Tag Archives: rail operators

October Performance

Lots of interesting tidbits in TriMet’s October Performance Dashboard.

Ridership Changes

Ridership statistics

MAX ridership has gone down, no big surprise since there’s no more free rail zone so people won’t necessarily wait for a train to get from one point downtown to another if a bus shows up first (or if they just walk…) What is surprising is that despite service cuts in September, there are more people riding buses than this time last year when there was comparatively more service. WES is doing marginally better, but at $11.69 cost per boarding ride and an essentially flat graph, it’s nothing spectacular.

On Time Performance

I’d modified my last post with this graph (at the time I published that post, only performance through September was available, but October’s data made it even more interesting). In an Oregonian article, TriMet spokesperson Roberta Altstadt attributes the cause to external issues (e.g. cars crashing in the ROW, and as I said on Twitter, it’s a nice change of pace that the most recent drunk dumbass to go off-road didn’t do it over MAX ROW) and the inexperience of new operators. That new operator inexperience is not even just an issue of familiarity with the alignment – new operators are more likely to have rule violations that delay their trains (e.g. tripping a signal), and are generally not as capable as most seasoned operators are at quickly and accurately describing to Control any sort of mechanical issue they might have which leads to a delay in fixing it. Yes, these are problems that time and experience will help (until they hit the complacency mark around 6-12 months when rule violations often spike again, but that’s another issue…)

So while it’s true that inexperienced operators are part of the reason for the downward slope in MAX on time performance, that doesn’t really get at the root cause of WHY there are so many new operators out right now. TriMet went for about a year and a half without having new rail operator classes, and lately they’ve been run almost back to back due to operator shortage. It’s the same at bus – a long hiring freeze on bus drivers and now oh dear, there aren’t enough operators. So a hiring rush ends up where there’s a lot of inexperience on the roads and rails at once. This could have been avoided if more focus was given to actual operation and new people had been added at a steady, constant rate instead of in rapid succession after a long period of none at all… and I think that’s one of the contributing factors to this:

Collisions

Bus collisions per 100,000 miles

Ok, if we’re serious about this whole “Safety is  a value, not just a priority” and that’s not just a catch phrase to try and look good, then this warrants a long and hard look. Bus collision rates have been consistently higher (with 2 exceptions) than last year for the past year. After the Sandi Day incident, TriMet head of training Allen Morgan developed an annual bus operator recertification training program, which theoretically would reduce the number of bus accidents. Well it’s a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t work. Or maybe it does work but it’s the initial operating training that isn’t adequately preparing new drivers. Or maybe there’s just too many new drivers at once due to the hiring freeze. Whichever it is, this trend of increasing collisions needs an immediate response, and not just a safety committee that’s all talk and no action.

And so it doesn’t look like I’m just picking on bus and leaving rail alone: Even though it’s not one of the graphs presented in the dashboard, let’s take a look at rail rule violations as well. If there’s a similar trend, then we need to stop seeing how many times we can fit the word “safety” into a speech and actually do something to improve safety.

Budget

Tax Revenue

I’m no financial analyst, so maybe I’m looking at this all wrong, and if I am, feel free to correct me. But after that whole panic attack about TriMet having somewhere between $12-17 million budget shortfall… it looks like the actual revenue is almost $16 million over the budget for FY 2012, and about $3.5 million over for FY 2013. Even taking into consideration the passenger revenue chart which shows the budget being slightly higher than the actual (about $2.3 million for FY 2012 and $1.1 million for FY 2013), it doesn’t look like we were anywhere near being short – if so I would’ve guessed that the actual would be under the budget, or perhaps taking the recent cuts into consideration, about even. Instead it appears to be well over. What’s the story?

Open response to an open letter

I recently saw this complaint on Planet Feedback:

Tri-Met Train Engineer Refused to Open Train Doors

Posted Sat February 5, 2011 3:03 pm, by John T. written to Mr. Neil McFarlane, General Manager, Tri-Met

I am writing to inform you of an unpleasant experience on the Yellow Max Line to Expo Center. This is the text of my Tri-Met website email complaint, which I sent on 1/28/2011:
Engineer refused to open the door (Train 123, 1:28 p.m., Thursday,1/27/2011 at SW 6th Ave. & Morrison), even though there was ample time to do so. I crossed the street from Pioneer Square as the Expo Center train was stopped at a red light. When my light changed to green, I immediately crossed the street and quickly walked right in front of the stopped train, so the engineer had to see me. I hurriedly pressed the yellow and blue buttons for the doors to open on the first car. The traffic light was still red (for the train). They did not, so I attempted to open the doors with my fingers. Seeing the doors were tight and unyielding, I immediately removed my hands and stepped back. A second or two after I had stopped trying to open the doors, the engineer said over the external speaker, “You better take your hands off that door or you will be arrested.” Those words prove he had seen me while the train was still stopped. A few seconds later, some stranger walked up to me and said he had pushed the door open buttons too in the second car, and the doors did not open. The train was still stopped as he initially spoke to me. Both myself and the stranger were casually well-dressed and very sober. Generally speaking I like Tri-Met, but this engineer was out of line and needs retraining and/or some other appropriate sanction. I wonder how many other riders he has treated so poorly.

Please investigate the matter and the Rider Complaint procedure thoroughly, which appears to be deficient and in need of revision because of the following: The Tri-Met website did not generate a case number or any email to me with a copy of my issue after I sent it on 1/28/2011. Also, since I did not receive a timely confirmation via email or telephone after 1/28/2011, I sent an email on or about 2/3/2011. On 2/4/2011 I received an email (copy enclosed) stating that my issue was reported on 1/28/2011 to the Yellow Line Manager, and that it is a “private matter” between the manager and the employee. I am not satisfied with this closed system, as there is no real accountability to the public or myself. The public is supposed to trust what occurs behind closed doors, but we are not even informed of the outcome. This does not seem fair.

I was pleased to see the comments to the letter, where several people explained that once a train has its signal, it can’t wait for more people to board. Another commenter said it’s not appropriate to release disciplinary information to the public, which I also agree with. However, as for the original complaint, I know that John T is not unique in being mad that trains don’t wait for him and even though I’ve already written about the yellow door release buttons before, now’s as good a time as any to do it again, as well as explain a little bit about how the mall signals work.

First, a basic refresher on pre-empt signals – these display a yellow horizontal which means “STOP” to a train or a white vertical which means “PROCEED WITH CAUTION”. Because of how the CBD is set up, there are a number of intersections where auto traffic will have a red light (STOP) but a train will have a white vertical – this will be the case in any intersection where a green light could potentially turn a car into the path of a train.

SW 6th & Yamhill – red light for cars, white vertical for an eastbound train, and walk sign for pedestrians

So don’t look at the auto traffic signals to determine if a train is about to move or not, because at most intersections the train isn’t following those signals. The train having a “red light” in this case is irrelevant.

Now moving on to the rest of the complaint, which is essentially “the train didn’t wait for me and reopen the doors.” Well, no – the mall is not a good place for that sort of thing. Sometimes an operator of a north or southbound train will release the doors – that is, turn on the external door buttons so that passengers can push them to open the doors and let themselves on – if they are waiting for an eastbound or westbound train to pass or for the way ahead to be clear, but once they’re ready to call the signal, the doors are closed and it’s time to go. Here’s why:

Pioneer Courthouse, SW 5th & Yamhill facing south

This is a view looking south on 5th Avenue. On the top of the pole in the middle of the picture, you can see the pre-empt signal for southbound Yellow and Green trains to PSU. It’s displaying a yellow horizontal in the picture which is the default aspect until a train calls it. Now look down 5th at each intersection – you can see the auto traffic lights that are red and green on the left side of 5th, and on the right side you can see the pre-empt signals for the trains (all yellow horizontals).

SW 5th & Yamhill, wider view.
The pre-empt signals may be easier to see in this picture

If you ride a train on 5th or 6th, you’ll notice that ideally the train will only stop at platforms, not at the intersections between platforms. This is because those pre-empts cascade – an operator will call the signal at the platform, and then the pre-empts up through the next platform are automatically timed so that when the train gets to each intersection, the pre-empt will be displaying a permissive white vertical to proceed without the operator needing to do anything. In the event that the train has to stop (e.g. a personal auto blocking the right of way, a pedestrian running in front of a train, a car or cyclist running a red light – you know, those things that never happen) each intersection also has a secondary call loop where an operator is able to recall the signal. Under normal operating conditions, the cascading signals between platforms allows for the smoothest and fastest train movement.

South end of the mall by PSU looking north up 6th Ave. Notice the pre-empt signals on the right, the curve in the rails for the train to move to the center lane, and the bus ahead pulling away from its stop

But remember that the mall isn’t just for trains. The alignment runs serpentine with buses so that the trains and buses leapfrog up and down the mall with the rails cutting over to the right every few blocks for a platform, and then back over to the center lane for the blocks that are served by buses. The auto signals on the mall are in sync with the train pre-empts, so buses will be held on a red light to let the train move through and get out of the way when the train has a permissive signal since both buses and trains share the center travel lane and cross paths to service alternating blocks.

View from above of a Yellow Line train on 5th moving into the center travel lane after servicing the Pioneer Courthouse platform in the previous block

SO – getting back to why a train can’t wait “just a few more seconds” for you and reopen the doors… when an operator calls a signal at a platform on the mall, it starts the cascade of pre-empts up to the next platform. This cascade goes through even if the train stays put where it is, which can happen if the operator reopens the doors to let late runners on and then the signal in front of them times out. This delays buses unnecessarily as they are held at red lights waiting for a train that isn’t there. As a result, not only will the train you wanted to get on be delayed, but so will a bunch of buses because you weren’t at the platform when the train’s doors were open. Preventing that from happening, quite frankly, isn’t something an operator needs to be disciplined for.

And finally, I feel the need to defend the operator of that train – I know whose run that is and they’re one of the last people I could think of that would threaten a passenger with an arrest. I’m hard pressed to believe that such a comment was even made by the operator, but I’m not surprised at the accusation. I have seen operators scapegoated for everything that goes wrong for passengers (classic example – a bus running exactly on time and someone on the bus calling their boss “Yeah, the stupid bus was late again so I’m going to be late for work.”  Hey! Not the bus operator’s fault you picked a later bus than you needed. Take responsibility for your own actions.)

BREAKING NEWS

!!!  PRIORITY ONE  !!!

BUS DRIVER WHO IS PAID BY THE HOUR WORKS A LOT OF HOURS, GETS PAID FOR IT.

SOMEONE LET THE MEDIA KNOW, THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!!


Oh wait, they already know.

This really isn’t as much of a shocking new paradigm as the Oregonian would like it to be. Any moderately bright middle schooler could do the math for you. Remember grade school math word problems? “If a bus driver at the top of the pay scale makes $25.13 per hour for the first 8 hours, and then 1.5x that an hour for every hour after the first 8, and they work 9 hours a day, or 10, or more, how much money do they make?” The pay scales have been posted on TriMet’s website for a long time now – this isn’t news, nor is the concept of overtime.

The operators who are making well above the average are the ones willing to take every minute of overtime offered, working every holiday, working more than 8hrs/day, and working as many days off as allowed (operators can’t work more than 13 days in a row). And operators aren’t the ones who write the runs – if there are runs that pay 10, 11 hours a day, ultimately someone is going to sign them (usually the highest seniority people, but not always). Why should the operators who sign runs written with a lot of overtime have to apologize for it?

Why is there so much overtime available anyway?

Well, it’s kind of funny.  See, we’ve had this hiring freeze due to budget problems…

PORTLAND — TriMet officials said declining payroll tax revenues and pressure to crunch the budget will likely cause yet another round of route reductions and another increase in fares as well.

TriMet officials said they need to cut the budget for the next fiscal year by $27 million. Proposed changes include a 5-percent administrative cut, a salary and hiring freeze, reductions to bus and MAX service and a five-cent fare increase.

I forget exactly when the hiring freeze started – I would have guessed in 2009, but I did some searching and found this KGW news article on the hiring freeze dated February 10th of this year. Okay, let’s start with that date. Now here’s why this is funny – these are the job openings that have been posted at TriMet since February 10, 2010 (and the associated salary range for each, not including benefits):

  • Manager, Benefits; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00
  • Senior Accountant – Treasury & Cash Management; $51,652.00 – $77,479.00
  • General Manager (heh); $215,000
  • Field Outreach & Community Relations Representative; $12.56-$17.58/hr
  • Deputy General Counsel – Real Estate; $93,360.00 – $140,038.00
  • Real Property Specialist; $56,340.00 – $84,509.00
  • Executive Director Capital Projects (after Neil transferred to General Manager); actually I don’t know what this compensation range is, but according to that list of salaries, Neil made $184,690.92 so we’ll go with that.
  • Contracts Administrator III; $56,340.00 – $84,509.00
  • Director Transportation Operations; $85,986.00 – $128,977.00
  • Systems Engineer II-Network; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00
  • Service Worker; $15.78 – $21.04/hr
  • Director Safety & Security; $85,986.00 – $128,977.00
  • Administrator, MTP Contracts; $22.75 – $34.12/hr
  • Manager, Facilities Systems; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00
  • Receptionist; $12.56 – $17.58/hr
  • Legal Assistant; $19.05 – $28.57/hr
  • Coordinator, Operations Services; $20.83 – $31.24/hr
  • Facilities Specialist; $19.05 – $28.57/hr
  • Maintenance Supervisor; $27.09 – $40.63/hr
  • Accounting Manager; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00

Heckuva hiring freeze there…

Not counting the hourly jobs (because I don’t feel like doing the math) or the Executive Director of Capital projects (because I don’t have the range), that’s a total range from $935,768 on the low end to $1,331,514 on the high end of salaries of jobs posted at TriMet during this supposed “hiring freeze”.

You know what’s missing from that list? Bus operators. I don’t remember offhand the last time minirunners (part time bus operators) were hired, but I’d guess it was around the end of 2008. We have the money for all those other jobs, but no money to hire bus operators – in fact, bus operators were asked to take voluntary unpaid leaves of absence!

But buses still have to go out even when we’re short on operators – spend about 5 minutes on Twitter when a bus doesn’t show up to see how much people love it when their bus is a no-show. If we’re not hiring more operators to fill out the ranks, the only alternative is to have operators work overtime to keep things moving. Many operators are willing to take on overtime because hey, if you can do the work, it needs to get done, and you can make time and a half on it? Why wouldn’t you take it? So a lot of operators do. I don’t see why people have a problem with this – if operators didn’t pick up RDO work or if none were willing to work overtime, there would be a lot more buses & trains canceled due to no operator available to take them out. It’s mutually beneficial to the operators who want the overtime and the transit-dependent who want their buses to show up.

Here’s a thought for you – if there were enough operators to cover all the work, there wouldn’t be so much overtime available.

It’d be a lot cheaper if TriMet would hire minirunners again. They start at the bottom of the pay scale – a whopping $13.83/hr. Sure, operators who have been picking up the overtime would lose a lot of that and there’d probably be some grumbling about it, but overtime (though nice) is not guaranteed. Paying a newcomer $13.83/hr for their shift versus paying $37.70/hr (time and a half for the top rate of bus operator pay) would be a lot cheaper for TriMet to do, and you’d see fewer operators making these apparently oh-so-extravagant salaries. Actually I’d kind of enjoy it if TriMet posted openings for minirunners again – to all of the people whining about the work bus operators do and what they get paid for it: that would be your chance to either turn in your application to be a bus driver yourself or forever hold your peace.

Edited to add: Been talking about this with someone else, who said that there could be a budgetary reason why TriMet feels it makes more sense to pay lots of overtime than it would be to hire new minirunners.  Maybe that’s true – neither of us are TriMet financial planners with particular inside knowledge into that.

But I think it would be kind of nice if there was an official TriMet response to this media frenzy over operators who work a lot of overtime and make the money that they do because of it. TriMet doesn’t seem to mind paying it, so they should stand up for the operators that take on that work.

Health care and the sickout

And here we go with round 2 of this mess.

Portland not pictured, but would fall somewhere between #12 and #64. Source

I’ve already gone into why TriMet operators receive those health benefits – the job has severe negative health impacts, and so the union has negotiated a lot of the compensation to union employees to be in the form of health care rather than straight pay, which is why the hourly rate is lower than other cities. And the health care is not “free” any more than the paycheck you get from your job is “free” money. So effectively, with this announcement of requiring workers to cover some of the health care costs, TriMet union employees are taking a pay cut. And… somehow this became something for the public to be thrilled about?

This is not a zero-sum game.

What, specifically, are you (“you” being anyone calling for the firing of all bus/rail operators or saying anything along the lines of “I’m miserable and broke, therefore we all should be miserable and broke”) thinking that supporting this will accomplish? A bus driver needing to pay more for benefits doesn’t make yours cheaper. Nor does it suddenly require your boss to provide health care as part of your compensation. Your anger should be at them, not at fellow workers who thus far have not been screwed over. By all means be angry at what you may have lost, but don’t misdirect your anger. I don’t know any bus or rail operator who is happy at how much people are suffering right now, and doesn’t have friends/families/loved ones who are also struggling with pay cuts and high health care costs (if they can even afford insurance)

I don’t remember seeing any bus drivers cheering when the news reported that Intel was closing its Hillsboro office, losing 1000 jobs. Or when another 200 Oregonians were laid off when Cessna left the state. Or when another 200 Oregonians lost their jobs when Con-Way decided to outsource. You know why no bus drivers left hundreds of nasty comments on those stories?  Because it sucks when your fellow citizens are faced with pay cuts and/or lose their jobs, that’s why.

No one would blame any of those workers for being angry at being wrung over by their employers, but for some reason TriMet operators aren’t allowed to be upset when the general manager makes a unilateral decision that would change the contract while the contract is still awaiting arbitration? Now that it’s bus drivers (and the rest of the union workers too, but the bus operators are always the main target) as the focal point, suddenly it’s open season on transit operators for the rest of the public? Hundreds of comments across all the major Oregon news sources calling operators “fat”, “stupid”, “pigs” – what are we, in 5th grade again with the name calling? What is wrong with you people?!

Yes, many would. That’s the problem – companies are too eager to pay people next to nothing so they can blow money on their own pet projects.

And so many of those comments just show how ignorant people are – like thinking that TriMet operators are PERS employees (no), or that when your bus or train shows up 10+ minutes late, the driver is doing it because they’re lazy or to spite you, therefore all operators should be fired. Did it never occur to you that when a bus or train is that late, there’s a good chance that operator isn’t going to have time to take a bathroom break for the next few hours in order to try to make up that lost time? Or that they’re late because of traffic or because they’re unfamiliar with the route if it’s not one they usually do? Full confessional time – my first time operating a full trip on a Blue Line train from Cleveland to Hatfield, I was extremely late by the time I got to Hillsboro, not because of any incident that was delaying service or because I wanted to spite my passengers, but because I was so completely new at what I was doing and I didn’t have a very good sense of timing things – and it was my own fault that the train was that late because I was so new. If you were on my train, well, sorry. I did take a bathroom break though before turning around and going back to Cleveland. I’m not sorry for that. There haven’t been new operators in a while to make things run late, but there are plenty of reasons why your bus or train will be late and pretty much none of them have to do with operator spite.

This whole divide and conquer approach is sickening. Operators don’t hate the public (sure, there are some jerks that do, but find me any job that doesn’t have its share of jerks), and the public should not be turning on the operators for this. Want to be angry? Fine! Direct it where it should be directed.

  • Be angry that TriMet paid former General Manager Fred Hansen $40,000 to advise Australia on how to build a transit system. Australia didn’t pay for his services, we did, which then-TriMet board leader “[didn't] see it as a material issue, expensewise”.
  • Be angry that TriMet poured in $20+ million to a company they knew was failing (but felt was of “little concern”) in order to get WES, because by god, we need commuter rail.

Photo from the Portland Mercury

  • Be angry that the Green Line (which had service cuts before it even opened) was celebrated with a swanky foie gras & cocktails party where executives could congratulate each other on opening the Green Line. You know, I was one of the many nameless, faceless people who did some of the not-so-glamorous work into getting that going… where was my party invite?
  • Be angry that former Executive Director of Operations Steve Banta received a $15,000 retention bonus, stayed until after the first of the year (the stipulation for collecting the bonus) and then promptly left for Phoenix.
  • Be angry about the sneakiness with numbers surrounding the Milwaukie Line (and I say this as someone who obviously likes rail). We’re $130 million short, but then got $27 million from Metro, $20 million from the city of Portland, and a $10 million state grant to which spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says “We all came together quickly, and basically have almost closed that entire gap, and so I think everyone in the region feels very comfortable and really confident that we’re moving forward.”  27+20+10 = 130? Must be that new math.

None of this contributes to you as a rider getting reliable service (well, maybe the WES, but that carries a small fraction of TriMet riders). At least operator health benefits contribute to keeping your bus driver healthy and doing their job so that your bus shows up. And again, this had been part of the mutually agreed upon compensation for employees – and I’m in favor of your employer giving you the same exact thing. So for TriMet to decide that this, this is the breaking point after all of this other nonsense that was just fine and dandy to blow money on is ludicrous.

That being said, I don’t support a sick-out today. I do not fault any driver, mechanic, supervisor, etc who is angry about the way this whole thing is being handled. But I have never liked misdirected anger. Calling a sick-out doesn’t do a thing to hurt the people making these decisions. You think TriMet is going to send the salaried office workers (who don’t carry CDLs) out into the field to fill in for operators who don’t show up? Of course not! Their day isn’t going to be affected one way or the other. All a sick-out would do is screw over the transit dependent, and TriMet management does a good enough job of that on their own. They don’t need operators’ help making it worse.

Short and sweet.

Question: Are TriMet bus & rail operators PERS employees?

Answer:

NO.

 

If you’re going to criticize, at least get your facts straight.

More on the sick-out rumors, health insurance cuts, & everything else later.