A few days ago, there was an incident at the Hollywood/NE 42nd westbound platform where a man fell under the coupled end of a Type 4 train. He was alive and conscious, though badly injured when rescue personnel got him out. Now one story reports that he fell in front of the train. I wasn’t there when it happened and didn’t see it firsthand, so I’m not going to editorialize on that particular incident since I don’t know why it happened (if the man fainted, if he was pushed, if he jumped, if he was drunk, if he was ill, etc). Not long before that, a woman with her hood up and headphones in was killed when she didn’t seem to notice the flashing lights, bells, and arms of the crossing gate and walked into the path of a westbound MAX train. And that incident came only a few weeks after a trespasser was struck and killed by a train in an area with no pedestrian access.
Light rail does not mean toy trains
These are huge, heavy, electrified pieces of machinery that can go very fast. Even when traveling at fairly low speeds (such as downtown where the maximum speed limit is 15 mph) they still can’t stop on a dime and yes, being hit with a giant metal train weighing about 109 tons can kill you at 15 mph. Maybe it’s because the trains are painted in bright, friendly colors that people don’t take them seriously, I don’t know.
Years ago before I was at rail, the station manager of one of the railyards brought me and a few other people into to the pit in the shop – trains pull into the maintenance facility over a pit that’s been hollowed out in the floor so that mechanics can work on the bottom of the train while the train remains level. We climbed down a few stairs into the pit and walked under a Type 1 train car. The manager then began to tell us, calmly but in great detail, which parts of the human body they’ve found crushed or torn off by this or that part of the train when one of these cars has been involved in a train-person accident.
I’d always been cautious around the trains before that (my basic rule of thumb is that I don’t walk in front of something that is a) moving and b) much, much bigger than me) but standing under this train car, suddenly finding myself hoping that these rails that hold it up over the pit weren’t going to give out because I was now precisely aware of how heavy it was and how much damage it could do, with my face inches from the wheels and the brakes and realizing that this is the last thing some people have ever seen… it REALLY drove the point home for me. Every time I see someone carelessly run in front of one of these trains I wish they could get that same tour that I did.
See what your rail operator sees
On a random Tuesday, I filmed the alignment westbound from Beaverton Transit Center to Gateway (I was not the operator). There were no special events going on downtown, no festivals or parades or marathons, and the crowds weren’t heavier or lighter than usual. I pulled some stills from what I recorded to show you a typical look at just a few blocks in downtown Portland from the point of view of a MAX operator. All pictures can be clicked on for a larger version.
Here we are on SW Yamhill, with 10th Ave being the intersection we’re about to cross. As you can see across the intersection, the train warning light is on to let cars and pedestrians know that a train is approaching the intersection. All lights in the intersection are going to be red at this point. So an operator is going to be scanning for red light runners on 10th, keeping an eye on that car waiting to turn left since the train is going to get a “go” signal before it does, and also that guy who just stepped into the intersection and is going to cross against the light in front of us.
So the car waiting to turn left is probably okay, but there goes that guy running across the intersection. The windshield wiper is blocking his face, but no, he’s not checking for oncoming trains.
He’s directly in our right-of-way now, we’re much closer… and he still won’t look towards the train.
Still in the danger zone, he picks *now* to slow down. He did make it across though.
Were you so busy watching the guy walking against the light that you didn’t notice the little boy in the blue jacket on the platform across the intersection?
It’s not until the train got very close to him that an adult he was with pulled him back towards the sidewalk. Little kids standing on the platform always make me nervous, especially when they’re not being held onto by an older, responsible person because you can’t be sure that they’re not going to run in front of the train. Unsecured baby strollers are another nervewracking thing on platforms – consider this story of a baby stroller hit by a train (the baby was fine, unbelievably). If they’re not old enough to know better than to run out into the street (though given all the adults I’ve seen doing that…), and you are responsible for them, keep them safely away from the tactile strip!
Just a pause for a definition – this is a tactile strip, which lines the boundary between platform waiting area and tracks at every single platform on the system. It is not meant as a place for you to stand and wait for trains (and had there been a train coming, no, I wouldn’t have taken the above picture). If you happen to fall or stumble while on the tactile strip, there’s a good chance you’re going to fall into the tracks. Maximize your chances of not getting run over and stay off the tactile strip! And keep children off of it too!
Okay, moving on. This next picture is taken just a block and a half past the platform that had the little boy on it:
A jaywalker, again not looking towards the train, which is doing probably just under 15mph at this point. Because looking both ways makes you lose cool points or something.. personally I’m a fan of “not getting my ass run over” points.
Coming into Pioneer Square – guess who on this platform needs watching?
But instead he stepped behind the tactile strip and stayed there as we came in. Still extremely slowly of course, because the operator had no way of knowing what this man was going to do or if he was going to jump in front of the train.
We’re in the clear now, right? No of course not.
These two pictures taken in succession coming into the Mall/SW 4th Ave platform (which is the one right after Pioneer Square) – check out the people on the tactile strip with their backs to the train. An operator has no idea what that person is thinking, if they are aware that a train is coming up behind them, if they might step out without looking… Even better (not pictured, but common) are people, mostly students, who stand on the tactile strip with their backs to the right-of-way and their backpacks actually hanging out *into* the area that the train is about to occupy. And yes, if you’re wearing a backpack that gets hit by a train, it’s taking you down as well.
And as a last bonus, this guy:
Yep, walking against the light in front of our still-moving train so that he doesn’t miss it. I know two operators who have been involved in fatalities that happened when someone ran out across the tracks to catch a train. Is it really worth it?
And again – this is about average for what a rail operator sees on every trip they make. No, nothing happened in any of these examples, but this is *how* those fatalities that make the news happen. What if one of the people crossing against the light or jaywalking tripped and fell and couldn’t get out of the way in time? What if that little boy darted out under the front of the train? What if one of the people standing on the tactile strip with their back to the train suddenly stepped into the tracks as a train was coming into the platform? If rail operators were careless, there would be hundreds more accidents every year.
Instead every rail operator saves someone’s life every day by constantly preventing accidents.
(And yes, their brothers and sisters who are bus operators save lives on a daily basis, too. But don’t expect that to make the news even though their attention to their surroundings and skills at preventing accidents should be newsworthy. It’s just not as dramatic or exciting as one bus operator who made headlines when she stole a backpack).
And don’t think you’re off the hook when in your car
(this from the same trip as the above photos)
(I did try to figure out if that’s a supervisor vehicle since TriMet road & rail supervisors drive SUVs that kind of look like that, but I can’t come up with any reason why a supervisor would turn first into the right-of-way towards an oncoming train and then continue going the wrong way on a one-way)
And then there was this crash – I don’t know if it involved a bus or a train. I didn’t see it happen but I was in the area when it did. No one in this car was injured, but it turned the wrong way on a one-way transit mall into the path of either a bus or a train. There were plenty of police and supervisors on the scene by the time I went through there.
Point being? The trains are bigger, heavier, and faster than you. Even when you’re in a vehicle.
Stay safe out there. Every single operator, bus and rail, just wants to do their job and go home at the end of the day with no accidents or incidents. Don’t put the burden all on them – look out for your own safety.