Open response to an open letter

I recently saw this complaint on Planet Feedback:

Tri-Met Train Engineer Refused to Open Train Doors

Posted Sat February 5, 2011 3:03 pm, by John T. written to Mr. Neil McFarlane, General Manager, Tri-Met

I am writing to inform you of an unpleasant experience on the Yellow Max Line to Expo Center. This is the text of my Tri-Met website email complaint, which I sent on 1/28/2011:
Engineer refused to open the door (Train 123, 1:28 p.m., Thursday,1/27/2011 at SW 6th Ave. & Morrison), even though there was ample time to do so. I crossed the street from Pioneer Square as the Expo Center train was stopped at a red light. When my light changed to green, I immediately crossed the street and quickly walked right in front of the stopped train, so the engineer had to see me. I hurriedly pressed the yellow and blue buttons for the doors to open on the first car. The traffic light was still red (for the train). They did not, so I attempted to open the doors with my fingers. Seeing the doors were tight and unyielding, I immediately removed my hands and stepped back. A second or two after I had stopped trying to open the doors, the engineer said over the external speaker, “You better take your hands off that door or you will be arrested.” Those words prove he had seen me while the train was still stopped. A few seconds later, some stranger walked up to me and said he had pushed the door open buttons too in the second car, and the doors did not open. The train was still stopped as he initially spoke to me. Both myself and the stranger were casually well-dressed and very sober. Generally speaking I like Tri-Met, but this engineer was out of line and needs retraining and/or some other appropriate sanction. I wonder how many other riders he has treated so poorly.

Please investigate the matter and the Rider Complaint procedure thoroughly, which appears to be deficient and in need of revision because of the following: The Tri-Met website did not generate a case number or any email to me with a copy of my issue after I sent it on 1/28/2011. Also, since I did not receive a timely confirmation via email or telephone after 1/28/2011, I sent an email on or about 2/3/2011. On 2/4/2011 I received an email (copy enclosed) stating that my issue was reported on 1/28/2011 to the Yellow Line Manager, and that it is a “private matter” between the manager and the employee. I am not satisfied with this closed system, as there is no real accountability to the public or myself. The public is supposed to trust what occurs behind closed doors, but we are not even informed of the outcome. This does not seem fair.

I was pleased to see the comments to the letter, where several people explained that once a train has its signal, it can’t wait for more people to board. Another commenter said it’s not appropriate to release disciplinary information to the public, which I also agree with. However, as for the original complaint, I know that John T is not unique in being mad that trains don’t wait for him and even though I’ve already written about the yellow door release buttons before, now’s as good a time as any to do it again, as well as explain a little bit about how the mall signals work.

First, a basic refresher on pre-empt signals – these display a yellow horizontal which means “STOP” to a train or a white vertical which means “PROCEED WITH CAUTION”. Because of how the CBD is set up, there are a number of intersections where auto traffic will have a red light (STOP) but a train will have a white vertical – this will be the case in any intersection where a green light could potentially turn a car into the path of a train.

SW 6th & Yamhill – red light for cars, white vertical for an eastbound train, and walk sign for pedestrians

So don’t look at the auto traffic signals to determine if a train is about to move or not, because at most intersections the train isn’t following those signals. The train having a “red light” in this case is irrelevant.

Now moving on to the rest of the complaint, which is essentially “the train didn’t wait for me and reopen the doors.” Well, no – the mall is not a good place for that sort of thing. Sometimes an operator of a north or southbound train will release the doors – that is, turn on the external door buttons so that passengers can push them to open the doors and let themselves on – if they are waiting for an eastbound or westbound train to pass or for the way ahead to be clear, but once they’re ready to call the signal, the doors are closed and it’s time to go. Here’s why:

Pioneer Courthouse, SW 5th & Yamhill facing south

This is a view looking south on 5th Avenue. On the top of the pole in the middle of the picture, you can see the pre-empt signal for southbound Yellow and Green trains to PSU. It’s displaying a yellow horizontal in the picture which is the default aspect until a train calls it. Now look down 5th at each intersection – you can see the auto traffic lights that are red and green on the left side of 5th, and on the right side you can see the pre-empt signals for the trains (all yellow horizontals).

SW 5th & Yamhill, wider view.
The pre-empt signals may be easier to see in this picture

If you ride a train on 5th or 6th, you’ll notice that ideally the train will only stop at platforms, not at the intersections between platforms. This is because those pre-empts cascade – an operator will call the signal at the platform, and then the pre-empts up through the next platform are automatically timed so that when the train gets to each intersection, the pre-empt will be displaying a permissive white vertical to proceed without the operator needing to do anything. In the event that the train has to stop (e.g. a personal auto blocking the right of way, a pedestrian running in front of a train, a car or cyclist running a red light – you know, those things that never happen) each intersection also has a secondary call loop where an operator is able to recall the signal. Under normal operating conditions, the cascading signals between platforms allows for the smoothest and fastest train movement.

South end of the mall by PSU looking north up 6th Ave. Notice the pre-empt signals on the right, the curve in the rails for the train to move to the center lane, and the bus ahead pulling away from its stop

But remember that the mall isn’t just for trains. The alignment runs serpentine with buses so that the trains and buses leapfrog up and down the mall with the rails cutting over to the right every few blocks for a platform, and then back over to the center lane for the blocks that are served by buses. The auto signals on the mall are in sync with the train pre-empts, so buses will be held on a red light to let the train move through and get out of the way when the train has a permissive signal since both buses and trains share the center travel lane and cross paths to service alternating blocks.

View from above of a Yellow Line train on 5th moving into the center travel lane after servicing the Pioneer Courthouse platform in the previous block

SO – getting back to why a train can’t wait “just a few more seconds” for you and reopen the doors… when an operator calls a signal at a platform on the mall, it starts the cascade of pre-empts up to the next platform. This cascade goes through even if the train stays put where it is, which can happen if the operator reopens the doors to let late runners on and then the signal in front of them times out. This delays buses unnecessarily as they are held at red lights waiting for a train that isn’t there. As a result, not only will the train you wanted to get on be delayed, but so will a bunch of buses because you weren’t at the platform when the train’s doors were open. Preventing that from happening, quite frankly, isn’t something an operator needs to be disciplined for.

And finally, I feel the need to defend the operator of that train – I know whose run that is and they’re one of the last people I could think of that would threaten a passenger with an arrest. I’m hard pressed to believe that such a comment was even made by the operator, but I’m not surprised at the accusation. I have seen operators scapegoated for everything that goes wrong for passengers (classic example – a bus running exactly on time and someone on the bus calling their boss “Yeah, the stupid bus was late again so I’m going to be late for work.”  Hey! Not the bus operator’s fault you picked a later bus than you needed. Take responsibility for your own actions.)

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4 responses to “Open response to an open letter

  1. Nice post.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Open response to an open letter | MAX FAQs -- Topsy.com

  3. Very informative post, well photographed and thoroughly explained.

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