Tag Archives: automatic train stop

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.

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

Manual blocks and reverse traffic

I recently was asked some questions about

Manual blocks

(and this post got long… you might want to go make a nice sandwich or something for yourself before settling in to this one)

When train movement on one track is not available, a manual block is used to move trains on the adjacent track. This could happen because of planned maintenance, or it could be done in the event of an accident/emergency situation. In a manual block, Control directs train movement in both directions on the track that is in service. Manual blocks will have associated train orders.

You’ve done the equivalent of a manual block in your car before if you’ve gone through road construction where only one lane is open. For cars in that setting, there’s a flagger at each end of the construction area that lets a number of cars through and holds oncoming traffic from entering the single lane, and then they switch to let cars from the other direction go through. A manual block for trains is essentially the same idea – Controllers and supervisors coordinate to govern train movement into a manual block, alternating between trains running normal traffic (e.g. east in the eastbound) and others running reverse traffic (west in the eastbound).

Reverse traffic

Borrowed photo. This is not a manual block, but it shows a train running reverse (here east in the westbound at Willow Creek)

Running reverse traffic is not the same thing as backing a train up. An operator backing a train up (such as in the case of uncoupling a train car) can’t see in the direction that the train is moving – this is why backing a train up is almost never done. When an operator is running reverse traffic, they face in the same direction as the train’s movement, but that movement is in the opposite direction of what the track they’re on is typically used for.

There are a number of rules that govern running reverse traffic. First, it’s always done at restricted speed (the lesser of 20mph or the posted speed and always at a speed that the operator can stop in half their sight distance) whether or not it’s part of a manual block, unless you’re in the tunnel. Because the tunnel is signalized in both directions, trains running reverse can operate at the posted speed limits which are about the same as normal speed limits, though trains going west in the eastbound bore will exit the tunnel much slower than normal traffic because they will be diverging into the west portal pocket track. Other areas of the alignment that are signalized in both directions are already single track, e.g. the “fishhook” for the Red Line at Gateway, so travel in both directions is normal.

While running reverse, operators will also have to stop and observe every set of switch points to ensure they are properly aligned. In ABS territory, running reverse traffic is where dwarf signals come into play – they protect mainline power switches while running reverse traffic. In other words, the ATS magnets associated with the dwarf signals are active for trains going the “wrong way”. Operators will have to key-by these signals (this is done from the operating console in the train cab) after calling Control. This gives the operator 23 seconds to move the train past the ATS magnet without tripping.

On Burnside, operators running reverse traffic will have to SOP the intersections since the mass detectors are only for normal traffic. If the reverse running on Burnside is part of a manual block, the train orders associated with the manual block will include instructions to SOP intersections within the block. So operators will not need to call Control for permission at those intersections, but otherwise the process to SOP them is the same – stop, wait for fresh parallel green and walk signal and red left turn signal, sound horn warning, and proceed when safe.

You may have seen these stop signs at gated intersections or in places where the view is obstructed by a substation building – these are for trains running reverse traffic since people are not likely to expect a train from that direction on that track.

Gated intersections are also handled differently when running reverse traffic. When running normal traffic, the gates are lowered either by a call loop if the platform is right near the intersection (such as the above picture of Elmonica/170th) or when the train enters the approach circuit as it approaches the crossing gate for gates that are not near a platform. There is another circuit that extends 10 feet on either side of and through a gated crossing called the island circuit. When the island circuit is shunted, it will lower the crossing gates if they weren’t already lowered – you won’t notice this running normal traffic since under normal operations the gates will be lowered by the time the train gets there, but when a train is running reverse traffic, it uses island circuits to lower the crossing gates. The operator will wait until the gates have been fully lowered for 10 seconds before proceeding through the intersection.

Manual Block

In a manual block, most of the rules that apply to trains running reverse traffic will also apply to those running normal traffic. For one thing, travel in both directions of a manual block will be done at restricted speed, unless otherwise instructed by Control.

Borrowed picture – Both of these trains are running normal traffic, but it shows switch points as the operator sees them. Here it is a trailing move since the points are facing away from our oncoming train

If there are switches in the manual block, operators in both directions will be required to stop and observe every set of switch points before proceeding, regardless of whether the switch points are facing toward the train or away from the train (as seen in the above picture).

A planned manual block will have a written train order, but operators about to enter a manual block, whether planned or unplanned, will still call Control before they enter to receive specific instructions. The instructions will have to be repeated back word for word, which ensures that there is no misunderstanding of the instructions, since manual blocks have the potential to be extremely dangerous. Even at 20mph, a train splitting a switch (making a trailing move over a power or t-rail switch that isn’t set for you) or hitting another train can cause serious damage. The specific details of the instructions may vary depending on where the manual block is and why a manual block is in effect – for example, a planned manual block may have pullback operators to pull the train through crossover switches so that the operator of the train doesn’t have to change cabs.

Previously, a “medallion” system had been used for manual blocks. A medallion was an object such as a stuffed animal (like the rabbit) that would be passed off to a train as it was about to enter the block. If you didn’t have the medallion in your possession, you would not enter the block. Nowadays that system isn’t used. Instead, a clearance sheet is used to record all train movement in manual blocks. This written record details the movement of all trains into, through, and out of the block, ensuring that only one train is in the block at a time.

Once an operator is clear of the block, he or she will call Control. Their train will be recorded on the clearance sheet, and the operator will then be able to resume normal operation. The next train will then be cleared to enter the manual block. This process continues for the duration that the block is needed. At that point, Controllers and supervisors will ensure that all trains are clear of the manual block and that all switches are aligned normal and locked. The first train through the track that had been out of service may be asked to sweep that section of the alignment, especially if the manual block was due to an emergency, and then following trains can operate as normal.

Old OldTown/Chinatown signal

I forgot I had this picture, otherwise I would’ve included it as a point of sort of historical interest in my ABS/Pre-empt Combination Signal post:

Old view eastbound at Oldtown/ChinatownCab view, eastbound at Old Town/Chinatown several years ago

This is an old picture, taken back before the Portland Transit Mall was integrated to have the the Yellow and Green Line trains running on 5th and 6th.  That pre-empt signal isn’t there anymore – the way this used to work was that an eastbound train at Old Town/Chinatown would call their pre-empt and then begin to proceed up the Steel Bridge on a proper signal.  Signal 10 (which I have no picture of) was located on the bridge prior to the span, displayed a red or a lunar, and was associated with an ATS magnet – so if, for example, the bridge was going to be lifted, signal 10 would be red and the magnet would be active.

But then the Portland Transit Mall happened, and that meant tracks approaching the bridge from a different angle where the Yellow and Green trains go across the river from Union Station and now the added possibility of a Yellow or Green train making a conflicting move to a train at Old Town/Chinatown heading east.  So now Signal 10 is a combination signal located where this pre-empt was, and Old Town/Chinatown has an ATS magnet. I forget specifically when this change happened – in 2008 I think.

New signal 10The new Signal 10 – here the train operator has called it, but doesn’t have pre-emption of the intersection yet.

So there’s a little bit of TriMet rail history for you.

I lied – More signals!

Okay, I forgot two.

Dwarf Signals

Ruby Jct/E 197th, looking eastDwarf signal in lower left corner

I love this picture because there’s so much going on in it.  Ruby Jct/E 197th looking east, zoomed in (I took the picture from the westbound platform) so the quality is a little grainy and the distance is flattened out – objects in the picture are much farther away than they appear!

I forgot the dwarf signals because under normal operating conditions, you don’t really see them because they don’t face you. Dwarf signals for MAX are only used when running reverse – notice how in the above picture which is facing east, the dwarf signal is on the westbound track, so you’re only going to see it if you’re going east in the westbound.

Anyway, the purpose of dwarf signals are to protect power switches on the mainline when you’re running reverse in ABS territory. They won’t display any aspect other than red, though some will go dark if there’s no train in the circuit. They’ll be associated with ATS magnets and switches.  When running reverse without signal protection, you must stop at all switches to make sure they are properly set since you’ll be coming at them from the wrong direction.

Dwarf signal at BTC“Dwarf” not always short

Here’s dwarf signal W768 and two standard ABS signals at Beaverton Transit Center looking east.  They’re all the same height, but the dwarf is the only one that can only display a red aspect.  In this picture it’s dark because there’s no train in the circuit.

Same signal, now with a train in the circuit (in the westbound platform)

That particular signal protects the switches that Red Line trains take into the center pocket track at Beaverton Transit Center – which are located pretty far around that curve, so dwarf signals aren’t always right on top of associated switches.

The C Signal

For lack of a better name, anyway.

C

There’s only one of these that’s still in use, and it’s at Skidmore Fountain westbound (there is also one at 11th & Yamhill, but it is not active). The intersection after this platform is SW Ash, but you can’t see it from here, so when an operator selects at Skidmore westbound, the “C” signal illuminates to let them know that the call went through and they can leave the platform.  When they get to Ash, they should have their pre-empt.

Next up – not sure yet, but it won’t be signals!