Hand signals

I’ve been looking at videos of the Shinkansen (the Japanese Bullet Train) on Youtube. I’ve never been to Japan, but if I ever get the opportunity to go, you can bet I will make it a point to ride the Shinkansen. More than once!

If you watch the videos, you’ll see the operator pointing at a lot of things. I think the pointing is fascinating – as best as I can tell, they’re trained to point at signals and speed signs. I wonder what the reasoning is behind that – to keep them from going on autopilot?  To ensure that they know where the signals and signs are? So that they can’t use “I didn’t see it” as an excuse if something happens?

It’d be interesting if they tried to implement something like this at TriMet.  I don’t think it’s necessary (we have the ATS magnets which will stop the train if an operator tries to go past an ABS signal that doesn’t have an indication to proceed). But it’s an interesting approach to staying alert – I know during training, new operators will be quizzed while operating (“What was the aspect of the signal you just passed? So what will the next signal be? Will there be another signal between you and the next platform?” etc) that help the students learn where to watch for signals on the alignment, and some students will continue to talk through those locations as they learn. But beyond that, there’s nothing like the pointing at signs or signals like the Shinkansen operators do.

MAX Hand Signals

MAX light rail hand signalsKind of looks like instructions for a line dance arranged this way.  Try this at the next wedding you go to.

MAX operators follow hand signals, but unlike the Shinkansen operators, don’t really give them while operating (and a friendly wave to the operators of trains or buses you pass doesn’t count).  Rail hand signals are one of the first things that operators are trained to do – by the end of day one we could all demonstrate & understand the hand signals for stop, stop at a particular spot, proceed, reduce speed, proceed AT a reduced speed, and back up.  And we learned how to acknowledge those signals from inside the train to let the signaler know we understood.  For the most part as a passenger, you probably won’t notice anyone giving hand signals to the train that you’re on, though sometimes you’ll be able to see workers in the right of way giving a proceed sign (“while facing the operator, raise and lower the arm vertically alongside the body”) to a train.

One of my first experiences with hand signals outside of the classroom (not counting workers in the right of way telling me to proceed) was on my last trip of my last day of line training – Control called my train to inform me that there had just been a car accident not far past a few platforms ahead of where I was. A car had crossed into the right of way and was stuck inches from the westbound track, and I was going to be the first westbound train through there, so I had to call Control for further instructions before leaving the platform closest to the accident.  My line trainer said he was comfortable letting me handle this if I wanted but he’d take over if I didn’t feel up to it.  I told him I wanted to do it, so when I got to that platform (and called Control telling them that I was there!), I left at walking speed and stopped where a supervisor on the ground told me to. Then I proceeded very slowly on his signal, reducing my speed even further as directed via hand signals while another supervisor checked alongside my train by the car to make sure there was clearance for me to keep going. There was *just* enough room for my train to pass without making contact with the car at that slow speed – the natural sideways sway of the train at full speed would’ve probably hit the car.

I had been running several minutes late (due to a mistake on my part when I had been westbound at Rose Quarter, I timed my calling my signal wrong and it timed out back to a red before I got my doors closed) and I was far too new to be able to make up for that lost time and get back on schedule – in fact I think I fell even further behind schedule. In retrospect I’m glad I was late, because if I was on time, that car might’ve crashed into me had I been going through that part of the alignment at the full speed.

Upcoming posts – more in-depth descriptions of the train cars, the overhead catenary systems, and a list of questions from one of the readers here.  So that should keep me busy for a while!


6 responses to “Hand signals

  1. I have to say I’ve thought about going out to the end of a platform and giving the “stop here” signal and seeing what the operator’s response would be.

    • Well sort of like pulling the emergency brake in the train, you better have a good reason for it since I imagine that could be filed under interfering with public transit.
      An operator will stop the train if someone who isn’t a supervisor or other TriMet personnel is waving wildly trying to get the operator’s attention, since you don’t know if that means “help, my car broke down in the ROW ahead of you” or “someone fainted off the platform and fell in the tracks” or something of that sort. But you don’t stop a train for frivolous reasons.

      • Well, I’ll agree that I’m not exactly authorized to give signals, however I would just be telling them to do what they normally should be doing–stop once they reach the end (as in the far end) of the station platform. As well as using a known hand signal to do it. And I don’t think its anything like pulling a mushroom (red emergency door open lever), since it doesn’t create an incident that has to be dealt with. Especially since I’ve read of an incident where they were not able to reset it and the train had to be taken out of service.

  2. I don’t mean this in a creeper-like way, but I find it very fascinating to watch rail operators and train engineers doing their jobs. There’s always so much going on and you can tell by just watching them and how focused they are.

    That video was simply fantastic!


  3. I wish auto drivers could understand hand signals: “slow down!” “You have the right-of-way”, “Turn down the boombox!”, “Where’s your turn signal?”. “There’s a crosswalk here!”, “Oregon law now makes talking on your cellphone while driving illegal!”

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