Monthly Archives: September 2010

This job will kill you

So by now you’ve probably seen in the news that Neil McFarlane, General Manager of TriMet has stated that despite the terms of the union contract which would maintain the status quo until a new contract was agreed upon, TriMet union employees are going to have to start paying some of their health care coverage. I’m not even sure he can do that or if it will end up being struck down (like AC Transit) since it seems to go against the mutually agreed upon union contract, but that’s a story for another time.

But I noticed this little exchange over at the Oregonian (summarized)

Al M: [D]on’t blame the rank and file employees for the health care mess, blame the insurance companies. We are getting killed by our occupation. Does anybody think for one minute that the transit workers should just allow our company to kill us while they spend BILLIONS on toy trains? I don’t think so.

NewsHound007: They are killing you? Exactly how, pray tell?

Seeking: Ummm, driving a bus is that hard ? In Afghanistan maybe, certainly not in Portland. It is sickening and amazing when you read postings from the union employees. They are so far removed from the reality of the private sector. Paid medical ? What employer gives that ? I can’t believe these guys want $25 an hour FOR DRIVING A FRIGGEN BUS!!!!!

Afghanistan risks and bus driving risks are two different animals, but that doesn’t mean that this job won’t kill you too. There’s years’ worth of research done by people much smarter than me (and maybe even smarter than you, and other people who comment on Oregonian articles!) who provide pretty solid evidence of the health risks and mortality rates of working as a public transit operator.

I’ll even give you citations, because I am that thorough. I’ve skimmed these articles but haven’t had time to read them yet, and this is far from an exhaustive search.

  • M. Anthony Machin and Nancy Hoare’s “The role of workload and driver coping styles in predicting bus drivers’ need for recovery, positive and negative affect, and physical symptoms” in Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 2008 Volume 21 number 4, pages 359-375.

Cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal problems, high blood pressure, elevated stress hormones.. don’t you want to be a bus driver too?

  • Kjeld B Poulsen’s “The Healthy Bus project in Denmark: need for an action potential assessment” in Health Promotion International, Volume 19 number 2, 2004

Heart morbidity, hypertension, prolapsed vertebral discs, AND cancer?  Not only that, but double the hospitalization risk compared to the rest of the workforce for heart disease!

  • Sybil Carrere, Gary W Evans, M. N. Palsane, and Mary Rivas “Job strain and occupational stress among urban public transit operators in Journal of Occupational Psychology (1991) Volume 64 pages 305-316.

None of this  is news to anyone who has ever worked as a transit operator.

  • John L. M. Tse, Rhoma Flin, and Kathryn Mearns “Bus driver well-being review: 50 years of research” in Transportation Research part F 9 (2006) 89-114:

5 times more likely to suffer from digestive disease compared to office workers?  You don’t say…

But wait, there’s more!

Did you know that the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology dedicated an entire issue (in 1998, volume 3, number 2) to the topic of the effects of being a public transit operator on the human body? I didn’t either, but I do now. Here’s a sampling of the articles in there.

  • From Gunnar Aronsson & Anita Rissler’s “Psychophysiological Stress Reactions in Female and Male Urban Bus Drivers”

Be a bus driver and increase your risk of early death!

  • From Leif W Rydstedt, Gunn Johansson, & Gary Evans’s “The Human Side of the Road: Improving the Working Conditions of Urban Bus Drivers”

Safety vs on-time performance, and they didn’t even mention the customer service aspect.

  • From Birgit A Greiner, Nklas Krause, David Ragland, & June M. Fisher’s “Objective Stress Factors, Accidents, & Absenteeism in Transit Operators: A Theoretical Framework and Empirical Evidence”

I know several operators who had to retire because of disabilities they developed on the job

  • From Theo F. Miejman & Michiel A. J. Kompier “Bussy Business: How Urban Bus Drivers Cope with Time Pressure, Passengers, and Traffic Safety”

That about sums it up nicely

I can provide the entire reference lists from these articles if anyone is interested in the topic. I have full copies of these articles, courtesy of a couple of students who were willing to help me out with getting all of this, but I don’t think I can post the full articles here since that’s probably copyright violation of some kind or another. So far I’ve been able to write here without drawing the wrath of TriMet… I don’t really need to invoke the wrath of copyright holders.

So yeah, bus and rail operators get decent health benefits.  You know why?

Because their jobs kill them!

Like a lot of TriMet operators, I know what it’s like working a desk job because I’ve done that. I find it interesting that people who work desk jobs are so quick to judge transit operators, considering all of the luxuries desk workers take for granted:

  • Generally speaking, you can use the restroom whenever you need.
  • Hungry? You can also use the vending machine/cafeteria/coffee maker/etc pretty much whenever you need to
  • Your work may be stressful, but the odds of someone dying if you mess up are generally extremely low. So you don’t have that hanging over your head.
  • Related to that, if you didn’t sleep well the night before, dozing off at your desk could be embarrassing if you’re caught, but it won’t kill anyone.
  • Your office is probably climate-controlled, and you have little exposure to fumes, dust, or people who physically threaten your safety, hit you, or spit on you.
  • Either you or someone you know has probably spent some time on the job checking personal email, using Facebook, watching Youtube videos, etc

Your bus and rail operators don’t have these luxuries. Sometimes it’s a miracle to get to the end of the line with just enough time to run to the bathroom and run back just to do it all over again. For more on this, read this fantastic piece over at Puget Sound Transit Operators.

Consider these points as well –

  • Have you ever made a long road trip where you drove 8-10 hours in a day? How did you feel? Was it physically rough on your body? Were you able to take breaks when you needed to? Did you drive 8-10 hours again the next day? And the next? And the day after that?
  • Have you ever ridden a bus (or train) that smelled like wet dog or death or raw sewage and you couldn’t wait to just go home and get in a shower because of how disgusting that bus made you feel? Aren’t you glad you were able to get out of that situation?
  • Don’t you just love riding the bus during cold/flu season when the guy sitting in front of you sounds like he’s dying of tuberculosis? Good thing you’re not on that bus all day exposed to everything that passes through!
  • How often has your work environment maintained temperatures over 100°F for the duration of your shift?

Is driving a bus the worst job in the world? No, but it’s physically and psychologically demanding, and operators earn every bit of the compensation they receive. And the fact is, TriMet operator benefits are not a free ride, though didn’t that make a wonderfully sensationalistic headline in the Oregonian? Operators work for their pay and benefits, and they work hard.

Hey Joseph Rose, every couple of weeks, do you get free money from the Oregonian?

See, all this time I’ve been assuming that you work for your wages/benefits, and then you get appropriately compensated. It seems you don’t think that’s how it works for operators, so how does it work for you? Am I wrong?

Operators work hard for their compensation too, and a lot of operators can show the physical damage done to their bodies to prove it. Isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to keep operators as healthy as possible?

And yeah, I can already predict the kneejerk response to this – “If operating sucks so much, quit!” The thing is, operating doesn’t suck, not all aspects of it anyway. A lot of it is pretty great. But sometimes it almost seems like TriMet is a small child that wants a puppy, or in their case, trains (and sometimes buses). Sure getting a puppy is a lot of fun, everyone loves puppies, you can play with it and take it for walks and stuff. But you also have to take care of it, feed it, bring it to the vet even when that’s expensive, and clean up after it. Kids who get a puppy learn that not all the aspects of having a pet are as fun as playing with it. In the same way, given TriMet’s dedication to expanding rail service, they’re going to need operators (and maintenance workers, and Controllers/Dispatchers, and supervisors, etc) to run it. And they’re going to have to take care of those operators if they want to push service expansions, because that’s part of owning that transportation system, even though taking care of your employees doesn’t give you nearly as many good photo ops as a new rail line opening or a shiny new train will.

Boy, aren’t those pretty! Isn’t that what matters?

Operators have every right to be upset about the way this was handled, because not only does it look like it’s going against the terms of the union contract, but the media plays it up as just a bunch of overpaid workers ending their “free ride” and of course the public is only too-willing to jump in and bash operators who just want to do their jobs and get what was mutually agreed as compensation for their work.

Yeah, thanks a lot for that.

Guard rails

Question: What are the extra rails for?

Extra rails between the rails

EMS has already done this one, but I don’t remember where that post was – if I can find it I’ll add a link.

Passengers looking out the window will sometimes notice (especially along the Banfield) what looks like extra rail laying in the track. It looks a bit haphazardly placed along the Banfield so it’s not as obvious what it’s for as it is when you see it placed symmetrically, like in the above picture which is the overpass just east of Sunset TC.

These guard rails are placed as added protection in case of derailment in high speed areas. Granted, derailment isn’t good under any circumstances, but there are some areas where a derailed train would be more catastrophic than others. So you’ll see guard rails wherever trains go over an overpass, like above..

82nd Ave looking west

…or under them, like here at the NE 82nd Avenue platform. In both cases, derailments would be extremely dangerous and could potentially cause serious structural damage to the overpass – to say nothing of the damage to the people inside the train – so the extra rails are placed as added protection should the wheels leave the rails they’re supposed to be on. Derailment along flat terrain is obviously not ideal, but a train derailing into or off of a bridge is far worse.

Or doing this

Looking out the trailing cab of an eastbound train at Beaverton Central

You can also see those extra rails placed around curves, like in this picture looking west from Beaverton Central, or like this picture I’ve already posted looking east at Gateway. All of these examples are in t-rail, not girder rail.

2008 derailment downtown, SW Morrison & 11th

Trains can still derail in girder rail, but guard rails aren’t used in that type of rail – I think both the physical structure of girder rail and the low speeds that trains travel through areas with girder rail wouldn’t benefit from adding in guard rails.

Car assignments

Welcome, people coming over from Dave Knows Portland! It’s pretty flattering to be listed in the Transit Blogroll of 2010 considering I had been reading Dave Knows Portland for a while before I entered the blog world. So back when I saw this train several months ago, I took a picture of it in a “hey, I know that blog!” kind of moment. It’s kind of nice to have an on-topic reason to post it.

 Car 306

And then to actually give this post some substance, a tie-in to a reader question and similar questions I saw a lot of when the Type 4s went into service last year but have subsided now that pretty much everyone has ridden on them:

I want to ride a Type 4 – is there a specific time and place that one is guaranteed to pass through?  What about finding a particular car (like the Dave Knows Portland car)? Do operators pick what cars they take out in the morning?

If an operator has a run that involves taking a train out of the yard, they’ll be given storage information that’s assigned from Control – it says which track and what space(s) their car(s) is(are) in. An operator doesn’t just walk out to the yard, find a set of cars they like and take those out. Control would not approve of that – they keep track of how the cars are stored in the yard. If an operator has a run that involves storing a train in the yard, they get their storage instructions from Control when they leave the mainline and enter the yard.

So if you’re looking for a Type 4 or a particular train car, where it’s going to be will depend on how the train had been stored in the yard previously and how the Controller made the car assignments. For example, just because you saw train 42 as a Type 4 one day doesn’t mean that it will be a Type 4 the following day. Furthermore, some trains that start the day in one yard end in the other, so a train that might have been on the Yellow/Green Line one day (ends in the Ruby Junction yard) could be assigned to a Blue Line the next day that ends in the Elmonica yard and becomes a Red Line the day after that. And of course, there’s always the possibility that a train has a mechanical failure or biohazard and gets taken out of service to the yard that’s closer. Also if things go really bad on the alignment or if there are severe weather conditions, all bets are off as to where any particular train is going to be at any time (while waiting for that broken Type 4 to clear that tied up rush hour for several hours in June, some Yellow/Greens were turned back near Lloyd Center and got sent out to Hatfield at the end of the Blue Line in Hillsboro even though those runs never go to the west side and those trains weren’t technically on a Blue Line run, but it’s what needed to be done)

So basically, you can’t really predict where any particular train or cars are going to be. Sometimes they’ll be used on the same run more than one day in a row, but it all depends on how they were stored and how the Controller makes the assignments to send them out. Even then, there are so many other factors that can interfere with train movement that there’s no way to tell for sure that a run is guaranteed to have a particular train car on it.


Via Portland Afoot – TriMet’s proposed cuts to save money on the upcoming light rail line to Milwaukie.

Relevant to my interests –

  • Deleting ice caps on overhead caternary system: $1.1 million
  • Deleting track switch heaters: $1 million

I want to say that I can’t believe TriMet would seriously be so shortsighted to think that ice caps and switch heaters are a design feature that can be cut from the Orange Line Milwaukie light rail project to save money, but sadly of course I can. This isn’t the first time and it’s not going to be the last that there is a disconnect the size of Russia between the people who plan these things and the frontline workers (and riders!) that actually have to deal with the fallout of bad decision making.

Never mind the fact that TriMet spent $1,510,000 of stimulus money installing switch heaters and ice caps after the snow storm a few winters ago shut down sections of the alignment for days. Remember that?

Switches freezing at Gateway, ice building upon the overhead, trains not running on any kind of predictable schedule with bus bridge operators doing their best to get through it and haul around people who can’t opt to work from home in inclement weather?

Yet somehow that’s all in the distant past, so snow and ice measures are optional enough to float as proposed cuts to the Milwaukie rail project?

I also saw in the list of cuts that the art budget is going to be reduced by 10%, saving $320,000. Look, instead of needing to retrofit the alignment with critical features like switch heaters, how about we hold off on the art for now and retrofit that later instead? I’m not anti-art, I think in a lot of cases it can be pretty useful in that it can act as a graffiti deterrent on platforms. But does it add the same value to the line as things that will actually keep the trains running? Of course not.

On top of that there is also the planned reduction of bike parking from 460 spots to 413. No other details are given, so I don’t know if that means bike staples, lockers, or more bike and rides. If it’s the latter, can we please give up on that, after the not-really-a-smashing-success the one at Sunset has been? Two months after it opened and I’ve never seen more than 4 bikes in it at once.

But no, in their lack of concern for actual function, consideration is being given to removing aspects of the rail alignment that will keep it running during snowstorms.  Hey, maybe they should incorporate that into the Milwaukie Light Rail tag line!  How about

Milwaukie Light Rail

Enjoy it in the warmer months because when it snows you’ll be taking a bus anyway!


Question: What do you mean by “circuit”, anyway?

I’ve mentioned rail circuits in a number of posts but I’ve never really explained them. So that’s what this post is for.

Don’t step on the rails

The rails are actually electric circuits – there is an electric current passing through the rails on all parts of the alignment. The voltage is low (15-25 volts) so it’s not harmful, but it’s just one of those “best practices” to not step directly on a rail. I’ve never heard of a person getting shocked by them, though there have been problems in the past of service dogs (see attachments 3 & 4 for TriMet specific examples) being shocked when stepping on the rails, particularly in wet conditions. As far as I know, that problem has been resolved and hasn’t happened in years.

Insulated Joints

The boundary between two circuits in the track is called the insulated joint. You won’t see these from the train, but you can feel/hear them as the train passes over them.

Insulated joint.  I forget where specifically this was taken.

I don’t have any video that I’ve taken myself which provide good audible examples of what it sounds like when a train is going over the insulated joints. Luckily, other Youtube videos provide. I’m shamelessly borrowing these examples – I did not shoot the video in either and take no credit for them.

  • Train at Old Town/Chinatown, video taken from outside the train (link should take you to the right spot at the video, but if not, move the seeker to about 7:11).
  • Train at Merlo Road, video taken from inside the train (at about 1:48)

What you’re listening for is that short sort of skipping sound made as the wheels pass over the joint. On the external example, you can hear it as each of the three wheel trucks on both cars passes over the joints (sounds like 6 sets of 4 clicks); inside the train only one truck is clearly audible.

Insulated joints in CBD – this might be Lloyd Center westbound, I don’t remember

The basic “how it works” principle is that the wheel axles of a train shunt the circuit in the rails, thus detecting the presence of a train in that particular circuit. As the train moves along the alignment, it passes over the insulated joints from one circuit to the next, which indicates what sections of the track are occupied by a train.

So speaking of track occupancy

As you might have guessed, insulated joints and track circuits are directly related to ABS signals.

Bringing up this picture again:

Train movement in the diagram is from left to right. To review, if you’re in ABS territory and you have a green, that means you’re clear for two ABS blocks, or the distance between the next two ABS signals. A yellow tells you that the block ahead of you is open, but there’s a train in the block in front of that. And if you get up to the next ABS signal and it’s red, that means the train in the block in front of you hasn’t left yet.

So how do the signals “know” that there’s a train there?

If a shunt is detected in the rail – meaning that something is going across both rails closing the circuit (namely the wheel axles of the train), the signal displays an aspect that indicates that the circuit is occupied – a red if it’s the circuit immediately after that signal, or a yellow if it’s not the circuit immediately after the signal but the circuit after the next signal.

So when you have a red ABS signal, that means a train is shunting the circuit after that signal and that section of track is occupied. Once that train ahead of you passes the next ABS signal, which will have an insulated joint associated with it, it leaves that circuit and the signal that you’re waiting at will display a permissive aspect. This indicates that the block in front of you is now open.

A good place to see how this works are the ABS signals at platforms. If you’re sitting near the front of the train on the left side, you can watch the signal change from yellow or green to red as you hear the wheels pass over the joint, which indicates that that circuit is now occupied by a train. If you’re sitting further back, the signal will already be red as you pass it. From outside the train, it looks like this:

Eastbound at Beaverton Transit Center

You can’t see it in the above picture, but there is a train immediately to my right that called signal W754 and got a green. Notice the insulated joint right about at the corner of the platform. Once the wheels pass over the insulated joint, shunting the circuit associated with that signal…

The signal becomes red, because now there is a train occupying the circuit. To conserve power, this particular signal will go dark once the circuit at the platform is no longer shunted, but if another train comes into the platform before this train passes the next ABS signal, W754 will display a red aspect again.

A blurry picture, but it was taken from the trailing parlor cab of a Type 4 – so the three wheel trucks of the leading car have already shunted the circuit after the signal, making it appear red for the rest of the train.