The bells are ringing

I’ve been mulling over a post recently made by Neil McFarlane (General Manager of TriMet) to TriMet employees:

The MAX incident on Friday evening was the first fatality on my watch. We are all saddened, and offer our thoughts and prayers to Ms. Sullivan’s friends and family. This is also what motivates us to continue our safety work apace. There are some new facts, it appeared from video that Ms. Sulllivan reached out to steady herself on a moving train. That resulted in her being spun around and falling into the ‘gap’ between the two coupled cars. We will review the incident fully — but the clear lesson we will be telling our customers is ‘step back’ when a train enters the station. Stay behind the bumpy white strip, and its best to step back even further — first to allow exiting passengers off — but second to provide a little safety buffer. (Initial reports were that a cane tip was stuck between the LRV and platform edge — but the video showed that was not the case). So in your travels as TriMet safety ambassadors (we all are!) — help emphasize — ‘step back’ when the train enters the station. Thanks Neil

I’ve been talking with other operators and reading what non-TriMet people have to say about making it clear when a train is about to move. Over at the Oregonian and on Twitter, some commenters raised the point that the “the doors are closing” announcement sometimes happens long before the train actually moves, which catches some people off guard when the train actually begins moving. I also saw suggestions, such as in the conversation I had with Intersection911, that an audible announcement should be made stating when the train was about to move. Others brought up that we already have something like that, though not in so many words, or really in any words at all:

In each clip, you hear two short bell sounds before the train begins moving forward. This is a requirement no matter where the train is (on the mainline or in the yards, in or out of service).

From the rail operator rule book

Regular commuters are probably aware of the two-bell sound indicating that the train is about to move forward even if they haven’t ever given it conscious thought. However this is not promoted to the public, at least as far as I’ve seen, and it really should be. Not everyone on or near MAX trains is from the Portland area or is familiar with how the trains move. But it shouldn’t be difficult for the marketing department to come up with some channel cards to put on the trains (and buses) with a message saying something like “Hear two bells: Watch for moving trains!” Maybe even take out ads in the paper or on TV letting people know to be well away from the tactile strip when they hear two bells since the train is about to move.

Would that have saved Sandy Sullivan’s life? I don’t know, but it just seems like a good idea to take steps like this to be proactive in preventing accidents, and in the interest of being “safety ambassadors” as Neil described. And this is an easy way to do it, since it’s building off of something that rail operators are already doing, and just driving the point home to the public that that’s what those sounds mean.

Random trivia – the two-bell sound is also featured in the beginning of the “Chillaxin on the MAX” song.



14 responses to “The bells are ringing

  1. The two “sounds” before moving is pretty standard at most other rail properties that I’ve been to in North America. Some, like San Diego, do not use a bell at all, but more of a “buzzer”, in addition to their air horns (which are seldom used, surprisingly, at least in my limited interaction with that system). However, the buzzer sounds at all cabs and couplings (they run three and 4 car trains there). It’s quite attention getting, and there’s no mistake that the train is about to move. How to retrofit that on all of TriMet’s varied equipment… ???

    • Would it be necessary to retrofit anything since bells and horns are already standard issue on the fleet? I was thinking more of a “how to keep the public away from trains that are about to move” kind of thing.

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  3. That is not a bad idea at all! I think TriMet should look into getting some audible notification at all cabs and couplers!

  4. Honestly, I don’t think the bells do an effective job of warning the public. They are muted and blend in with so many other sounds, and they just don’t have the tone needed to blare out “ATTENTION!”

    Whistle or bell signals may have great significance if you are trained to listen to them, but how many people of the general public do? How many people actually realize that when a mainline train (i.e. WES, but not MAX) approaches a grade crossing, that the train is supposed to blow two long whistles, one short whistle, and then one final long whistle that is to remain blowing until the train reaches the crossing? And in the “real” railroad world, two short blasts of the whistle does not mean “the train is about to move” but is simply an acknowledgment of a signal.

    It also does not help that the bell is located at the front of the train, so someone standing further back along the train might not even notice the bell.

    An audible, voice announcement played on the public address system (which has multiple speakers along the train) would convey a more meaningful message to passengers. Also, when I rode the subways in Germany, the PA usually used a very loud buzzer/beeper sound when immediate attention was needed.

    Thus, what one should here is “BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! STAND CLEAR, the Train is Departing, STAND CLEAR!”

    This is similar to the announcements heard on Metrolink trains in Los Angeles (which has had more than its share of fatalities, unfortunately…)

  5. I’m a little surprised that operators don’t use the horns more than they do, especially on high speed sections of the westside corridor and in downtown. Bells on fast moving trains aren’t audible until they’re too close to react, and the din of downtown is loud enough to drown out the bells (particularly near Pioneer Square and Ankeney Arcade).

  6. I think it would be really good to have the bells/horns from all 4 cabs in a 2 car consist activate when the operator presses the appropriate button in the active cab. It really makes me nervous in the yard to back up a train when the warning sounds are coming from the cab I’m in rather than the end that will make contact with someone.
    I can also see the benefit of this in service where we have so many people thinking that it is ok to walk on the tactile strip when the train is departing. It would definitely improve our audibility in all situations.

    • At least in the yard the sound carries a bit better than it does downtown!

      • Or at the high speed sections of the Oregon Electric Railway line on the westside. Seems like the horn would be more appropriate than the bell out there. I’m going to have to go out on a limb and say the folks living on the line knew what they were getting into given the line’s existed for 90 years now.

    • Seems silly for all cabs to sound (particularly middle cabs). Perhaps the lead cab depending on what the reverser is set to. Coincidentally, about the only job that would keep me in Portland at this point would be driving the MAX.

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