe it's PATCO's way of giving us a workout."
It's certainly been a marathon.
The 50-foot-long escalator, installed in 2003, was turned off May 8 after station maintenance workers heard it making a noise "that escalators aren't supposed to make," Ireland says.
A "postmortem" by technicians from the Otis Elevator Co. revealed that a small piece of metal - a key, judging from fragments that remained - had fallen in through the "comb" at the top of the escalator, he says.
"It probably had been lodged there for a long time," Ireland says. "It acted like a stylus on a record player, and it tore a little tiny strip of the escalator belt away."
The belt, made of fabric and other materials, pulls the metal treads in a continuous loop. The damage rendered it "structurally unsound," Ireland says. "It could have given way at some point."
After replacing the belt, which had to be custom-made, in September, technicians discovered that one of two chains that propel the escalator also was damaged.
"The parts are in, and we're hoping in the next few days we can get it operating again," says Ireland, who reports that the repairs will total about $25,000.
Good news, because loyal riders are getting tired, and not just from climbing steps.
Gelhaus and her husband, Jon, have used the PATCO line for decades. "We moved to the neighborhood for the schools, and for the station," she says.
They remember when "the Speed Line" was like a family operation. Information about maintenance problems and other issues was provided in the form of printed notices placed on the seats.
Those were the days.
Riders and officials await the repair of the escalator at PATCO's Ashland station. www.philly.com/ashlandEndText