The Real Reason Escalator Handrails Move Faster Than Steps

Have you ever ridden an escalator at the local shopping mall, and tried to leave your hand sitting on top of the handrails? Did you notice that, somehow, your hand was traveling faster than the step your standing on? Well, there's a reason for that, and it all has to do with gears and safety.

To explain further, though, there's another question — why are there handrails in the first place? All escalators in the United States are required to have a handrail, and the safety codes in some states, like California, have specific rules regarding speed and width. The National Elevator Industry even says, in their safety tips, that it's important for all passengers to hold the handrails when riding an escalator. So, handrails on escalators are important, but even if the rails are supposed to keep pace with the steps, it doesn't always happen, according to the Washington City Paper. Handrails run on a different gear as the steps. Brightside reports that escalator stairs run on gears made from iron that don't wear out as fast, and this ensures speed rarely changes ... but that's not exactly the case with handrails.

Old escalators tell tall tales

Escalator handrail gears are made 2% larger than required to improve their service life, per Brightside. But as the equipment is used, friction wears down the rollers, so that it actually becomes smaller. Over time, the handrail's speed also decreases.

In fact, you can basically tell the age of the escalator based on how the handrails move. Ideally, a new escalator needs both the handrails and stairs to move together. However, because of how escalators are now made, brand new escalators actually have handrails that move much faster than the steps. You'll know an escalator is mid-life when both handrails and steps synchronize. But if the handrail falls behind? That escalator is old. The Washington City Paper reports some escalator manufacturers have built-in sensors to prevent de-synchronization. 

So why can't these everyday things just be maintained, and the rollers changed once it breaks down? Well, escalator maintenance can be difficult, which is probably why the aforementioned companies decided to just put in sensors, so escalator specialists don't have to take the escalator apart just to fix something. Escalators are fascinating machines, and honestly, it's quite fascinating how humanity got such a treat at the same time as at least one American monarchy was falling, making for one heck of a bizarre historical coincidence. So the next time you ride an escalator, try to see if you can guess how old it is, just by putting your hand on the handrail.