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.

Gateway

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.

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.

Sometimes a cat is just a cat

Or, a cautionary tale about not believing everything you read on the internet. Or that MAX isn’t as scary as you might have been led to believe.

A few nights ago, there was a report of a cat on the fishhook. For folks not familiar with where the fishhook is, it’s this section of single track near Gateway used by the Red Line to head toward the airport:

gatewayLooking at Gateway from above, colors and arrows indicating which tracks are used in each direction by trains on different lines

Animals get in the ROW sometimes, and when it happens, Control will put out an informational call to trains in that area to use extra caution. In short, this was all pretty much a non-event. You can listen to the call for this incident here, it should be easy to understand once you know what section of the alignment he’s referring to.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, @TelemachusRome who’s been satirizing TriMet (my personal favorites among recent tweets include the off-leash dog park on MAX and coin-operated seat belts for bus drivers) took this as an opportunity for another joke:

sting operation

Pretty obvious to everyone that this was a joke, especially if you played the audio for the call. Except… except… a talk radio host/blogger who has never been fond of TriMet takes this at face value and runs this story in several places online:

cats and hookers

Look, I know it’s trendy in some circles to call MAX the “crime train” or act like the only people riding it are involved in some kind of criminal activity and you should expect to be assaulted if you ride, but come on. I’ve played this call a few times intentionally trying to parse it as some sort of hooker sting and I still can’t see how someone can seriously confuse a cat with prostitutes. They must go to a more interesting PetSmart than I do.

After this “story” ran, the talk radio host apparently contacted TriMet who replied that no, there’s no prostitution ring on the system and this is audio about an actual cat, not a security bust of said non-existent prostitution ring.

Just in case you were worried about who you are riding a train with.

Oh, and for future reference, when an operator calls in  a “Bambi alert“? That really does mean that someone saw a deer in or near the tracks, not a stripper. The more you know…

Corrosion? No, TriMet, I think you just spelled “corruption” wrong

We all remember that MAX train that went down the Banfield with a door open, right? Which is not how the train is supposed to work – if your doors are open and you try to take power to move the train forward, the doors will close. The interlock should prevent the train from moving if any doors remain open.

opendoorbanfieldDoor open, train still moving

For some reason, this door stayed open between the Hollywood and Lloyd Center platforms, but no cause had been identified until last Friday afternoon, when TriMet issued a press release that the cause of the door’s malfunction had been determined:

bridgeplate corrosion

That would be great except for one thing – that door doesn’t have a bridgeplate. The incident happened in a Type 2, and like all other low-floor cars in the fleet, bridgeplates are located at doors 3, 4, 5, and 6 near the middle of the train on both sides. The doors closest to the ends of the train (1, 2, 7, and 8) do not have bridgeplates. They aren’t missing or corroded, they are just not there by design. It’s impossible that there was excessive corrosion on a bridgeplate mechanism in that door because there is no mechanism there to corrode in the first place.

Type 2 with bridgeplates outType 2 with bridgeplates out. Notice the middle doors have them but the doors near the ends of the car do not

What does our executive director of safety have to say about this?

saporta is corroded

Yeah, the corrosion on that switch was apparently so severe that the switch and bridgeplate are just GONE. Let me give you an analogy for how mind-blowingly confusing TriMet’s official statement is:

bikeTriMet would tell you that this cat’s bicycle is showing the same advanced corrosion as the bridgeplate switch

Now while the major media sources I’ve seen so far are just parroting back that the issue was due to corrosion on that door’s bridgeplate switch, many people are realizing this doesn’t add up. You don’t need to be an expert in the trains to notice that the doors near the upper deck seating of the train don’t have bridgeplates. One of my astute blog readers picked right up on it, other bloggers and Twitter users caught it too. That explanation seems to just be made up.

door cutoutDID NO ONE THINK TO CHECK THE BRIDGEPLATE?? Actually that’s going to be my new excuse for everything. Signal went dark? Probably a corroded bridgeplate switch. TVM not working? Most likely due to bridgeplate corrosion. Fight on the train? Yeah, that pesky bridgeplate corrosion again. 

But hey! Let’s not miss an opportunity to blame the union! In other words, let’s look at this part at the end of the press release that has NOTHING to do with the door issue:

union blaming

Do you like how those goalposts have been moved? TriMet used to call the union benefits  “some of the most generous in the transit industry” – now that’s been bumped up to THE most generous benefits in the entire COUNTRY. Hoo-wee!

Once again, TriMet non-union benefits aren’t too shabby either. Will we mention those as a cost-cutting measure? Course not.

non union rates

Must be hard being an executive at TriMet, not getting a raise on some of the most generous salaries in the transit industry after three years? I’d say “no disrespect to office workers” here, but you know what? If you’re offended by my belief that people who work all hours of the day all days of the year in all weather conditions in hot/noisy/dirty/hostile environments should get health care that compensates for that, and that the people making 6-figure salaries working in climate controlled environments with weekends, evenings, and holidays off paying less than $100/month to insure their entire family don’t exactly have room to complain that the union health benefits (for which union employees pay higher premiums per month than the non-union employees) are “too generous”, you and I just aren’t going to see eye-to-eye.

And hey, ATU would be happy to negotiate when TriMet agrees to full transparency by letting the sessions be open to the public. Because funny enough, there’s been a lot of instances such as this explanation of a bridgeplate problem in a door that has no bridgeplate, last-minute fixes of long-standing alignment problems right before an inspection, and  stealth raises to executives while crying poverty and blaming the union that have us all kind of thinking that TriMet can’t exactly be trusted to be transparent.

Anyway, back to the door issue. I’m really stumped here. If whoever looked at the door was not able to replicate the problem, the correct response would be to just say so, and maybe dedicate more resources to monitoring the condition of the doors. I find it next to impossible to believe that a mechanic said the problem was because of a bridgeplate-related issue in that door (and even if a mechanic DID say that, that no one else involved in the process said “Hey guys? This door doesn’t have a bridgeplate.”)

Who knows what actually caused it? Maybe whoever grabbed the door bumped it in such a way that the interlock registered it as closed. Maybe some connection in there was loose anyway and the person trying to get in just broke it all the way. Even if the cause were a problem with a bridgeplate in another door of that car that might have affected the interlock system for the whole car (I don’t even know if that’s possible), then the press release should have stated THAT. Because if what the press release said is the complete and final answer, and TriMet is going to say it was a bridgeplate problem in that specific door, then we still don’t know what actually did it and we’re not going to be able to prevent it from happening again as long as the explanation is to technobabble an answer that has no basis in the mechanical reality of that door.

I can’t tell if this is intentional deception and assuming the public is too dumb to question why the explanation involves a component that isn’t part of that door, or just plain old-fashioned incompetence. Either way, it’s incredibly disappointing of TriMet, and it’s also disappointing that they take a safety issue as an opportunity to throw slurs at the union.

(and if someone wants to provide pictures of the corroded bridgeplate switch in the mechanisms of that particular door, please do so! All the other rail personnel that I batted this one around with don’t see how TriMet’s official explanation makes any sense given what we know about the construction and operation of the trains, so if you want to use this opportunity to give us all a learning experience, we’re open to it.)

Transparency, trust, and TriMet

We’re sorry we didn’t outright tell the public that as we were cutting service and raising fares, we were going to give ourselves raises.

But we’re not at all sorry that we now make more money.

I think OPAL gets original credit for spotting this one first in April of last year. In a readthrough of the proposed 2013 budget, they noticed that TriMet doubled the contingency budget, from $10 million up to $20 million. No apparent reason was given, though there seemed to be some suggestion that it was needed in the event TriMet lost the arbitration with the union. OPAL members testified at board meetings, questioning the contingency and stating that both doubling that and raising fares was a too-conservative approach to the budget at the expense of bus riders, and suggested if it were to be increased at all, it should at most go from $10 million to $15 million.

Now we find out that at least part of the purpose of increasing the contingency was to give raises to the top execs at TriMet. As the PortlandAfoot story points out, the raises didn’t show up in the budget as raises given for merit. There’s no mention of these raises in TriMet’s anti-union webpages, which still state that there’s been a non-union pay freeze for four years. Okay, fine, maybe there was a freeze for four years, but if my pay didn’t change for four years and then you gave me a $7000 raise on top of my $130k salary? (an actual “merit increase” from the list) You know, I don’t think my feelings would be hurt too much.

General manager Neil McFarlane is now issuing the non-apology of “We’re sorry we weren’t more transparent.” Actually Neil, I believe when you falsify the budget with a salary that is out of date, and the board knowingly passes that even though it intentionally had incorrect information, and salary raises are hidden in a contingency fund and not listed for what they are, that’s what we call “outright lying”, not just “not being transparent enough.”

The story was also covered by the Oregonian, which includes other gems, such as “We had to give Shelly Lomax a $14,000 raise because as the only woman on staff, we were paying her a lot less than the men” and that union president Bruce Hansen actually took a pay cut when he became president of the union. And of course, general manager Neil McFarlane defending the move, saying it was done to retain these executives and managers (worked out real well for ya with former Director of Finance Beth Dehamel, a $20,000 raise and then she left a few months later.)

But Why bother retaining talent when we outsource work that could be done in-house anyway?

Back during Neil’s Twitter town hall chat, a lot of folks (myself included) questioned some of TriMet’s spending decisions, such as marketing. Now I’m not opposed to a marketing department, I realize that theoretically they fulfill an important role in keeping riders informed. But what I don’t understand is why TriMet has a marketing department, yet we outsource marketing work. Quoting myself from an older post:

But for the last ten years, the now-defunct external company ID Branding has been doing TriMet’s marketing and design work rather than TriMet’s own internal Marketing department.

That means the 5 Dirty Words poems on buses and trains, the Green Means Go campaign surrounding the opening of the Green Line, the recent What Makes This Place Great? promotion (which, conveniently has been used to cover up the aforementioned failed #1 Transit ads on the trains – I suppose the fact that ID Branding is now out of business explains why the WMTPG website remains un-updated with several sections still “coming soon.” Hope we didn’t pay for that!), the Rider’s Voice book aimed at helping people switch from paratransit to fixed route – all of these were outsourced to ID Branding.

This really makes me wonder what our Marketing department is doing if we’re outsourcing marketing work to another company. Are these all things we can’t do in-house? How much money was spent on the ID Branding contract, and were we planning on spending more with any other marketing firms now that they’re gone? Can we maybe pick one or the other, either outsource all marketing or do everything in-house, but not both?

EDIT: Numbers acquired. ID Branding contract was $1,862,437.00 budgeted, $1,497,547.95 billed, contract numbers ra020310ktx and rc070408dgx. Assuming we don’t outsource more marketing at the conclusion of the ID Branding contract, that’d be nearly $2 million saved.

The ID Branding thing was a while ago, but you might have noticed TriMet hosting a bunch of contests lately – “Be Seen Be Safe“, “Drive Less Save More“, and a current one for teens to make a safety video, just to name a few. But here’s the interesting part of the fine print at the bottom of these contests:

offerpopPowered by Offerpop you say?

Turns out Offerpop is an online marketing promotional tool. Pricing is based on how many Facebook and Twitter followers you have. So let’s see, TriMet’s Facebook has about 8400 followers, and TriMet’s Twitter has about 9100. So that’s about 17,500 followers, and depending on whether or not this is pay-by-month or an annual subscription, TriMet is paying $360-$400 a month for contests. And because someone is bound to say it, yes I know that that’s just a drop in the budget bucket. BUT once again, why is this being outsourced at all? Is there seriously no one in the marketing department who could organize contests like this  as part of their regular job duties?

But okay, let’s aim a little bit higher. We know that TriMet’s got a handsomely compensated legal team, several of whom were on the stealth payraise list. And we know that TriMet has recently filed suit against Clackamas county. Here’s the part I don’t understand – take a look at the lawsuit file itself. Specifically, the footnote:

ater wynne

Now I’m no legal expert, but maybe there’s a reader here who is and can provide a logical explanation why TriMet hired an external lawfirm for this lawsuit and didn’t make use of the lawyers on staff. Because I’m really perplexed by this.

Edit: And in the comments, Engineer Scotty delivers – this is apparently standard procedure.

Once again, I find myself wondering – why bother making a big deal about retaining these highly paid managers & lawyers & executives if you pay other companies to do work that could be done by them?

Fix the ship? Blow it up? Whatever.

A while back, a friend of mine did a guest post on the contract negotiations and the union’s health care costs, and that post includes what is probably my favorite quote summing up the situation:

another perspective

Well. That pretty much accurately describes what ended up happening. Before the news about the executive raises, Joseph Rose at the Oregonian was the only one covering this story of Neil’s decision to expand the executive ranks, which I think is a shame because, like the executive raises, it’s something the public has the right to be aware of, and protest if necessary.

So former director of operations Bob Nelson (currently receiving a pension of about $48k/year from TriMet; had left the agency in 2007 making just shy of $160k/year) is coming back as “Interim Deputy General Manager” and I’m sorry, all I can think of when I hear that is this:

jr crimefighter

But wait, it gets better. The purpose of his job will be to assess the position of Deputy General Manager and determine if it should be permanent. Man, I wish someone would give me a 6-figure salary, and then at the end of a year ask me if they should keep paying me that (on top of the pension I’m getting that’s already more than many people make in a year). Do we really think he’s going to say, “No, this isn’t the best use of TriMet’s resources”? Anyone who would say that, well, here’s your sign.

Next up is Barbara Ramirez Spencer who will be hired as a consultant, and I had posted this in response on Twitter but I know I’ve got blog readers who don’t follow me there so here it is again. From the Oregonian article, this a quote from Mary Fetsch on why Ramirez Spencer is being sought out:

Ok, that’s a lot of syllables to tell us… what, exactly? Strip out the buzzwords and management lingo and what value is she going to add to TriMet? How is this going to help riders? What is this going to do for the benefit of the general public? Was there seriously not a better use for the oodles of money TriMet apparently has laying around?

Bonus: she serves on the super-secret budget task force (I believe the same one that greenlighted the executive raises) which has meetings that the public is not allowed to attend. Clearly no conflict of interests there…

Oh, that Rascally Union..

But as far as TriMet is concerned, there’s no problem paying out raises to executives while slashing service, and threatening to cut 70% of service. No, the expenses are all the union’s fault because of the cost of union health care benefits. (By the way, that 70% service cut is the projection for 2025. I find it doubtful that the powers that be will choose to forgo their raises during that time, so why is the union the only side expected to concede?)

You might’ve seen in the news that a bus driver was punched in the face the other day. And a supervisor was assaulted at Rose Quarter last week (neither the supervisor nor the operator who stepped in to assist were injured. This didn’t make the news, and neither do countless instances of drivers being spit on or threatened). But come on now, Neil keeps repeating that the union benefits need to be brought in line with non-union benefits, and asking “Are we a healthcare provider or a transit agency“?

Well, when was the last time Neil had an angry customer punch him in the face or spit on him? When was the last time he had to step in to assist Mary Fetsch because an angry drunk was shoving her around? Heck, when’s the last time Neil got a kidney or bladder infection from driving a 100+degree bus for 9 hours with inadequate breaks? Tell you what Neil, when your health risks on the job are the same as the front line union workers’, then we can talk all you want about how the health compensation should be the same. When non-union employees and retirees pass away as frequently as union workers, then we can have this discussion about the same health care for everyone. Remember that the reason why the union health plan is different is that because of the detrimental health aspects of the jobs (especially when compared to office workers), the union has historically negotiated compensation in the form of benefits rather than pay raises, and now TriMet wants the union to yield both.

Look, I really do understand the perspective of the general public in this fight. A friend of mine and his wife (neither of them are TriMet employees) together pay about $700 a month in healthcare premiums, just for the two of them. Yeah, that sucks, and absolutely, the union health insurance premium costs are much more palatable in comparison:

union rates

But to be fair and in the interest of transparency (for real, not TriMet’s definition of transparency), here are the non-union employee premiums – in other words, what Neil and his merry band of executives pay. Again in fairness, I will note that the part-time non-union employees are really getting wrung over…

non union rates

So you figure Neil is probably paying about $75/month to insure himself and his wife, while TriMet picks up $1170 of the tab? Not too shabby for a guy pulling in almost a quarter million per year. Funny how we don’t hear the word “Cadillac” applied to this side of things. And no one mentions the non-union retirement trust (maybe because info on it is so hard to find), worth over $80 million and into which TriMet pays $4.5 million annually. The source document for that has been removed from TriMet’s webpage, but I saved  a copy for you guys so you don’t have to fork out public records request fees in case you wanted to read it. Did I mention that transparency is how we roll here at MAX FAQs? But no, none of this is considered a problem or a bloated cost… that criticism is reserved for what the union is compensated.

Fun fact: Starbucks spends more on employee health benefits than coffee, yet unlike Neil, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz does not seem confused as to what the purpose of his company is. In fact, he refused to cut benefits for part time employees.

What’s coming next

We’re still waiting to hear the result of a ruling on whether or not the contract negotiations will be open to the public. TriMet is strongly opposed to public negotiations, and the union is strongly in favor of public negotiations. From the union’s perspective, TriMet has not demonstrated that they can be trusted to be transparent (golly gee, imagine that), and TriMet’s demand that only “unaffiliated members of the press” be permitted to attend is unacceptable.

I’ve heard some rumors going around (let me repeat, unsubstantiated rumors) that money for that contingency fund will be used to pay scabs if TriMet management is able to overturn the ruling that the transit union cannot strike and disputes will be settled with binding arbitration. Pretty much every news source I found for that proposed bill talks about “allowing the union to strike” but ignores the flipside – such a bill would also allow TriMet to lock the union out. Personally I don’t know of any current employees who are interested in striking – it’s not good for the workers, it’s not good for the public, and generally speaking the operators are genuinely interested in serving the public. But would TriMet take the action of locking the union out until the contract is resolved? Hate to say it, but the hostility in the environment makes me think yes, they would.

Let me pull this one back up:

another perspective

I think there are a lot of TriMet union employees with this mindset. Yes, there’s an awareness that the health plan at TriMet is better than a lot of people get elsewhere. Yes, if EVERYONE in the company needs to pitch in and sacrifice and do their part and all to keep things moving, people will generally be agreeable to that. But as long as the union is painted as the bad guys while the executive elites give themselves raises on the sly, downplay their own pensions and benefits, and try to pit riders against workers, those executives are not going to get an ounce of compromise or cooperation. Nor should they expect any.