The Robertson Tunnel

one of my favorite train pics I've taken!I love the tunnel.

Technically there are two tunnels: the eastbound bore and the westbound bore, though both are signalized for travel in both directions, making it one of the few areas of the alignment where that is possible (generally speaking, running reverse on the alignment – that is, east on the westbound track for example – is done at restricted speeds with full stops required at every switch in the tracks since you don’t have signal protection telling you that the way is clear of other trains or that your switches are set properly.  Where the rails are signalized in both directions, running reverse can be done at full speeds, but there are only a few areas of the alignment that are signalized for travel in both directions).

Signals to head west from Goose HollowThese signals allow trains from either track in Goose Hollow to go west through either tunnel bore

So to start, here’s a speedy look at the westbound bore of the tunnel:

The bores

Each bore is a little over 3 miles long, with the Washington Park platform closer to the eastern side.  Every 750 feet in the tunnel is a blue light, which is one of the few things visible to passengers inside trains, though if you watch for them on the left side of the train you can spot the ABS signals, too.  These blue lights indicate emergency phones and cross-passage doors which connect both bores.  There are 19 of these crosspassages in all.

Blue light/emergency phone by platformOld pic, accidentally used flash, but it shows the blue light/emergency phone setup (and also the motion detectors – do not attempt to walk through the tunnel!)

It’s a lot more obvious from the point of view of the cab than the passenger area, but there is an elevation change as you go through the tunnel, with the west being higher than the east.  Since the tunnel slopes towards downtown, the area preceding the eastern exit of both bores is speed tripped for speeds greater than 20mph, though the ATS magnets are only active for trains heading east.  Because of this, going west through the tunnel takes slightly less time than going east. If you look closely in the above video, you can see the ATS magnets at intervals soon after we enter the tunnel, but since we are climbing the hill heading west there, they’re not active.

Light at the end of the tunnelApproaching the west exit of the westbound bore

The platform

The Washington Park platform is the only underground platform in the system, located at a depth of 260 feet, making it the deepest subway station in North America and the third deepest in the world (after Kiev’s Arsenalna platform which is 335 feet and Moscow’s Park Pobedy platform which is 318 ft below the surface). Lining the platform on each side is a core sample taken during construction of the tunnel.

Core SampleLooking down the core sample on the eastbound platform

The platforms, by the way, are color-coded. Anything associated with east is yellow for the rising sun – both the support beams of the eastbound platform and the bricks outlining the bore entrances on the eastern side of the platform. Similarly, anything associated with west is red for the setting sun – red support beams on the westbound platform and red brick on the bore entrances on the western side.

East platform, east bore

Eastern bore entrance on the eastbound platform

East platform, west bore

Western bore entrance on the eastbound platform

Western platform, eastern bore

Eastern bore entrance on the westbound platform

West platform, west bore

Western bore entrance on the westbound platform

On both the eastbound and westbound sides are art displays that take a lot of inspiration from math and science. First, the core sample timeline:

Core sample time line

and assorted points of interest along the timeline:

history of animalsYou are here.I thought it was "Neanderthals" but apparently you don't need the H

toothbrushes, parking meters, etcJust in case you were wondering where parking meters and tape fit into the geological scheme of things.

wow that's old.That is a long time ago.

Then there’s the math-inspired art – with some mistakes!

Pi, sort ofThese aren’t really the digits of pi

Pascal's not really trianglePascal’s Triangle… except missing the 1 at the top that is supposed to be there to actually make it a triangle

Golden spiralThe golden spiral.  No obvious mistakes in this artwork, I just like it.

Near the elevators is a dedication plaque, as well as a plaque honoring William Robertson.

Tunnel dedicationTunnel dedication

There’s also backlit art near the elevators on both sides.  I wonder about the backstory of some of it.  For example…

I don't recognize itIs this supposed to sound like anything in particular?  I don’t think it’s written right.. EDIT – thank you to the commenter who identified it as the appropriate song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

Bones and pentagons.. if I ever start a band that's what I'm going to call it.The upper one looks to be a “Dem Bones” reference, including the optional “connected to the trombone” verse.  The bottom I’m guessing is just a display of the various forms of the pentagon, and between that and some of the math art, I’m wondering if one of the artists who designed the work down here was inspired by Donald in Mathmagic Land.

And in the event of a fire, the eastbound and westbound platforms can be sealed off from each other.  There’s also an elaborate ventilation system in case of fire or other emergencies in the tunnel, preventing smoke inhalation deaths that have happened in other rail tunnel fires.

Won DoorWon door on the eastern side

Let’s head up

(if you need a trash can or want to buy a ticket, you’re going to have to – no ticket machines or garbage cans at the platform level.)

Elevators16 million years ago to the present

Elevator at platform level

Going up...

Elevator at the surface level

...going down

The elevators in the tunnel are pretty neat – there are two elevators at each end of the platform, and they only have two stops (the platform and the surface).  Instead of floor level, they list your elevation above sea level, with an engraving under the elevation display showing a cutout of the West Hills. The elevators on the west side of the platform are closer to the Forestry Center and the ones on the east side are closer to the Zoo.

The elevators also make about as much noise as the trains do.

Once you get to the top…

Zoo entranceBeautiful Oregon day!

The Zoo also gives you a discount on admission if you show your TriMet ticket when you go in.  Not a bad deal.

Don’t be a dumbass in the tunnel

NO TRESPASSING!No trespassing!

Do not attempt to walk through the tunnels. You’ll either be hit by a train or arrested on charges of interfering with public transportation.

Don’t try to drive through the tunnels either.  Seriously.

If you’re going up to the zoo or Forestry Center, take the elevators.  That’s why they are there.  Do not take the stairs.  The stairs are not there for general public use, and I believe trying to open the door sets off an alarm (and it’s a looooong climb up anyway!)

About photographs

Obviously, I’ve taken lots of photos in the tunnel, and so have many other people.  However, I’d once been informed (not while I was taking any pics and after I’d already taken dozens!) that technically you’re not allowed to take photos in the tunnel for homeland security reasons, etc.  All activity in the tunnel is monitored – there are cameras everywhere on the platform and motion detectors that go off if anything other than a train is in the bores. So what I’m getting at is that if you do go taking pics down there, there’s a possibility that a TriMet security person is going to show up and ask you what you’re up to. I’ve never seen this actually happen, but I sort of feel obligated to throw it out there that it could happen.

Inuit proverb

18 responses to “The Robertson Tunnel

  1. By any chance, do you know the signal numbers of all of the signals in the tunnel in both directions in both bores??

    Haha, don’t ask, it’s a long story…


    • Of course! Sure it’s trivia, but let’s be honest, so is everything else I’ve ever posted.

      Westbound bore signals in order from east to west (a * indicates it’s used only by trains running east in the westbound):
      W186, W218* and W226 (both on the platform), W288*, W358*, W356

      Eastbound bore signals in order from east to west (again, a * indicates it’s used only by trains running west in the eastbound):
      W182*, W214 and W222* (both on the platform), W284, W354, W352*

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  3. The music: “I’ve been working on the railroad.”

    At first glance, the time signature seemed off, but that’s because the huge black gaps in light “read” as the ends of bars to my eye, even though they’re not. (There’s only one actual bar-line in that photo, positioned before the last two chords.) Joining the dotted-eighths with their sixteenths would make it easier to read (as is done here — btw, that’s in key of G, one full tone higher than the tunnel version). But the tunnel version isn’t wrong, it’s just hard to read.

  4. Randolph Miller

    I love exploring tunnels. I really wish if someday the MAX had to be shutdown for maintenance or something they could allow people to walk through the tunnel. I’d seriously walk all the way from one end to the other. It’s only a few miles. It would only take me a few hours for the round trip.

    • It’s about 3 miles each way, and the west portal is at a higher elevation than the east end, so it would take a while to get through. And I think because of Homeland Security reasons, it won’t be opened to the public even though there probably are a lot of people who would be interested in doing that.

  5. TriMet should totally have a once-a-year “tunnel day” where maybe you get in groups of 10 and a supervisor takes you for a little tour.

    I think DHS would be a total bullshit cop-out excuse. Consider that you can currently take a tour of the Bull Run reservoir; or the bridge pedal which allows you to get on the top deck of the Fremont bridge, or the fact that I’ve taken a tour where I went INSIDE the Morrison bridge — while it lifted!

    • That’s just what I had been told. They don’t even do full tunnel tours for new rail operator trainees anymore, that stopped years ago.

      But I agree though, I wish there were opportunities for people to be more involved in the system.

  6. TriMet also gives tours to VISITORS of the rail maintenance facilities, yard, etc (ex: for Railvolution). Why can’t they offer that to people who actually live here and pay for the system?

  7. Interesting question: Every time I’ve gone through the tunnel either direction for the past 13 years, whenever I pass over the western-most IJ’s (by signals W354 & W356, from what I gather), there is a huge pressure change and my ears try to go shut. It only happens at these particular points along the tunnel, and it never fails to happen when I go either way on any type of train. Can you shed some light on why this happens?

    • I’m no scientist, but that’s basically just caused by the train displacing air in the tunnel which lowers the air pressure in the train & in your head. It’s not associated with where those signals are, but that’s probably just about the right distance from the west portals to have that effect. There was one operator who hated the sensation so much that he never ran full speed in the tunnel to prevent it from happening.

  8. I see. That makes sense. Thank you.

  9. Does anyone know where the deepest spot in the tunnel is actually located? What part of the city?

    • The tunnel is strange in that even though you’re deep under the surface from there, it’s also the highest elevation above sea level along the MAX alignment. The lowest elevation in the tunnel is right at the east portal before Goose Hollow, which is about 220′ above sea level, and the highest elevation is at the west portal which is about 600′ above sea level. I’m not sure which spot in the tunnel is the deepest under the surface above though. But that makes the Washington Park platform the highest MAX platform above sea level and simultaneously the deepest platform underground.

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