Monthly Archives: February 2012

Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence.

I guess they didn’t read “Empower, Trust, Stand Behind

The mud slinging from the top continued last Friday in full force at the City Club of Portland. General Manager Neil McFarlane spoke along with David Knowles of CH2M Hill (a construction/engineering firm) on “Moving Forward While Cutting Back”. It’s interesting that TriMet is partnering with CH2M Hill on this, as it highlights how the focus at TriMet these days seems to be geared more toward development and less toward transit. Not to downplay the importance of development (yes I realize there wouldn’t be any rail at all without it), but I don’t like development at the expense of existing service. The backgrounds of the board members (Bruce Warner – Director of Portland Development Commission; Tiffany Sweitzer – President of Hoyt Street Properties, recent appointee Craig Prosser is a longtime advocate of MAX to Tigard, etc) gives support to the idea that TriMet is currently more interested in development than maintenance of existing service and operations, and I don’t think I can agree with that stance if that is the direction we’re heading.

Neil spoke first, channeling Charles Dickens to describe “A Tale of Two TriMets”, praising high levels of ridership, fare enforcement and safety, and then moving on to the darker side… He stated that the union contract is “strangling” TriMet, again claiming that TriMet union employees have the most generous healthcare benefits in the country. I have yet to see *anyone* do a total compensation comparison – wages AND benefits – of TriMet union employees with similar transit agencies. Simply looking at benefits is not adequate as TriMet wages are lower than many other agencies. The highest paid drivers in this country are MBTA with an hourly rate of $30.18, Seattle Metro drivers make $28.47/hr, San Francisco drivers make $29.52, Chicago drivers make $28.64, Santa Clara pays drivers $28.86 – all of which are above TriMet’s pay. I have no idea if we’re comparable because I don’t know what their benefits are. No one is doing that comparison, but TriMet and the local media just keep trotting out that benefits for union employees are averaging “a $22,000/year Blue Cross bill.”

The problem with that figure is that not all union employees even HAVE Blue Cross (many use Kaiser, which is about 2/3rds the cost of Blue Cross). And even of those that have Blue Cross, the annual charges are substantially less if they’re not getting any sort of family or spouse coverage, which is the only thing close to that $22k amount.

As for what percentage of union employees have Kaiser, what percentage have Blue Cross, how many are getting single coverage, how many are getting spouse, how many are getting family (and then for those latter categories, how many of those are minirunners who have always had to pay to cover spouse and family)? Who knows? The situation is far too nuanced to be able to say that each union employee is costing $22k/year in benefits.

I guess maybe throwing out big numbers makes a better sound byte than actually detailing what the union benefits are.

While we’re on the subject of sound bytes:

Excerpt from Neil’s City Club speech.

Well lucky for you Neil, operators tend to die young, so those “rich health care benefits” often aren’t paid out all that long.

For those of you wondering what was going on with all the emergency vehicles at Rose Quarter two Sundays ago? That was the medical response for bus operator Dale Arlt, who passed away while on layover there. He was 51.

I think it’s in extremely poor taste for Neil to make a comment like “until death do us part” about the union given that an operator died on the job not even a week before.

I DO NOT KEEP BRINGING UP OPERATOR DEATHS FOR GORE SHOCK VALUE. I keep bringing this up because this is really happening, and no one outside of operations circles seems to care.  I am sick of seeing people saying things like how the union “needs some skin in the game otherwise they’ll be seeing doctors for frivolous reasons.” (as if eight dead coworkers over the last few years isn’t enough skin in the game…)

Not one local media outlet has run any sort of coverage on the chronic negative health effects that frontline transit workers in an effort to explain why the benefits are the way they are. However, you can infer some of the acute negative health effects from recent headlines: Man threatens MAX operator with knife, woman spits on bus driver (not a repeat from last time), man tries to choke bus driver, etc.

The simple truth is that frontline transit workers are in an extremely unhealthy job. There are stories out there that describe it. There’s research on how transit operators are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems, digestive diseases, cancer, and other illnesses given the nature and the scheduling of the work. And yes, bus operators either know this before they start or figure it out in a hurry (before anyone comes sailing in here with “No one is holding a gun to your head making you drive a bus/train for TriMet!”) and so the union has negotiated health care benefits while sacrificing raises because of these risks.

But no, instead all that you’re going to see out there about “TriMet” and “health benefits” and “union” are inflated figures and commentary about how the union is being out-of-line. You won’t see, for example, what sort of non-union retiree benefits are being paid out. I’ll share what I’ve been able to find.

TriMet pays $4.5 million annually to the retirement trust of non-union employees hired before 2003 (source)

Not sure what the setup is for non-union employees hired after 2003, but if union retiree benefits are so “rich” and therefore on the table for cuts, shouldn’t these sort of non-union ones be as well? $4.5 million a year could restore a lot of service…

How the executives fare (pun mildly intended)

Al M did a public records request to see what the pension payments are for former GM Fred Hansen, former general counsel Brian Playfair, and former executive director of communications Carolyn Young. After 10 years of service, Hansen is pulling in a comfortable $15k/month from TriMet and Brian Playfair (unsure of how long he was at TriMet) is getting $11k. No bus driver gets a pension like those, I assure you, no matter how long he or she worked at TriMet. And these are the only executives that Al requested, so other retired executive directors and former GMs’ pensions are unknown. But it’s a pretty good starting place to guess what Neil McFarlane can expect to receive after retirement from 20+ years of service.

Have you seen that part in the news? Are these also being listed as the “rich benefits” that are a threat to TriMet’s future sustainability? Nope – all you’ll hear about the financial issues dragging TriMet down are union health and retiree costs, with upper management blaming the union for the delay in the contract being negotiated.

Now Hiring: Executive Director of Blame Diversion

Let me tell you something about doing something wrong as a rail operator. If/when you screw up (getting an ATS trip from speeding – even marginally – or going through a red signal, opening your doors on the wrong side, etc), you take responsibility for your actions. You call it in and report what you did. A supervisor will most likely do a fit check on you and you’ll have to write a report of the incident; depending on the severity of what you did, the data from your train might be downloaded, and you could face discipline, especially if you’ve got multiple rule violations within the last year or so. But you take responsibility for what you did because the rules are there for a reason and we all play by them.

Now compare that to board member Tiffany “it’s a goofy code” Sweitzer, who knew that her company Hoyt Street Properties wasn’t allowed to pave a parking lot in the Pearl District, but did so anyway and charged people $100/space for three years. This illegal parking lot generated about $100,000 for her company. She does not dispute or deny this, instead justifying it when questioned by Portland Afoot editor Michael Andersen by saying that she was providing a service to the community. Does this have any bearing on her ability to serve on the TriMet Board? I don’t know, but that sort of flaunting of established laws isn’t particularly indicative of a willingness to play by the rules or to take responsibility when you do something wrong.

Neither is the ongoing negotiation. The Employment Relations Board has ruled against TriMet TWICE now for not following collective bargaining law – once for making changes to the proposed contract away from the bargaining table and once for suspending cost of living adjustments. This is not the union’s fault, and this is not the union executing any sort of “legal maneuvering” or having a “stranglehold” on TriMet. TriMet does not seem to be interested in playing by these rules and following terms of a contract which is why the ERB has ruled in favor of the union twice. Yet TriMet has all but outright threatened to sue Clackamas County for the $25 million they’re supposed to contribute to the PMLR project if voters pass a measure preventing the county from spending the money, because as Neil said in his KGW interview that they were bound by an agreement that must be upheld.

Why is only one side of the table playing by the rules here?

Why do only some agreements need to be honored?

Then David Knowles Said Something

You know, I almost don’t even want to dignify Knowles’s speech with a response, but I feel somewhat compelled to, at least the parts of it that aren’t outright pandering to Capital Projects.

Yeah, a funny thing about this: Portland Transport had a great discussion on the topic of Honored Citizen fares already, and there was an interesting link in there that Knowles should have perhaps familiarized himself with. Assuming TriMet wants to continue to benefit from receiving FTA grants (and we’ll assume that TriMet does in fact want to continue receiving FTA grants), it’s actually a requirement that seniors and people with disabilities get a fare discount of 50% during off-peak hours. Since we don’t have any difference between peak fares and off-peak fares, our HC discount applies at all hours. Sure I suppose we can drop that, but something tells me that’s not worth losing FTA grant eligibility.

How much do you care about our public services, David? Funny, I thought you just said TriMet is not a social service agency. How invested are you? Which bus routes do you regularly commute on? Or is public transportation is just something that other people are supposed to take? And hang on a second, what’s this “we”, kemosabe? Since when is CH2M Hill pulling the strings at TriMet?

Edited March 1: Thanks to Jason McHuff for pointing this out – the City Club Forums are held in the Governor Hotel, not the actual City Club of Portland. But the rest of the point is still applicable – Look at all the bus/rail stops surrounding that location. How many attendees do you suppose actually took our wonderful transit system there? I wonder if Knowles did, given how much he cares.

And then regarding the binding arbitration law that prevents a strike/lockout for transit workers:

Wow, really? That’s our new barometer for judging the importance of transit service, that “nobody is going to die” if we don’t have it?  Well sheesh, nobody is going to die if the new light rail bridge isn’t built. N0body is going to die if PMLR is put on hold until TriMet is in the black. Nobody is going to die if TriMet stops subsidizing the Portland Streetcar. Nobody is going to die if we start charging WES fares closer to its operating expenses…

(also, you do know that the 15 runs by a hospital and a medical center, right? Just checking.)

I keep rereading this section, but sadly that does not help it make any more sense. See, the status quo would be to retain the union contract as it stands (that’s sort of what “maintaining the status quo” means). The union’s status quo means that you have the same benefits and retirement eligibility regardless of when you were hired. It was actually TriMet’s final offer (i.e. the one that the ERB ruled to be out of bounds) that would have made that small group of union employees – those who retire before April 2012 would have the same benefits as active employees, but those who retire after would have only three years maximum of retiree benefits; there would be different benefit eligibility for employees hired before April 2012 and after, etc.  Yeah, it’s not the union who is creating separate classes of employees; it’s TriMet doing that.

Divide and Conquer

I don’t like the how this whole ordeal is pitting riders against the union by TriMet painting their own mismanagement of money and inability to follow collective bargaining laws to be the union’s fault and the reason why service will be cut and fares increased. If service is cut or fares increased, that’s voted in by the TriMet Board – NOT by the union. A few posts ago, I mentioned how the people who vote to approve service cuts & fare increases are pretty much completely shielded from the results of those decisions, and that’s still true. It’s the bus drivers getting assaulted over fare disputes, not upper management or the board.

At the December board meeting, retired driver Alan Eisenberg gave this brilliant commentary – the linked point in the video is when Eisenberg asks the room at large to raise their hand if they took public transportation to the board meeting. Not one of the board members moves (oh, how I would have loved to seen the results of the same question being asked at the City Club of Portland meeting). See, in my opinion, that sheds a lot of light on what’s wrong with the structure here. The board, who ultimately votes to put both fare increases and service cuts into effect, does not use the service the way the riders in the district do. Need to save $17 million? Well then, cut ALL the runs and raise fares by a dollar! Who cares? What difference does it make to the board? They won’t be the ones standing out in the rain for 45 minutes at night waiting for a connecting bus while their transfer expires.

Only one of the 7 board members is required to actually ride TriMet (source)

In fact, as shown in the requirements to serve on the TriMet board, only one of them has to actually be a regular user (my understanding is that Consuelo Saragoza is currently the one member who fills that requirement). No definition of “regular user” is provided, so I don’t know how often she rides or which routes. But here’s how “those who depend on [transit] the most” on the budget choice tool was defined:

Depends on transit the most = rides at least once per year?

Even if her ridership is more than once a year, I personally think it would be beneficial if all of the board members were regular riders of the routes in the districts they represent.

Shouldn’t they all have, as they say, “some skin in the game?”

To be fair, former board member Lehrbach consistently showed resistance to raising fares and cutting service, but the rest do not, and the fact that they drive to the board meetings (conveniently located in the Portland Building right on the transit mall downtown) speaks volumes as to why. More’s the pity that Lehrbach was not reappointed to the board as he seemed to primarily be the member to advocate for the union and for the riders as well.

And despite claims that TriMet is “absolutely transparent” (see page 3), the budget committee advising Neil McFarlane did so through closed meetings, the proceedings of which were not available for public attendance and the records of which were not available for public record. The committee itself seemed to be made up of local business executive directors & other leadership levels. Yes, I am about to make an assumption here, but typically people at those levels in organizations are not people who will be riding a bus on a weekend or at night to get to work, so I’m concerned that this committee may not see the value in preserving service for those who do need it. Why no riders (or operators) on this committee? Why so secret? How much of a vested interest did this committee have in preserving service with affordable fares?

Where am I going with this?

You know, I don’t even know. I started MAX FAQs nearly 2 years ago as my own way of doing rail outreach, talking about signals and switches and how fast the trains go and all the little details that make the system work. It’s been a neat way to interact with the people out there who think that this topic is interesting, because it’s something that most people won’t ever see unless they become rail operators too.

And honestly, I’d rather be blogging about the technical parts of the system like I usually do. But I can’t sit by and just silently watch as the union and frontline workers who deliver a valuable public service are repeatedly attacked and blamed for TriMet’s mismanagement of finances and inability (unwillingness?) to comply with collective bargaining laws. Losing several million on diesel hedge funds? Going $34 million over budget for WES, which continues to lose money by taking in far less per rider than it costs? Heck, even TriMet’s government affairs staff not noticing that TriMet no longer gets any money from fare citations – NONE of these financial losses are the union’s fault or responsibility.

There might be a stranglehold on TriMet’s financial situation all right, but it sure isn’t ATU doing it.

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” Charles Dickens

Field Guide to Field Operations

(All pictures in this post are borrowed from elsewhere on the internet)

One of the reasons MAX FAQs started was to address incorrect assumptions people have about the trains and how they work (e.g. the infamous yellow door buttons, why a train downtown is not actually running a red light, etc). So far, all of those posts have been about rail operations, but now I’m going to expand a bit into field operations, and the misconceptions people have about this area of TriMet.

Fare inspector writing a citation. Picture from the Portland Tribune

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Quiz time! You’re riding a MAX train and someone in uniform boards your train and asks to see everyone’s fare. This person is:

(A) A fare inspector
(B) A rail supervisor
(C) A road supervisor
(D) A police officer

The correct answer is actually (E) Potentially any of the above. I’ve noticed that people generally have been using the term “fare inspector” to describe everyone checking fares on the trains or platforms, which is not exactly accurate. To further complicate things…

… several sources are using the terms supervisor and fare inspector interchangeably, sometimes inexplicably putting the word supervisor in quotes. They are not the same thing – fare inspectors, road supervisors, and rail supervisors are three distinct jobs at TriMet. There is some overlap between them – similar to how fare inspectors check fares, supervisors can and do check fares on trains and engage in other code enforcement as well, such as enforcing no-smoking or no skateboarding/bicycling rules on platforms. What’s different is that while a fare inspector’s job is essentially what it says on the tin, fare/code enforcement is only one part of what a supervisor does.

Rail supervisor checking fares. Picture from PSU Vanguard

For passengers, it doesn’t really matter what the job title is of the person asking to see your fare. All supervisors and fare inspectors (and police officers) have the same capabilities to check fares, run a records check to see if someone without valid fare is a repeat offender, and issue warnings, citations, or exclusions as necessary. To speed up the process and minimize delay, have your transfer or pass ready when any of these people board your train or meet you on a platform to check fares. If you have a special fare (HC-Honored Citizen or Youth pass) be sure to have proper identification ready to prove you are entitled to that fare, because not having proof is a citable offense.

Truth Squadding the Media (and the Public)

Part of the inspiration for this post was a recent article in the Oregonian with this sentence:

 On July 20, he announced the hiring of six new fare enforcers – each a union employee costing taxpayers $67,276 in salary and $29,647 in fringe benefits – bringing the inspection team to an equivalent of 18 full-timers.

… which had some rather predictable fallout, with commenters saying that temps should be doing this work instead of “quasi-mall cops” or “glorified hall monitors”, people with advanced degrees don’t make that much and these positions don’t even require a college degree, these “starting salaries are too high”, and that the training for this job is the equivalent of asking “Do you want fries with that.”

Let’s set the record straight, piece by piece.

Dirty little secret #1. TriMet employees (yes, even the union ones) are taxpayers too. So enough with the “TriMet union employees cost taxpayers $X” language. It’s pointless and unnecessarily contentious. May as well just say “TriMet union employees pay their own salaries” since that’s equally accurate.

Six new fare enforcers/equivalent of 18 full timers. Uhh, sure, I guess so. First of all, none of these are technically “new” employees – all supervisors and fare inspectors start as bus operators, and these positions are only open to operators, so they are already current employees. Second, back in early 2009, fifteen bus and rail supervisors were recruited, trained, and sent out into the field in their new roles. Then nearly all of them were quietly brought back to their old positions as bus and rail operators for a while, and then reintroduced into their supervisor roles again by the end of 2010. No new fare inspectors or road supervisors have been brought on since then, so I’m assuming that reinstating those supervisors counts as the six new enforcers. Or possibly those six also include the four newest rail supervisors who were added at the end of 2011.

And that “equivalent of 18 full timers” is confusing a lot of people. It’s not that there were originally 12 fare inspectors and these new hires made it 18. There aren’t even 12 fare inspectors to begin with, and no fare inspectors have been added anytime recently, only rail supervisors.

The way it works: some of the shifts available for rail and road supervisors to sign are code enforcement shifts. Assuming that nothing goes wrong to pull a supervisor away from this shift such as an accident, derailment, or other higher priorities, a supervisor on a code enforcement shift will be doing fare checks and other enforcement (e.g. writing citations for smoking or other prohibited activity) for their 8 hours of work. Supervisors on district shifts that are not strictly code enforcement are still responsible for an hour’s worth of code enforcement along with their other duties.

Picture from the Oregonian – a road supervisor (as it says on his hat) and a fare inspector checking fares on a train

So I suppose that if you added up the hours worked by the full-time fare inspectors, the 8-hour code enforcement shifts that supervisors do along with the additional hours of code enforcement that are performed during district shifts, and however many hours are spent by police doing enforcement, it would be about 720 hours per week, or the equivalent of 18 people doing code enforcement 40 hours per week. But frankly that’s more math than I care to do right now, so I’ll just take them at their word.

Quasi mall cop/hall monitor/don’t even have advanced degrees. Ok, you know what? I’m not saying this is the case across the board, but the contempt that a lot of people with college degrees have for blue collar work really makes my blood boil. If you’ve completed a Ph.D. or even a bachelor’s degree, good for you. I genuinely mean that, it takes a lot of hard work and effort to accomplish that. But is it really so offensive to you that someone else put in an equal amount of time and a lot of effort doing non-academic work developing skills outside of a classroom and gets more than minimum wage in return? And I say this as someone who also has some post-high school education – not as much as some of my coworkers, but enough to be able to see both sides, and to at least make it sound like I know what I’m talking about. Well, sometimes, anyway. Related to this point:

Their starting salary is too high. $67k is not a starting salary, and this is not an entry-level position. Want to know what the actual starting salary is if you wanted to be a supervisor at TriMet? A whopping $9.92/hr, which is the pay during training to be a minirunner (part-time bus driver). Then once you actually start work as a minirunner, you make $13.83/hr but again, that’s part-time. On the job descriptions for all of these positions – bus operator, rail operator, fare inspector, supervisor, etc, you’ll see that the pay is listed as a range. You start at the low end of the range and over time your hourly rate increases to the maximum for that position. If you transfer positions (e.g. from bus to rail, from bus to supervisor or fare inspector, from rail to supervisor) you move to the scale for the new position and then progress to the top of that scale.

So by the time an operator becomes a supervisor, they’ve put several years under their belt working at TriMet and are anything but entry level. The last couple of classes of rail supervisors, for example (going back to those that were part of the 15 supervisors promoted in 2009 and including the most recent class) had an average of about 10 and a half years working at TriMet at the time they became supervisors.

And consider the work that a supervisor does.

During parades, protests, and other events, rail supervisors are responsible for coordinating the safe movement of trains through large groups of people. Picture source unknown.

This isn’t sitting in a climate-controlled office from 9-5, interacting with just your coworkers, who are probably of a similar income level and social background as you. Supervisors spend around 70% of their time outside and on foot (particularly when doing code enforcement) regardless of the weather. Similar to police officers, they interact with all sorts of people – the pleasant ones, the lost ones, the aggressive and belligerent ones, the drunk and incoherent ones. They’re out in the field nearly around the clock, as long as buses and trains are in service and beyond service hours as required. And they’re typically among the first on the scene when there’s an accident, collision, or fatality involving a train or bus.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think $67k for doing that kind of work on that kind of a schedule after being with a company for many years is unreasonable at all.

Do you want fries with that? Admittedly my focus here is on rail supervisors more so than fare inspectors or bus supervisors, because rail is the main focus of this blog. Believe me I’m not discounting the importance of road supervisors and fare inspectors, but from a rail perspective, the training and skills that rail supervisors have is invaluable in keeping things moving.

As I mentioned before, while road/rail supervisors, fare inspectors, and police officers can all check your fares on a train, rail supervisors are the only group of those fare checkers who are qualified to operate trains and troubleshoot them in the field, as they all were certified rail operators who maintain their certified status as supervisors. So as an example, let’s say a rail supervisor and fare inspector are on the platform at Gateway to check fares, and the operator of a train that just pulled in calls in that one of their doors is stuck open. The rail supervisor can board the train and fix the problem (most likely faster than it would take the operator to key out and walk back to the door in question), but the fare inspector is not qualified to do that.

Rail supervisors can throw switches and direct trains through non-standard moves, such as this move through the time lock switches west of Beaverton Transit Center. Picture from the PDX Rail Transit blog.

Or in the event of a car accident near the right of way, even if a train wasn’t involved, a rail supervisor is qualified to examine the tracks and surrounding area to determine if it’s safe for trains to pass.

Or let’s say a Red Line train comes into Beaverton TC and the operator discovers when they walk to the other end of their train to go back to the airport that someone threw up in that car. If there is a rail supervisor present, he or she can uncouple the cars and run the biohazard car out-of-service to the west portal pocket track to quickly get it out of the way. This will allow the Red Line operator to leave for the airport (now as a single car) with minimal delay and prevent the Red Line behind it from being delayed getting into the pocket track at BTC.

Broken crossing gate arm? It’ll be a rail supervisor on the scene to relay information to Control and direct trains through the intersection as needed.

(And yes, these are all situations that have happened before and will happen again, but they will have minimal impact on service if a rail supervisor is able to step in.)

Additionally, rail supervisors are qualified to ensure that operators are fit for duty at the start of their shifts as well as after rule violations, such as getting an ATS trip. They also will conduct periodic service quality rides to evaluate rail operators’ performance.

So… yeah. A bit more training involved than just “Want fries with that?”, don’t you think? Six or more weeks of supervisor training coupled with ongoing training as needed, and that’s not even counting the initial bus operator training, initial rail operator training, etc that they’ve already completed. And this just scratches the surface of the type of work that supervisors do in the field.

Supervisors have a lot of interaction with the public, answering questions, giving directions, and addressing safety concerns such as this grate at Rose Quarter. Picture from KTesh’s Flickr.

Of all the investments TriMet could make, I don’t think investing in the front line workers is ever a bad choice – including hiring field operations staff and supervisors in particular. If/when something goes wrong, they’re needed on the scene to get things going again, and when things are quiet they can perform fare and code enforcement, which seems to be something that the public wants anyway as a lot of people complain about things like smokers on platforms and fare evaders. With rail in particular, there are about 53 miles of alignment and trains on it nearly 24 hours a day (and on some occasions, every hour of the day). Putting more people out there able to keep things running? So much the better.

NJ Transit rail safety

Nice train safety video recently put out by New Jersey Department of Transportation.

These accidents are almost always avoidable if people make safe choices. Pedestrians and commuters have a choice to avoid being hurt or killed, and respect the law around railroad tracks.

Rail-related deaths in NJ average a little over 2 per month, and so NJDOT formed a safety committee to try to address this. Recommendations include everything from signs warning of multiple trains where there is more than one track, “skirts” on crossing gates to prevent people from ducking under them, increased police enforcement, and suicide hotline signs (21 of the 51 deaths on NJ tracks in the last two years are confirmed suicides).

But I like how this video is called “It’s Your Choice” – no one makes a person duck around a lowered crossing gate, cut across tracks where there is no pedestrian crossing, or ignore warning signs because of headphone or cell phone distractions. Those are choices (and stupid ones) made by the individual, and they can be fatal around trains. Just the other day I saw a man on a cell phone come within a foot of getting hit by a train coming into BTC because he started to cross from the center platform toward the bus stops without bothering to look or listen, as you can hear the Lombard crossing gates from the platforms at BTC that make it clear an eastbound train is coming in. He laughed to whoever he was talking to on the phone “Hey, I almost got hit by a train just now!”

It’s not funny. It’s not funny for the operator, for witnesses, for the medical teams that show up, or for you – even if you do survive being hit. We can put up all the Z-crossings and “STOP HERE” signs in the world (and I do think we should!), but we can’t make people choose not to do stupid things around railroad tracks.

Slow times at the Steel Bridge (and what the cones are for)

Lots of people wondering lately:

Have we been going even slower than usual on the Steel Bridge?

Answer: Yep.

Eastern side of the Steel Bridge span

Current speed for trains over the Steel Bridge span is 5mph instead of the usual 10mph. I’d mentioned this way back when in the “How fast do the trains go?” post – the speed over the Steel Bridge span is typically 10mph in order to (relatively) reduce vibration while crossing the span, which can damage the microswitches & sensors and other mechanisms on the bridge. I say “relatively” because if you’ve ever walked over the upper deck of the bridge at the same time a train is crossing it, you can feel the effect it has going over the span even at 10mph.

But a few Sundays ago, the speed was reduced to 5mph on the span because some of the sensors on the bridge had gotten damaged, and a slower speed means less vibration. At that time, a train order was issued directing trains to proceed at this reduced speed. Since a train order can only last for 24 hours and this was going to last longer than that, a special instruction (which can last for up to a year) was then issued until everything gets repaired.

Within a few days, the cones were placed on the bridge to mark the area affected by the slow order. Ignore the green cone in the above picture for a moment – the yellow cones, which are placed in pairs 100′ apart, indicate that speed is reduced over the span. As soon as the front of the train reaches the first yellow cone, it must reduce speed to the necessary level (5mph in this case) and maintain that speed until the front of the train reaches a green cone on the other side. So in the above picture, the green cone is for eastbound trains and the two yellows are for westbound trains.

A similar arrangement is on the western side of the span, though only one of the yellow cones is visible from this angle because of the grade of the bridge and the concrete divider.

The green cones are placed 200′ from the span. That’s the length of a train, meaning a train can resume normal speed there since it’s clear of the span once the front of it reaches that spot. You may have seen the word “CLEAR” on the bridge about 200′ from either side of the span which predates the cones being used for this current special instruction. That lets you know under normal operating conditions that the usual CBD speed of 15mph can be resumed once the front of the train gets to that point.

I have an old post showing a view from the cab crossing the Steel Bridge eastbound if that helps with the visuals.

Cones and Flags

The cones are nearly functionally identical to wayside flags, which have been mentioned in this blog before. Flags with pointed ends are used in ballasted track, flags on tripods are used on paved t-rail, and cones are used in low-speed paved areas. The tunnel uses flags that are attached to the handrail on the walkway, but I don’t have any pictures of those.

Slow order wayside flag in ballasted track

There are some differences between how cones and flags will be arranged for use. In areas of the alignment that use flags instead of cones, only one yellow flag is used for a slow order unlike the pair of yellow cones used in low speed paved areas. Where flags are used for a slow order, trains must be at the ordered reduced speed when the front of the train reaches the yellow flag. Similar to the cone arrangement, trains will maintain that speed until the front of the train reaches a green flag.

Another example of cone/flag similarities:

Double red cones on Holladay Street during Streetcar tie-in work last fall indicating that this track is out of service…

… have the same meaning as these double red wayside flags (photo from expansion joint work on the Yellow Line last spring)