Category Archives: malfunction

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.

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.

MAX coupling

Not dead. Just resting.

Coupling Info and FAQs

This is going more in-depth on an old anatomy post where couplers were mentioned. The coupler at the end of each MAX car (with the exception of the A-end of a Type 4) allow for both a mechanical couple and an electrical couple between cars. The mechanical couple is what physically keeps the cars connected, and the electrical couple is what allows the cars to communicate. By design, both a mechanical and electrical couple need to be established in order for the train to move.

Although the Type 1s, 2s, and 3s are capable of being coupled into consists longer than two cars, MAX trains do not run in longer consists longer than that. There are rare exceptions to this (e.g. getting a disabled train out of the way), and yes, some 20 years ago trains were brought back into the Ruby Yard in longer consists but the length of city blocks downtown and the subsequent design of all the train platforms limit the length of MAX trains to two cars.

Note: There are several categories of TriMet employees who are qualified to couple and uncouple cars (operators, supervisors, mechanics, etc) but for simplicity I’m just going to go with “operator” in this post.

The Electrical Couple

The coupling process won’t make much sense without describing this first. At the top of the coupler is the electrical coupler head. Under normal conditions, this is either coupled to another train or covered, but occasionally one with the cover up will sneak through ground inspection without being noticed (or alternatively the operator will forget to switch it back after uncoupling cars).

Electrical coupler head on a Type 2 with the cover raised

There are two positions for the electrical coupler head – electronically isolated and electronically normal. If one or both electrical heads between coupled cars are in the isolate position, there will be no electric communication between the cars. When coupling cars, the first goal is to establish a good mechanical couple, and to do that the car doing the couple will be electronically isolated at the beginning of the process.

This switch inside the cab controls the electric coupling of the train

Coupling cars

First, as with just about everything else done with the trains, the operator will get permission from Control before coupling. Next, they’ll do a ground inspection of the car they will be coupling to in order to ensure there aren’t any safety concerns, such as personnel working on or around the car. They will also make sure that the car they are going to couple to is set to electronically normal. The operator will make three safety stops in the coupling process (because hey, you’re essentially about to drive one train into another train) – the first one car length away from the car being coupled to; the second about 10 feet away, and the third at about 3 feet away to ensure that the couplers of both cars are aligned. Then very slowly, the operator will bring their car forward and couple mechanically to the other car (this happens automatically).

The operator will then perform what’s called a “tug test.” As mentioned in the last section, the car that the operator is in is electronically isolated. When there is no electrical communication between the trains, the brakes will apply. In a tug test, the operator remains in the coupled cab and attempts to put the train in reverse and move. The test is a success if the cars do not move – this shows that the mechanical couple was correctly done because it’s holding the operator’s car (which should otherwise be moving backward) to the car with the brakes applied. If the operator’s train car moves backward, it’s either because the mechanical couple failed and the cars came apart, or the cars were not electrically isolated. A visual inspection of the couplers will also be done.

Next is the “trainline test” which is also done from the coupled cab. The operator will now set the car they are in electrically normal (remember that the car they coupled to is also electrically normal). Now there should be communication between the cars, and the easiest way to test this is to open and close the doors. In the yard, this will be done on both sides of the train, and the operator will watch to see that the doors in both cars open. On the mainline, this will only be done on the doors that are on the platform side for safety reasons. If the trainline test is successful, the coupled cars are ready to go.

The finished product: Two successfully coupled train cars. Note how the electrical coupler heads are raised and the covers are on top of the coupler. When the cars are separate, those will slide down over the electrical head.

Uncoupling Cars

A simpler process – again, always done with permission from Control. The operator will do a safety inspection and then press the “uncouple” button in the coupled cab (pictured in the first section of this post, it has a cover over it to prevent it from accidentally being pressed). Next the operator will back their car from the other one to separate the mechanical couple.

Mainline uncoupling

Uncoupling on the mainline is not preferable, but is sometimes necessary in order to cut a bad car and leave a “sportscar” train in service. The exception to this is, of course, the Type 4s, because they can only be fully operated from one end so they can’t be uncoupled on the mainline.

And then the 4s

The coupling and uncoupling processes above apply to the Type 1s, 2s, and 3s. The 4s are more complicated – as you can see in the above picture, they don’t match the coupler heads of the rest of the fleet. Under each Type 4 cab (the A-end) is  a fold-out mechanical coupler head which can be used to mechanically couple a 4 to any other car to be towed or pushed. Type 4s can’t be electrically coupled to the other types of cars, and are the only cars that have the step of connecting the canon plugs of the cables on either side of the mechanical coupler head to electrically couple.

Mechanical coupler head under the A-cab of a Type 4


What’s that bag over the coupler head? (seasonal)

These covers basically work like shower caps and are put over the coupler heads in snow/ice conditions to prevent ice from building up on the couplers. Metal covers used to be used but I don’t remember how long it’s been since they were.

Why is a coupler off-center?

deformation tube bend

The coupler heads are designed to be able to bend around curves in the alignment, so if you see a coupler like this, it isn’t broken. They should be straightened out during a ground inspection, but sometimes one gets missed. The operator or a supervisor will move it back into place when they see it.

What happens if the train cars come apart?

If that were to happen, they stop – the default position for a train car is “stopped” and the loss of electrical communication will apply the brakes in the trailing car, much like how the tug test works. I’ve heard some people are not comfortable riding in the trailing car due to “runaway train” fears if the cars separate, but the purpose of the tests done after coupling is to ensure that that doesn’t happen, so this isn’t something passengers need to worry about.

Today I learned: The more you write the word “coupler,” the weirder it looks.

Conga line

Westbound trains were delayed Friday due to a switch issue by Beaverton Transit Center. There are three power switches to get into or out of the pocket track from the east, and the one farthest to the left in that picture was not throwing properly, so rail supervisors were on scene to manually throw the switch and direct trains safely through the area. I was off work and downtown when all of this was going on and from what I could see the operators were doing everything they could – getting on the PA to announce the reason for the delay and apologize for the inconvenience. Surprisingly, given how backed up everything was, no official service alert was released. Of course, people weren’t happy about the delay or being stopped for a while only to proceed up to the next platform and then stop again.

Not a great time to be operating, but a good topic for blogging…

Things were very backed up – this conga line of trains at every platform on Morrison is the result of that issue way out by BTC. If you look closely, you can see there is a Type 4 up at Galleria, then another train at Pioneer, then this train next to me at the Mall/5th platform, and another train behind it at 3rd/Morrison.

A common complaint I was hearing was that passengers didn’t understand why the trains were stopped where they were – can’t they keep moving, even if slowly? There are a couple of reasons why trains were holding where they were. One: stopping away from platforms is something to avoid whenever possible. Passengers can get a little agitated and uncomfortable being on a train that isn’t moving, and it’s dangerous for them to pull the emergency door release to leave the train away from a platform – first because that can likely put them in the path of a train coming in the other direction or vehicle traffic (depending on your location), and second because even the low-floor train cars have a drop to the ground if you’re not at a platform. So it’s preferable for stopped trains to hold at platforms with their doors open or on release which allows people to leave the train safely.

Two: west of Goose Hollow is ABS territory. To review:

ABS diagramDiagram of ABS signals

The direction of travel is from left to right. On the top part of the image, a green signal indicates that there are two open blocks (that is, the space between the signal in front of you and the signal after that one, AND the space between that signal and the one after it both are clear of trains). In the middle part of the image, the yellow signal indicates that there is one open block between  you and the train in front of you. The bottom part with a red signal indicates that the train in front of you is in that block. If the block in front of you is occupied, you CANNOT proceed into it. The block system and associated ATS magnets work to keep the trains spaced at a safe distance and prevent collisions.

So even though there appears to be more than adequate space for all of these trains to have rolled through downtown and waited behind each other on the alignment just east of Beaverton TC to proceed through, multiple trains cannot safely occupy the same ABS block. Additionally, since it’s safest to have the trains holding at platforms whenever possible, it’s better to have the trains stacked up here than at each ABS signal along the west side where there is no safe way for people to exit the train if they’re not at a platform.

Conga line of trains proceeding through downtown, monitored by supervisors