Category Archives: alignment

Alignment schematics

Whoever you are that keeps doing websearches like these that land you on MAX FAQs…

web searches

…this post is for you.

A while back, someone over at Portland Transport jumped through the mired swamp that is TriMet’s public records request process and came out with an extremely detailed schematic of the existing and planned MAX alignment. Sample pages below:

hillsboro alignmentBlue Line at Hatfield

bridge omsi clintonOrange Line’s new bridge, OMSI, and Clinton platforms

It’s a very thorough document that has grade/elevation/direction changes, speeds, etc (though for the person who is looking for the deepest part of the tunnel, it appears to only give elevation above sea level, not depth below the surface, and paradoxically Washington Park is the deepest underground platform and yet appears to have the highest elevation above sea level of all the platforms). This is not exactly light bathroom reading, but it’s an interesting reference for the transit wonks out there.

Anyway, have at it, folks. It’s a PDF, about 2.5 MB, and since it had already been released into the public, I figure it’s fair to repost it, especially if it saves someone money by not having to request it from TriMet again for when you just need to know how far apart the Old Town Chinatown and Rose Quarter platforms are (2700′, for the curious).

In with the new, disregard the old

Due to popular demand, here are more construction photos showing the work being done at the Jackson turnaround and the facility expansion at Ruby Junction.

First, the work being done by Ruby:

And Jackson, where Orange Line trains will continue to Milwaukie:

And while it’s great and all to see the work for the Orange Line coming along, I can’t help but wish the same focus was put on maintaining the existing alignment. Remember that big to-do this past March? Long story short, frontline workers had been trying to address long-standing safety issues at TriMet, including damage to the alignment that had gone unrepaired for months (example – the switches just west of the Lloyd Center platform, pictured here in July of 2012 and again in January 2013 with no repairs made). Nothing was being done internally, so the union brought it to the media, which then led to ODOT announcing an inspection. Cue a flurry of activity at TriMet which largely consisted of throwing asphalt on everything to patch the alignment up before the inspection (here are the same switches in mid-March 2013). As a result, the ODOT report didn’t find any major safety concerns. TriMet claimed this as a victory and accused the union of making up safety issues to draw attention away from the negotiations. Though really, it’s a dubious victory if you have to do a bunch of last minute work right before an inspection to fix problems that had been around for months – doesn’t that just mean the union was right?

But, see, asphalt doesn’t last forever, especially if the underlying problems weren’t actually fixed (as a MOW commenter said, that kind of damage could be due to broken rail near the heel block of the switch, or waterlogged rotted ties underneath, neither of which are fixed by a fresh coat of asphalt). Check this audio from June 2013 about the same switches west of Lloyd Center, and here’s how that area looks as of this month. In other words, no, it hasn’t been fixed yet.




Remember those yellow cones denote a slow order - that is, a reduction in speed through this area because going full speed through damaged track would be dangerous. So, as I said earlier, while it’s nice that the work for the Orange Line is coming along, I don’t think that’s really a valid reason to neglect maintenance on the existing alignment in the meantime. You know, safety being a value and all.

Lincoln construction

intersection time lapseMore or less in the same location.
Top left: September 2011; Top right: October 2011
Bottom left: January 2013; Bottom right: June 2013

As I’d said back in September 2011 when construction for the Orange Line was about to begin on Lincoln Street, I wanted to get progress pics because it just hadn’t really occurred to me with other MAX extensions. But that hasn’t happened with any real regularity or with pictures taken in the same locations to show progress (such as the above picture, which I think is the only location I’ve gotten 4 times). So without much organization beyond when the photos were taken, here’s everything. All pictures can be clicked on for a larger size.

Fall 2011


Sep 2011

I’m not going to repost all of the oldest pictures from 2011 here since I’ve already gotten them in previous posts, but September 2011 showed Lincoln before construction began, when people in nearby apartments protested the clearcutting of all the trees in this block.

before after 02

By early October 2011, all the trees in the median were cut down, as were most of the trees lining the street (eventually they would all be cut).

February 2012

Feb 2012a

Several months after the previous set, now all the stumps are gone and the median is being removed.

October 2012

Headed out there briefly, but saw limited pedestrian access and a lot of workers doing things, so I didn’t stick around.

January 2013

It took me several months to get back over there again. I think the first rails started going in around November 2012. I also don’t know when these buildings at the eastern end of the street were demolished, I didn’t see any of that happening. Not sure what specifically those businesses had been, where they relocated, or if they just closed up without moving elsewhere.

lincoln5Pic from Sep 2011, notice the building in the back

Google Maps Street ViewGoogle Street Maps view, same location

Jan 2013q

By January those buildings were demolished, the land cleared out, and rail was already laid down through here for the harbor structure.

Nothing yet shown about the vegetated track (linked picture is European I think, not TriMet)… that part is going to be limited to the platform area. I’m curious and somewhat pessimistic how that’s going to play out. Vegetation on rails makes for an extremely poor stopping surface since leaves are as bad as ice when it comes to traction, so with the vegetation for runoff between the rails plus TriMet saying they intend to replace the London Plane trees that had grown here, it sounds like there’s going to be a lot of leaf buildup in this area. I DID like seeing t-rail being used on Lincoln (see picture gallery below, the cross-section of the rails are T-shaped), embedded similar to the alignment on Interstate. Although leaf buildup on t-rail is still slippery, it’s better than girder rail where the debris can fill in the channel in the rails which can be extremely dangerous – not only is that slippery but that can cause a derailment or a loss of shunt where the leaves insulate the rail and the train won’t be detected in that circuit.

girderrailsludgeRecently scraped girder rail – all of that leaf debris gets compacted into the rail

The rest of the January pictures:

April 2013

Apr 2013Okay, this isn’t technically from Lincoln Street, but this picture was taken underneath the Harbor Structure that connects from Lincoln.

June 2013

And the pictures from June, which show more of the rail installed than there had been in January.

Jun 2013e

Impact on other MAX lines

I know a lot of people have asked how the Orange Line will connect with existing lines. The new alignment starts at the southern end of the transit mall at the Jackson turnaround, currently used by the connected Yellow and Green lines - for those not familiar, Yellow Line trains become Green at PSU, and vice versa. The current word (though not yet set in stone) is that Green will then run by itself and Yellow and Orange will be run together. There are also talks of changing the Blue and Red lines, with Blue running west from Cleveland Ave in Gresham only as far as Beaverton TC (though with rush hour service to Hatfield Gov Center in Hillsboro), and running the Red Line from the airport to Hatfield, a change that might happen sooner than the scheduled 2015 opening of the Orange Line.

Light rail math

By the numbers

This is based on an internal document, but there’s nothing confidential about it and really anyone could work the numbers out if they wanted to. On top of that I think it’s interesting and yet another one of those “It’d be nice if the public saw this” topics, so we’re running with it.

138Westbound on the Blue Line from Gresham

One Blue Line trip westbound from Cleveland Ave to Hatfield Gov Center goes through 94 intersections, 62 pre-empt signals, 59 switches, 47 platforms, 34 ABS signals, 30 gated crossings, 14 Z-crossings, 7 ABS/pre-empt combination signals, and five speed zones in about an hour and 40 minutes from end to end.

A full day’s shift on the Blue Line is two round trips. That means if you have a straight shift on the Blue Line, you’re going through 376 intersections, 248 pre-empts, 236 switches, 188 platforms, 136 ABS signals, 120 gated crossings, 56 Z-crossings, 28 combination signals, and 20 speed zones on a daily basis. And figure in maybe 7 or so train orders that change the rules.

EB WashingtonTurn around and do it all again, eastbound on the Blue Line from Hillsboro

In a year? That’s 90,240 intersections, 59,920 pre-empts, 56,640 switches, 43,200 platforms, 32,640 ABS signals, 28,800 gated crossings, 13,400 Z-crossings, 6720 combination signals, 4800 speed zones, and 1680 train orders.

Annually, that pretty much means there are more than 305,440 opportunities per operator to make a mistake if they’re not attentive. This could be due to personal operator error (e.g. not seeing a signal properly or disregarding a train order) or not properly reacting/responding to problems in the alignment, such as signal failures, switch malfunctions, or gate arm malfunctions. And of course there are countless opportunities for the public to cause problems that operators need to be watchful for, such as trespassing, causing safety hazards on platforms, running in front of moving trains, or reaching legendary levels of dumb things to do with their cars.

pizza deliveryCase in point.

And if anything DOES go wrong, that can often bring in a whole slew of new train orders, reroutes, or sometimes even finding that you’re going to go for another trip when you were supposed to be getting relieved. So add in another set of those numbers for your extra work.

The original intent from TriMet with this was to remind operators to never become complacent or get distracted because of the potential for so many things can go wrong. Fair enough, because the moment you let your mind wander or run on autopilot is when things can and will go wrong. For example, you can’t assume that just because you have your pre-empt that no one will run the red light, or that someone won’t try to walk, bike, or drive around lowered crossing gate arms in front of you. A lot of the work in operating a train is compensating for safety hazards created by the public or the environment – you always have to be prepared for known hot spots and be ready to quickly react if you encounter an unexpected hazard.

vigilanceThe new head of rail training

At the same time, along with this great video piece on rail operation that KATU did last year, this nicely illustrates that if you think rail operators just sit there all day and that operating a train must be easy since there’s no steering involved (and to a similar extent, if you think that any idiot could be a good professional bus driver because just about everyone over the age of 18 knows how to drive), YOU ARE WRONG. No, you don’t need a college degree to do either of these jobs, but when you take into consideration the skill involved to drive a bus or operate a train safely with everything the world and the public throws at you (sometimes literally, especially if you’re a bus driver!), the work is far from “easy” and deserves respect – both from the public and from some of the TriMet muckymucks who often downplay and lose sight of the hard work that operators do.

Itinera interruptus

Question: Why are we stopped here?

I see this question a lot, with “here” referring to many various points along the alignment. Very rarely do people get on the MAX train just to sightsee where it happens to go (though I have seen tourists do this). Instead, generally people on board have places they need to be and buses they need to catch, and as a result they get anxious when a train is stopped longer than a normal platform dwell time.

The most common cause is typically waiting for other trains to clear, and frequent “hot spots” where the wait is most likely due to rail traffic include:

Steel Bridge

All roads (well, MAX lines) lead to the Steel Bridge, and as a result you can find yourself waiting to cross it since all trains go through here. And of course, if there is a bridge lift, maritime traffic takes priority over rail so you’ll also be waiting if that happens, to say nothing of the delays from trains stacking up during the lift.

train on the spanRed Line train crossing the Steel Bridge

Under normal operating conditions, a delay might happen on the span itself. A westbound Red or Blue Line train like the one pictured above will be held at signal 14 if a Green or Yellow Line train is crossing the bridge heading toward Rose Quarter. The reason for this is that the tracks cross each other:

Steel Bridge west side

This angle looking down on the western side of the bridge works well to illustrate this since the sun is reflecting off the rails making them easier to see. The two tracks coming straight down in the middle of the bottom of the picture are for Yellow and Green Line trains. The ones going off to the bottom right corner are for Red and Blue Line trains. You can see that a westbound Blue or Red train (coming in from the left track at the top of the picture) needs to cross the path of an eastbound Yellow or Green to continue into the Old Town/Chinatown platform. An eastbound Red/Blue does not have this conflict with a westbound Yellow/Green, so you won’t see those trains waiting, but westbound Reds and Blues will wait on the span until the incoming Yellow or Green is clear.

New signal 10Signal 10 at Old Town/Chinatown – the switches are set but the cars crossing in front of the train still have a green light (pre-empt signal refresher)

Similarly, if a conflicting move is in progress or switches aren’t yet set properly, trains waiting to cross the bridge eastbound will be held. This is why you may find yourself waiting at Old Town/Chinatown on a Red or Blue train – your operator is waiting for a permissive aspect on signal 10, but won’t get one if a Yellow or Green is starting to go eastbound over the bridge (and those trains can be held at signal M26) if a Red or Blue is already crossing.

On the other side of the bridge is Rose Quarter, which is complicated enough to get its own post. In short, Reds, Blues, and Greens can generally move through here without conflict (e.g. you can have a westbound Blue leaving RQ at the same time an eastbound Green comes in without any problems) but since the Yellow Line turns north here and crosses the other tracks, Yellow Line trains can only move through the Rose Quarter interlocking at the same time as other Yellow Line trains.

yellow line parallelTwo Yellow Line trains making a parallel move

So if you are sitting westbound at Rose Quarter for longer than expected and there’s no bridge lift in progress, most likely your operator is waiting for a Yellow Line to get out of the way. And on the flip side, if you’re on a Yellow Line sitting at IRQ waiting to cross the river into downtown, there’s probably a Red, Green, or Blue going through that has to clear before you can move. Trains heading off the span into Rose Quarter may be held at signal 16G if a conflicting move is in progress.


EB from GatewayEastbound from Gateway

The fishhook (not used to catch prostitutes) is the biggest time sink at Gateway. It’s a curving stretch of single track with a 10mph speed limit used to connect Red Lines with the alignment going north on I-205 toward the airport. In the above picture, the track diverging to the right off the eastbound main is the start of the fishhook. Since Red Line trains use this to come in and out of Gateway, in this part of the alignment where the picture was taken, westbound Reds will actually be traveling in the eastbound mainline for a short distance. So if you’re on an eastbound train at Gateway not going anywhere, take a look to your right over toward the fishhook. The odds are good that an inbound Red Line got through their signals before your train’s operator selected at Gateway, and it’s making its way up the fishhook into Gateway. Your train can’t move until they’re clear.

green and red trainsRed Line coming off the fishhook as a Green Line waits in the auxiliary track

incoming greenGreen Line train heading into Gateway from Clackamas

There can also be delays for Green Lines coming in to Gateway, but since that alignment has double track, it does not present the same problems as the single track fishhook does (sometimes a brief wait at the SE Main St platform or at the intermediate signal if a Blue Line is going through here).

Downtown/Goose Hollow with Conga Lines

supervising conga line

The above picture is something of an extreme example from an evening when a switch by Beaverton TC broke and trains were backed up all through downtown. But it’s not uncommon for trains to end up forming a conga line during rush hour. In this picture, the platforms are near each other and it’s not a problem (from a safety perspective) for the trains to be that close. However, once they get to Goose Hollow, they move into ABS territory which involves much greater spacing between trains and trains traveling at higher speeds. A westbound train at Goose Hollow can’t proceed until its leader passes a signal in the tunnel prior to the Washington Park platform. You’ll hear the train waiting to proceed call this in on the radio as being “on a red at Goose” – because you can’t see into the Goose Hollow platform until you’re almost into it, trains waiting at Goose Hollow will let Control and their followers know that they’re occupying the platform, in which case the train behind can wait at Kings Hill instead of at the intersection right before the platform.

ABS Territory – Intermediate signals

If you’ve ever been on a train in ABS territory (in particular east of Hillsboro but west of Goose Hollow and east of Lloyd Center to PDX, Gateway, or Clackamas) and the train slows to a crawl between platforms, sometimes coming to a full stop before resuming normal speed, that means your operator was approaching a red ABS signal:

Red ABS diagram

This is a safety measure in high-speed travel areas. There are intermediate signals between many of the platforms, and if your leader is still between the signal in front of you and the next signal, your train will have a red light that will trip you if you try to go past it. This prevents trains from getting too close at high speeds. Passengers won’t always notice this one, because it’s generally preferable to drop your speed and creep up to the signal hoping it turns yellow before you get there instead of immediately coming to a stop when you see a red (it’s best to avoid stopping a train away from a platform when possible). But if you get all the way up to the signal and it’s still red, your operator will stop the train until the signal turns yellow. This informs the operator that the train in front of them is now far enough ahead that it is safe to proceed.

Waiting for Relief

Aside from areas where trains are stopped while waiting for other trains to clear, I’ve also seen people ask why trains have to switch operators while still in service. Although there are some tripper trains that will just go yard to yard or make one round trip and then go back to the yard, most trains are in service all day. So each line has relief points built in where one operator’s shift ends and another’s begins. For the Red Line, this is Beaverton TC and as a result you won’t notice any delay because the relief will happen while the train is on layover. For the Blue Line, reliefs are generally at either Elmonica or Ruby Junction, though there are a couple of runs that are relieved at Beaverton TC and Gateway. For the Yellow and Green Lines, all reliefs are at Gateway.

I’ve mentioned this before, but a relief operator will call into Control with their train number and the word “relief”. After Control acknowledges the call, the relief operator responds with their badge number and lets the controller know if he or she is signed in and has train orders. The controller will let the operator know if there’s anything important going on they should know about (sporting event, service disruption, etc).

Generally speaking this process does not take long so these aren’t long delays, but more importantly, there is time built into the schedule for reliefs:

Relief time

This is an excerpt from a paddle, or rail schedule. The plus sign after the time means 30 seconds. So to read this, the train arrives into Gateway heading toward PSU at 1:28:30pm But that train is not scheduled to depart until 1:30:30pm, giving the relief operator two minutes to call Control.

This is one of those little things I wish TriMet would publicize – I know passengers get frustrated because from their perspective, they’re sitting at a station for 2 minutes not doing anything, and now they think they’re late. However, they’re actually not late at all, the schedule is designed for the relief and the train will be leaving when it is supposed to.

Other Delays

These were the main reasons why a train will be stopped for longer than normal platform dwell service. Of course, countless things could come up in a day that will cause delays and result in trains holding – police activity, medical emergencies, a train or alignment malfunction, a car in the right of way (since that seems to happen about once a week). In those instances, your operator will likely be doing what they can to keep you posted as information about the delay and when things will be moving again becomes available. However, if you’ve been sitting for 3 or 4 minutes without any explanation, it’s ok to use the emergency intercom and ask what’s going on – operators are trained to keep passengers informed (even a “Ladies and gentlemen we’ve been asked to hold here, I will let you know when we will be moving again” when Control doesn’t give an explanation for the hold is better than not saying anything at all to passengers).

How you can help prevent delays

smokeyYes, you.

Given the delays that can happen around the Steel Bridge, Rose Quarter, and Gateway if trains aren’t on schedule, it’s important for passengers to do their part and not contribute to any delays. Much like how a green light will eventually turn yellow and then red when you’re driving, a train won’t have a permissive signal indefinitely. If you’re downtown, on Interstate, or on Burnside, you can see the signal start to time out when it does this:

Flashing white vertical

A train can’t enter the intersection when a pre-empt is displaying this aspect because it won’t clear the intersection before cross traffic gets a green light. ABS and ABS-pre-empt combination signals will go back to red when they time out.

Although you might think it’s polite to hold the door open for someone running for the train or trying to buy a ticket, what you are actually doing is making the operator miss their signal because it timed out and now they have to wait again. This can mean your train will be late getting to one of those traffic-heavy areas, and what you thought would just be a short delay to help a late-runner has turned into a 5 minute or more delay. On the transit mall, causing a train to miss a signal not only delays your train but buses as well.

And yes, it bears repeating, this is also why an operator is not likely to reopen the doors if the train is stopped with the doors closed even if you come running up to it. Once an operator calls the signal, it’s time to be ready to move as soon as the signal is permissive. This helps the train stay on schedule and minimizes the likelihood of interrupting everyone’s trip by needing to stop and wait further down the alignment.