Adrian C Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus
Published 8:08 p.m. UTC May 23, 2018
A three-year project to modernize and repair the primary elevators at Carlsbad Caverns National Park was delayed beyond the predicted completion in May, as workers put the final touches on the interiors of the cars and make final inspections.
Park officials said in December 2017, when the work began, that they expected the elevators would be ready by the end of this month.
The project upgraded the electrical components of the two 16-person cars that carry visitors about 750 feet underground, to visit the world-renowned cave features.
“The last thing is the interior of the cabs,” said Park Superintendent Dough Neighbor. “It’s nice, shiny stainless steel. They don’t come in one piece, they come in parts.”
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Neighbor said he was informed by workers on Friday, that the project would take an additional two weeks to complete, and could potentially be completed by June 15.
“We hadn’t quite gotten the cabs done,” he said. “We expected testing and inspection to occur this week.”
The delay drew the ire of U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce (NM-2), a Republican candidate for governor in the 2018 election, who accused the National Park Service of failing the people of American and New Mexico.
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“NPS has failed to live up to its commitment to the American people and the local New Mexican communities that support and rely on the Caverns. Carlsbad and Eddy County deserves better,” Pearce said.
“I am greatly disappointed in this lengthy process and in the continued delay. I hope NPS learns from the mistakes that have resulted in this delay as they look to future renovations and modifications to the Park.”
Pearce pointed to the importance of the Carlsbad Caverns for southeast New Mexico’s tourism industry, worried the length of the project could impact the local economy.
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“The Carlsbad Caverns are among our nation’s most treasured natural beauties,” he said. “Yet, since November 2015 the primary bank of elevators that take visitors to the Caverns have been broken and out of use.
“The Caverns play a key role in the economic health of Carlsbad and Eddy County. For the primary elevators to be inoperable for two and a half years is plainly unacceptable.”
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The lift outages did not impact visitation to the park, Neighbor said, as numbers have continued to grow steadily each year.
He said this year’s visitation could reach 500,000, and typically increases by up to 10 percent every year.
“It’s a trend across the park service,” Neighbor said. “The economy has improved, so people travel more, and we’ve seen heightened awareness for the park service.”
10 hours a day; 7 days a week
In the days leading the May 25 goal, Neighbor said contractors with Tutor Perini Corporation and ThyssenKrupp worked 10 hours day, seven days a week in an attempt to open by the end of the month.
“The majority of the work has been accomplished, but additional time is required by the contractor for final completion,” he said. “Once finished, a completely new primary elevator system will replace the outdated 63-year-old infrastructure and technology.”
The control system, motors, guiderails, hoist way, traveling cables and doors were already replaced during the project, but the interior must be completed to connect the needed wiring.
More: Main elevators at Carlsbad Caverns fixed by May
When complete, the elevators will also include a video screen.
“There’s a lot of wire that can’t be put into place until the cabs are done,” Neighbor said.
The primary system was decommissioned in November 2015, after a motor shaft sheared off, and left the car suspended in the hoist way.
Since then, visitors were only able to access the caverns via the eight-person secondary elevators typically used when the primary system is offline for maintenance.
The secondary system saw numerous outages since the 2015 incident, leaving visitors to temporarily only be able to get into the caverns via a 1.5-mile hike through the cave’s natural entrance.
More: Stranded: Family rescued from Carlsbad Caverns elevator 740 feet underground
Most recently in March, a family of three was stranded about 740 feet underground when a control cable failed.
Emergency personnel rescued the family by transferring them to another car, but both cars were taken offline for the needed repairs.
The modernization project will allay many safety concerns, Neighbor said, as modernized controllers allow for faster and more accurate diagnostics.
“Because of advances in technology, these controllers will give us a whole lot more info of where there could be a problem,” Neighbor said. “It’s also a much quicker diagnostic.”
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The system will include remote monitoring, in addition to monitoring by technicians at the park.
This adds redundancy, he said, and allows more technicians to work together to solve problems.
“Having another set of eyes on the screen that is able to remotely see our system is a good safety thing,” Neighbor said. “It can help with troubleshooting.”
Modernized controllers also allow the car to “drift,” he said, if the motor system fails.
This is based on the weight kept in the car, and its counterweights.
More: NPS contracts $4M elevator project at Caverns
With a small group, the counterweights would allow it to drift upward, while a heavier load would drift it downward.
Whether up or down, drifting allows visitors to exits cars quickly without getting stuck, and requiring a rope rescue which usually involves ascending, via rope, through hundreds of feet of darkness.
“Our goal is to never take someone out of the cab,” Neighbor said. “Our goal is to leave them in the car, use the controllers and use the drift button.”
More: Father, son missing in Carlsbad Caverns National Park found dead
Another added feature was the elevators’ emergency rescue system, that can be used even if power is completely cut off.
This involves a rescue cage being lowered into the shaft using a separate, portable-generator-powered motor.
The next phase is to modernize the secondary elevators, Neighbor said, which will begin once the primary elevators are completed.
“I’m extremely happy the elevators are coming on line,” he said. “We welcome everyone to visit the park and try out our new elevator system.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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