Rock and rail

And now here’s an example of using the scanner for subjects other than fictional prostitute stings. By now you’ve probably heard about the incident a few weeks ago at about 5am when an eastbound train hit a large rock in the right of way near the Murray overpass between Beaverton Creek and Millikan Way.

I was asked on Twitter if this was something that the sweep train (the first trains through the alignment in the morning that run at a slower speed to check for debris, damage, etc) should have seen. However, the sweep train goes through there at about 3:30am, and four more trains follow it before the one that hit the rock, so it’s very unlikely that the rocks ended up there overnight and were somehow missed by five trains.

eastboundblueLooking east from the Murray overpass where this happened

Given the size of the rock (I think it took both the supervisor and the operator to get it out of the way) and my complete lack of detective abilities, I’m not sure if it was thrown from the overpass or whoever did it trespassed down in the ROW and left it there. Regardless, TriMet is looking for anyone who might have information and is offering a $1000 reward for information.

Coordination when things go wrong

When something goes wrong on a train, it can be very frustrating for passengers to not know what’s going on, why are we stopped, how long are any delays going to be, and so on. Generally speaking, operators are going to try to keep you as updated as possible because the last thing anyone wants to deal with on a stopped or broken down train is passengers redknobbing the doors and potentially getting hurt trying to leave! Unfortunately, sometimes the available information is limited and your operator doesn’t have any better idea than you do when things will be moving again.

Wait, let me say that one again: Unfortunately, sometimes the available information is limited and your operator doesn’t have any better idea than you do when things will be moving again.

Annnd, once more for luck: Unfortunately, sometimes the available information is limited and your operator doesn’t have any better idea than you do when things will be moving again.

Additionally, your operator isn’t just keeping all of the passengers informed, but he or she also has to communicate with Control, sometimes almost constant communication depending on the situation which means less time to convey information to the passengers. Consequently, it can seem like you’re sitting there wasting time while nothing is being done to fix the problem. This isn’t the case, it’s just that you’re most likely not going to be able to hear all of the coordination that’s done over the air to address the issue.

Because the rock incident happened very early in the morning, there wasn’t a lot of other traffic on the air and so the scanner got just about all of the related calls. I like this because it shows how the operator, supervisor, and controller worked together to get service going again with as little interruption as possible (also, no one was injured in this incident so I don’t think there is anything sensitive in any of the calls). Due to the relative simplicity of this event as compared to, say, the power issues from last week, the radio calls for this are pretty easy to follow along. If you’re interested in listening to how this played out but aren’t familiar with TriMet’s open air radio, you might find this radio refresher helpful – remember that when on the air, controllers don’t use an identifier, operators use the train number, and supervisors have four-digit call signs beginning with 95. In this incident, the train is 21, the supervisor is 9514 (both male voices), and the controller is the female voice.

Here are the highlights: The beginning of the incident is a little choppy (some problems with the radio where 21 couldn’t hear the controller), but the controller was able to understand that 21 hit an object in the ROW, so she called westside supervisor 9514, who is monitoring everything from Washington Park to Hatfield. 21 was able to get through with a description of what happened, and then relayed to the controller what problem indications he had in his cab (among them are friction brake faults - this will be important in a moment). Since this train was in service, the most ideal thing to do is to try to get it into Millikan Way where passengers can be safely offloaded if the train has to be taken out of service, and 9514 would meet up with 21 there to assist.

21′s follower, Train 22, is held at Willow Creek. This keeps the eastbound alignment from Millikan to Willow Creek clear, which would allow 21 to run reverse traffic (west in the eastbound alignment) if necessary back to the Elmonica yard. Meanwhile, 9514 meets up with 21 and sees a friction brake hangup in the A-truck of his lead car. For a quick refresher of what that means:

T3 & 1 brakes

These red lights on the outside of the train are located above each of the three wheel trucks (A and B at either end and C in the middle) in the Type 1s, 2s, and 3s. It’s a little different in the Type 4s, but I’m skipping that for now since this incident didn’t involve a 4. When illuminated, these tell you that the friction brake in that wheel truck is applied. You want this when the train is stopped, as in the above picture. You do NOT want this when you expect the train to be moving! So 9514 was able to see that the exterior brake indicator in the leading truck of the lead car was lit as the operator was trying to move the train into the platform, and he knew that this meant that friction brake was “hanging up”, or staying applied. The way to troubleshoot this is to pump off the hydraulic fluid from that brake and manually release it.

mru3MRU, Type 3

Each train car has an MRU, or “Manual Release Unit” where a friction brake can be pumped off. This is a fairly basic procedure that every operator learns how to do in training, but the standard procedure is for the controller to pull up a checklist to follow for consistency. After the train made it into the platform and passengers exited, 9514 was able to inspect the car for damage, including the leaking hydraulic fluid pictured above which explained the brake problem. If the only problem a train has is a hanging friction brake, it can continue in service with one brake pumped off, but you can’t do more than 30mph so it’s not really ideal. Any more than one brake pumped off and the whole train has to be taken out of service. In this situation, because the train had hit an unknown object and 9514 was still assessing damage, the train most likely wouldn’t remain in service even with the brake pumped off, but they needed to figure the best approach to getting it out of the way. The controller suggested that the best solution might be a dead car tow – that is, pump off all three of the friction brakes in the car and have it be pulled back into the yard by the other car.

9514 decided to begin pumping off the friction brake in the A-truck of the car – they’d have to do that anyway for a dead car tow, but it was possible that pumping off that one brake might be enough to get the train rolling. At this point in the radio calls, there is a lot of back and forth between the controller and 9514 as she read through the checklist and he carried out the procedures. After the brake was pumped off, 9514 confirmed that it was holding (i.e., it’s staying released), and the controller asked 21 to take a point of power from the eastbound cab. Although the train would be going back west to Elmonica, this is just a fast way to verify that the brake is no longer applied in that truck. She then told Train 1, the incoming westbound train at Beaverton Transit Center to hold there (remember that 22 has been holding back at Willow Creek, so this is leaving both the eastbound and westbound alignment clear from Willow Creek to BTC). 9514 said he’d ride back with 21 to see if he can find what had been hit.

runningreverseNot the train involved in this incident, but it’s a train running reverse – this one going east in the westbound at Willow Creek

Now 21 was running reverse back to Elmonica west in the eastbound alignment. If you want more info on what running reverse traffic means, I did a post on it a while ago, and other posts with related things you’ll hear if you’ve been playing the transmissions so far (such as needing to key-by a dwarf signal and running at restricted speed). 21 made a brief stop under the overpass to see what had been hit and try to clear it so that other trains could safely get through, and that’s when they found the rocks pictured above. They got them out of the way so that the westbound trains (Train 1 still holding at BTC) could get moving again. 21 then arrived at the yard limit and took the train into the yard so that normal train movement in both directions could resume. The whole thing took about half an hour from start to finish, though given the spacing between trains, it wasn’t a major impact to service.

But consider train 22 who was behind the incident train. They would’ve been around Fair Complex when this happened, and then holding at Willow Creek for about 15 minutes while all of this played out. If someone on 22 asked the operator when things would get moving again, there’s no easy answer to that – if you played through all the calls, you now have as much information as that operator did. There’s no secret operator-to-operator information service that gets additional information and a timeline out (though that would be cool). At best, the operator can explain the situation at a very un-detailed level because once you start getting into brake pump-offs and technical things, people’s eyes are going to glaze over. But if that procedure had failed or if there was serious damage to the train, or if 21 and 9514 couldn’t get the rocks out of the ROW, this would’ve taken longer, but there’s no way to know how things are going to go while the incident train’s operator, the supervisor, and the controller are working on it. So once again, unfortunately it’s very likely that your train’s operator isn’t going to have any better idea than you do of how long something will take to fix and get rolling again.

Overall I think this incident was a good example of what’s going on “behind the scenes” when something breaks down. Getting things moving as quickly as possible again is on the mind of everyone involved; no one’s doing this to get a kick out of passengers missing their (often infrequently) connecting buses (and on a self-interest side, no operator enjoys running late and losing part or all of a break due to delays!) There’s a lot of coordination between operators, supervisors, and controllers in every kind of service disruption, but unfortunately most of it is going to happen where passengers don’t see or hear it.

4 responses to “Rock and rail

  1. I noticed in the friction brake checklist, it talks about LIP indications. What is that? Is that the panel of buttons on the wall behind the operator in the cab?

    • Correct – that’s the Local Indicator Panel. It gives you diagnostic info specific to that car. The console in front of the operator gives info for the whole train. If you get a lit indicator in that lower console, you check the LIP behind you to see if you can narrow down where the problem is (is it in the car you’re in, if so, in which end?) If nothing in the LIP is lit, then the problem is in your other car.

      • Another random question – can you think of any reason why they may not have used the switchbacks under the Murray overpass instead of running reverse back to Elmo? Would it have just been because they’re time lock?

        • Hmm, having WordPress issues so this may go through multiple times..

          And yes, even running reverse, that’s faster and easier to get back to the yard from there than it would be to have to throw the timelock switches.

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