Monthly Archives: October 2012

Who ya gonna call?

Sometimes I’ll do a scan through Twitter posts that mention TriMet to see if there is anything interesting  being discussed or if people have questions about the trains that have a quick and easy answer. However, I’ve noticed a lot of people use Twitter to tell TriMet about safety or operational concerns, and although Twitter is an official channel for TriMet information, it’s really not the best method to address, well, pretty much any of the things that get posted there.

TriMet’s official twitter is not monitored 24/7. Typical activity on the official account is that every Monday through Friday, someone at TriMet will scan through the last day’s worth of tweets and do a batch of responses to them over the span of about an hour or so. As a result, by the time someone gets around to seeing what you wrote, you’re nowhere near that train that had a broken sign, loose pitbull, bikes blocking the doorway, etc, whatever it was that you wanted someone to do something about in the first place, and the only response you will likely get from TriMet will be to call customer service.

So if not Twitter, What should I do if I want to report something on a train?

TriMet’s Twitter is not constantly monitoring the trains, however the operator of your train is, and he or she is connected to controllers, who in turn are connected to emergency/medical personnel as well as supervisors in the field who can get to situations much faster than Twitter will. That being said, for most immediate concerns onboard a train you should notify the operator, but if there happens to be a supervisor, fare inspector, transit police, or security officer onboard, you should talk to them instead because your operator’s first priority is to safely operate the train.

If at all possible, wait until the train is stopped before contacting the operator about an issue. Only contact the operator while the train is moving if there is an emergency situation.

If there are no other TriMet personnel present, use this as sort of a basic guide to determine when to contact the operator under different circumstances:

  • EMERGENCY SITUATIONS: Situations where someone’s life may be at risk. Examples – someone needs immediate medical attention; there is a fight onboard; the train is on fire; a door opens while the train is moving. Contact the operator immediately. 
  • URGENT SITUATIONS: Situations that potentially pose a safety risk, but do not appear to be immediately life-threatening. Examples – overhead panel onboard the train is open; access to train doors or aisle is blocked by bicycles not properly stowed. Wait until the train is stopped and contact the operator.
  • IMPORTANT, NON-URGENT SITUATIONS: Situations that need attention but are not safety-sensitive and don’t impair the operation of the train. Examples – HVAC not working right, APACU issues (stuck destination signs, announcing the wrong stop, etc). Wait until the train is stopped before contacting the operator.
  • NON-SAFETY, NON-TRAIN SITUATIONS: Examples – a broken ticket machine, platform defects, scheduling issues. Call TriMet customer service at 503-238-RIDE or report the problem to a supervisor, fare inspector, or transit police/security officer. (not really anything an operator can do to fix these, but if you must tell the operator, wait until the train is stopped.)

Generally speaking, situations that would be reported are either safety-related or operational-related.

Safety Issues

When reporting a safety issue to the operator, give as much information as you can. The operator will relay this information to Control. Sometimes Control will ask the operator to step out of the cab to get more information on the situation, and they will often notify a supervisor in the area who will meet the train to address the situation. Control will also send for police or medical if necessary.

If there is a fight onboard the train or other threatening situation where you fear that using the intercom will put you too close to the problem, you can move to the other car of the train and use an intercom from there or use your phone to call 911 and police will meet the train at the next platform.

Fight on the Green Line last year

It is extremely helpful if you are able to give specific information. Your operator’s main focus is going to be to safely operate the train, not getting into the middle of an onboard situation. Operators are not monitoring the cameras inside the train so the more specific you can be will help the operator give accurate details to Control and the better to narrow down where on the train this is happening and what arriving help on the scene should look for:

What is the problem?

  • A fight or someone threatening passengers? Give descriptions of involved people (gender, approximate age, height, weight, race, clothing description, anything like that helps)
  • A medical emergency? Again, description of what the emergency is if you can tell (did someone faint, are they having a seizure, did someone fall, is someone bleeding, etc), as well as description of the person also helps
  • Other violations of TriMet code? (loose non-service animals, bikes blocking aisle or doorways, smoking, etc) – remember, unlike the other two bullet points here, save these types of non-urgent issues for when the train is stopped

Where is the problem?

Door numbers and the car/cab numbers are helpful to convey location in the train when you’re reporting a problem

Know your train! (sort of like paying attention to those airline evacuation instructions…)

  • Which car of the train are you or the situation in, lead car or trailing? Give the car number/letter if you see it (it’s posted in several locations inside each train car, including above the cab doors and posted high near the middle of the train)
  • Whereabouts in the car is the situation – near the cab? in the middle section? by the coupled end? This is where the car number/letter is helpful if you know it – most operators jot down how their cars are coupled in case it’s needed during the shift so they’ll be able to tell Control specifically where an issue is
  • If you or the incident is near a door of the train (in particular if you’re using one of the passenger emergency intercoms), look above the door for the number to give a specific location

From left to right, the emergency intercom in a Type 1, a Type 2/3 and a Type 4

Know where to be able to find the emergency intercoms on the train. In a Type 1, there are 2 per car, located above the seat to the left of each cab. In Type 2s and 3s, there are 4 per car, located at doors 3, 4, 5, and 6 (the doors closest to the middle of the train car). In Type 4s, there are also 4 per car, located at doors 1, 4, 5, and 8 (one near each set of doors in the train car on alternating sides).

One more quick note about the intercoms – if you happen bump into one by accident, when the operator responds asking how they can help you, PLEASE REPLY that you bumped it by accident. No harm, no foul. If you don’t respond, the operator will have to notify Control that there’s no response, and will search the train for anyone in distress, because from the cab, there’s no way to tell if someone is having an emergency situation and hit the button but can’t verbally communicate. It saves everyone time if you just say “Sorry, was an accident.”

Operational Issues

Something is broken

If something seems broken or out of place on the train, you can let the operator know, using your best judgment if the operational problem poses an immediate threat to safety or if it can wait until the train is stopped at the next platform. Same as with safety issues, giving a specific location is very helpful (which car is it in; what door number is it near, etc) – considering that a 2-car consist is about 200′ long, being able to quickly narrow down the location of the problem means getting to it faster to fix it and less of a delay for everyone.

Why aren’t we moving?

Twitter is not going to be helpful for this at the time you want it

As to the answer to this particular situation, I don’t know what the issue was, possibly a bridge lift. But operators are trained to keep passengers informed of delays with as much information available regarding when the train will be rolling again. Some delays at platforms are expected and built in to the schedule (in particular at Ruby Junction, Gateway, Beaverton TC, or Elmonica) where one operator relieves another at the end of their shift. Other times trains can get conga lined if something causes a backup and this could also cause delays. If your train has been stopped for several minutes with no announcements made, it’s okay to contact  the operator and ask what’s going on.

Not everything that seems unusual is necessarily a cause for concern

For example, now that we’re back in the rainy season, you’ll hear the buzzing sound of sand being deposited for traction which is normal and expected. Another example of something that isn’t a concern is when the lights and HVACs in the train temporarily go out because an operator took power underneath a section isolator or where the overhead wires cross (such as near Pioneer Courthouse or any of the Streetcar/MAX intersections) What is a cause for concern is if the lights go out and stay out, or all the lights on one side of the train go out – let your operator know if something like that happens, because that’s indicative of a converter or inverter issue and will need to be fixed.

Any other options to report an issue?

You can also call TriMet’s customer service number 503-238-RIDE to report a safety, security, or operational problem by pressing 5 in the menu of options. However, this is only available Monday-Friday, 8:30a-4:30p so if you’re traveling outside these hours, similar to Twitter this isn’t going to be the most helpful way to get a fast response.

And of course, you can call 911 if the onboard situation warrants it.

So When should I tweet @trimet about an incident on a train?

*crickets chirping*

Sorry, that was sarcastic of me, but if you want an immediate response, tweeting @TriMet is not your best option. While @TriMet is great for directing people to customer service after incidents occur, it’s not a good way to get an immediate response to an issue. Talking to a TriMet employee at the time the incident that you want to report occurs is the best way to get a situation addressed, and so this should be your first option for safety issues or an operational problem with a train. The official Twitter backed me up on that after someone tweeted both @TriMet and the mayor of Portland to report that a stanchion pole on a train was broken – that sort of thing would best be reported to the operator when the train is stopped at a platform.

If you have a non-urgent, non-safety, non-train concern such as reporting a broken ticket machine or validator, a Transit Tracker problem, or graffiti on a platform, you can use Twitter to let TriMet know as these aren’t urgent situations that require a fast response.

Rose Quarter, revisited

I thought I’d do a post on the operational side of what’s going on around Rose Quarter after an out of control car careened into some signaling equipment last week, since the only side the public sees is pretty much just the loss of Transit Tracker and maybe noticing trains stopping more near Rose Quarter. A helpful primer on this would be the original post about Rose Quarter signals just to familiarize yourself with how this area works under normal operating conditions.

One of TriMet’s photos of the scene. Only one car was involved; the blue car in the background is a supervisor’s car that was narrowly missed by everything

The Impact’s Impact on Transit Tracker

Preface: I am not a signal tech and have nothing to do with Transit Tracker, so if anyone who has a better handle on this than me wants to step in and fill in the gaps/correct me if I’m wrong, please, by all means do so. For all the folks reading the news about this and subsequently wondering why Transit Tracker was routed through here or “stored” in this box, this wasn’t a mythical box that Transit Tracker lived in any more than your computer is a mythical box that the internet lives in. Transit Tracker for passengers is more of a nice little byproduct of what this box (and other signal relay boxes like it) did, not its primary purpose. To the best of my understanding, while Transit Tracker for bus is GPS-based (and therefore it was not affected), Transit Tracker for rail has been based on what circuit the train is in. The crash affected power to all of the intersections between Rose Quarter and OCC, and I know that’s affected the signals but I’m not sure the extent to which circuit detection was affected, but because Transit Tracker isn’t working I’m assuming that it was impacted. This is a centrally located section of the alignment that I am guessing is not getting standard data on train positioning, so the Transit Tracker method of locating trains to predict their arrival isn’t functional. Since ALL trains pass between these two platforms (remember that Yellow and Green are the same trains) all lines are affected.

I’m not above criticizing TriMet when I think they make bad decisions or plan things poorly, but I think this was unfortunately a situation in which there was no right thing that TriMet could have done that would have made everyone happy:

  • Some people are saying that sensitive equipment shouldn’t have been in a high-risk area. As far as I know, given that Rose Quarter was part of the original alignment (called Coliseum there), that box or something like it has probably been there since the mid 80s. But as a conservative estimate, we know that the equipment was 16 years old, so let’s say it’s been there since the mid 90s at the latest. This is the first time a car has come careening off of I-5 doing about 80mph ass over teakettle onto the platform, so I’m going to say that this isn’t really a high-risk area, it was the site of a freak accident. I have not heard of any other crashes in that area coming anywhere near close to where the box had been. Besides, it was tied to the alignment in that area – where else are you going to put it?
  • The equipment in the box was so old that replacement parts aren’t available. Fine, it’s old, but you know what? It worked. There’s probably a fair amount of infrastructure in use right now that’s equally old and not easily replaced (I think the fact that TriMet spokesperson Roberta Alstadt said that the delay in replacing it is due to finding something that can communicate with the rest of the system pretty much says that the rest of it, if it fails, can’t be easily replaced either). And just imagine the fits that people would throw if TriMet were to announce they were spending millions to retrofit rail equipment that would make Transit Tracker more reliable or fit all the rail cars with GPS as bus routes are being sliced and 20+ year old buses are on the road. Would replacing this before this incident happened have been the best use of TriMet’s limited money? How about putting GPS on the trains when the circuit location system works? Setting up bollards everywhere a car might fly into something? Yeah, it’d be nice to replace all of the old equipment but I think there are higher priorities for TriMet when it comes to replacing old equipment (e.g. BUSES) than this would have been.

Sure, the loss of Transit Tracker is probably annoying to commuters, but trains are still able to safely pass through this area with minimal delay. If anything, I think this shows a strength of rail in that while a fixed right of way is never going to be as flexible as a bus, there are still workarounds to even major issues like this to keep things moving. So now on to what’s going on here operationally:

Special Instruction 79

Those of you following along at home on the radio have probably heard a lot of trains calling in either from OCC westbound or Rose Quarter eastbound to follow special instruction (SI) 79. Remember that a special instruction is a temporary modification to operational rules that can be in effect for up to a year, versus a train order which expires after 24 hours.

The operationally relevant part of SI 79

And now, in English.

Eastbound trains must stop and call Control from Rose Quarter. For most trains, this will be from the eastbound main platform and signal 18G, though the SI is set up to allow for eastbound moves from the special events track, westbound main or trolley barn as well (for a review of those signals, refer to the previous post on Rose Quarter). Since the signals cannot be called normally through train-to-wayside communication to get a proper to proceed, the automatic train stop (ATS) magnet in the platform will be active and the train will be tripped if the operator tried to go.

ATS trip and bypass counter inside cab of train

Inside each train cab is an ATS counter like the one pictured, which records the number of times that cab was active (i.e., had an operator keyed in and moving forward) and tripped an ATS magnet as well as the number of times an operator has bypassed an ATS magnet. When you bypass a magnet (also referred to as “key-by”), you have 23 seconds to get past it without it stopping your train. Control keeps a record of the totals in these counters for each train car and cab – it prevents an operator from selectively bypassing an ATS magnet or from tripping and continuing without calling it in. You never bypass a magnet without direct authorization from Control first.

So the operator will tell the controller what car and cab they’re in, and what their new bypass number will be. When they have a fresh parallel walk sign on 1st Ave, they will bypass the magnet so they can proceed forward, ensuring that the switch (topmost one in that picture) is not set against the movement since this area does not currently have signal protection, and also ensure that the intersection is clear of any pedestrian or vehicle traffic. The instructions to stop at 2nd and 3rd and then proceed when safe are slightly different from the standard instructions to SOP an intersection, due to the lack of power at these intersections which means they aren’t displaying parallel green lights. Once into the OCC platform, normal operations can resume as points east were not affected by the crash.

Call board at OCC westbound.
There’s one of these at Rose Quarter eastbound as well.

Westbound the procedure is fairly similar. At the OCC platform, operators will call Control and report their car, cab, and new bypass number. The ATS magnet in this direction is up closer to 2nd Ave by signal 18A.

After getting permission from Control to proceed, trains can proceed when safe through 3rd Ave, which is is street immediately in front of OCC when facing west. They must then stop at 2nd to bypass the ATS at signal 18A, ensuring that those switches in the above picture are properly set for a move into the westbound track (or the special events track if directed there). Once at 1st Ave, the operator will make sure that Rose Quarter is clear and wait for a fresh parallel walk sign before continuing into the Rose Quarter platform and then proceeding as normal to all points west.

This special instruction will be in effect until everything through here is fixed, presumably over the next few weeks. Since all of the steps are packaged into the SI, it cuts down on the amount of radio transmissions for everyone – operators don’t have to call in for permission at each intersection after the initial call to Control, and controllers can grant permission to “follow SI 79″ without needing to say all of the steps each time a train goes through here.

Window washer rope around pantograph (Photo by Jason McHuff, more here)

Now consider that the RQ-OCC issues were still going on yesterday and SI 79 was in effect when the window washer’s rope took out Red & Blue Line service downtown (which was pointed out to me was once again the unfortunate car 235) and a semi truck hit a Yellow Line train on Interstate, causing trains to be turned around at 7th or Jeld Wen or Jackson or where available.

Semi vs MAX, picture from Twitter

Yes, there were delayed trains and crushed loads for commuters, but the amount of effort required to keep anything moving at all when that many things go wrong is pretty phenomenal. I do think that there are a number of areas that TriMet needs to improve, such as getting word out to passengers in a more timely manner, not pulling in-service buses out in order to bus bridge (or at least not pulling as many – it leaves bus passengers stranded, puts a lot of strain on the buses left in service). But I still think that it’s good for the public to be able to see “behind the curtain”, so to speak, to get an idea of what’s involved on the back end to get people to their destinations when things go wrong.