How to lose a kid in 10 seconds

Preface before the actual post content: TriMet GM Neil McFarlane recently sent out a memo to TriMet employees regarding discussions about TriMet, both in social media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as conversations in public with other employees because “any comment made can become part of a news story.” Neil expressed concerns about misinformation spreading when unofficial sources release any information (e.g. a rider overhearing that service is going to be cut and then blogging about it) and then the media potentially using that as the basis for a story.

I thought it was interesting that no comment was made regarding official TriMet information being wrong, which has been known to happen. Off the top of my head, there was the time that TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch told Oregonian reporter Joseph Rose that the door buttons on the outside of the train are used by passengers to open the doors for themselves when a train arrives at a platform (that’s not really how they work), and the time last year when TriMet was promoting 4th of July events that you could not actually travel to and from by taking TriMet. And someone who wasn’t a rail operator (because anyone who is rail certified would know better) told KGW and other news outlets that the door buttons on the outside of the train are “emergency stop buttons.”

Seriously TriMet, my kingdom for an official release, webpage, something on what those door buttons are and how they work.

I don’t know… just because something is official doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be correct, and just because something is unofficial doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. But I will follow the rules and again state (also in my disclaimer at the bottom of every page as well as on my “About” page) that I am not a TriMet spokesman, this blog is not an official TriMet publication, and if you want the official TriMet answer to something, please use the official contact channels. At the same time, I want to continue writing about the trains because I think it’s a good thing when passengers take an interest in the system and how things work, and it’s not like there are any official TriMet blogs handling that. So I make every effort to present factually correct information, whether I’m talking with passengers in person or posting here. Even though it’s all unofficial.

That being said, there was a recent news story I wanted to comment on from my own personal perspective. I’ve held off for a while since I don’t want to violate any TriMet policies, so that’s why I wanted to make it clear now that these are my thoughts and not any sort of official statement.


Quick! Spot the two-year-old in this picture.

A few weekends ago at the Albina/Mississippi platform, a father traveling with his two-year-old in a bike trailer was separated from her when he put her on the train along with his bike, then got off the train to load the trailer, at which point the train left the platform with the child still on board.

The video at KPTV is one of the clearest versions of the platform footage posted online, and while the person boarding with a bike is visible, it’s next to impossible to see a child with him. Following the timer of the video, the doors open at 9 seconds, you can see someone board with a bicycle at about 15 seconds, then there is no movement in or out of the train between 16 and 22 seconds. At 23 seconds a guy (the father) exits the train and goes under the shelter, the doors are closing at 25 seconds, the guy tries to reboard at 26 seconds, but the train leaves the platform. The father insisted that the operator must not have been paying attention, and many people still agree that the father was right and the operator was wrong, even though comments became far less critical of the operator after the platform footage was released.

So, we’re going to go over platform stops to give you a better idea of what it’s like from the perspective of the cab, what your operator is doing up there, and how separations like this could happen.

Coming into a platform, one of the main concerns operators have is “is anyone likely to walk or fall in front of me?” If you’re waiting at a platform to board a train, please do your part to help and wait behind the white tactile strip.

I don’t trust that this guy will stay safely away from the train

Of course, operators can’t stare fixedly at the tactile strip because that runs the risk of missing other safety hazards around the platform, and there are a lot of things operators have to keep an eye on.

Here are two video clips showing the approach into and stops at two different platforms. I don’t have any video of what an operator sees while watching people board, because that’s a difficult angle to get unless you’re operating the train (if you’re riding in the cab window, the view you get in the mirror pretty much looks like this), and since I won’t take pics/video while operating, there’s not much I can do to show you how it looks. But this at least shows a lot of the types of visual information an operator gets on approach.

This first video is westbound into Civic Drive, which was pretty quiet as far as passenger loads go. But I like this as an example because of the crossing gates immediately before the platform. Operators coming into Civic Drive from this direction are going to be scanning the pedestrian crossings on both sides of the street, watching for cars or cyclists that may attempt to get around the lowered gates, and ensuring that the crossing gates/lights are all functioning properly. This is representative of many platforms in ABS territory.

This second video is eastbound into Kings Hill/SW Salmon. More people on this platform than there were at Civic Drive (though not a packed platform by any stretch of the imagination), and we’ll still be checking pedestrian crosswalks into the platform. Since we’re running in pre-empt territory here next to cars, additional hazards to scan for are cars or cyclists from the next lane coming into the rail right of way, and also cars making a left turn on red prior to the platform.

In addition to location-specific things as mentioned above, there are general things to check for at every platform. You’ll see operators scanning platforms looking for anyone waiting to board who will need the bridgeplates deployed. This is something passengers can do for themselves outside the train if the operator doesn’t do it, but it’s faster if the operator does it because then you don’t have to wait for those doors to close and reopen. And operators will also be doing an overall check of each platform – is there anyone on the platform who looks like they need medical (or police) attention, is the track clear, are there any safety hazards like a broken tactile strip, etc. Finally, operators will also be looking at the berthing marker, which is that white horizontal line at the end of each platform that shows where to stop.

Coupler over berthing marker

Then while at the platform, the operator will open the doors while watching the mirrors or camera monitors that people are getting on and off the train. They will also be keeping an eye on the signal (and at many platforms in pre-empt territory, also watching the auto traffic signals to time when to call the pre-empt), checking the time against the paddle to make sure they are not ahead of or behind schedule, and possibly answering passenger questions while the train is stopped or communicating with Control if necessary.

When it’s time to depart, the operator will close the doors (a reasonable rule of thumb is to wait for about 5 seconds of no one boarding or exiting the train before closing the doors), ensure they have a proper signal, ring the bell, and go. The video of this incident showed 6 seconds of no activity, and then a guy darting off, which happens sometimes (the “Oh wait, this is my stop!” maneuver). Why would you reasonably expect him to get back on the train after it’s been sitting there with the doors open for a while?

So even though the men and women operating your trains are in fact devastatingly brilliant, there’s actually not a lot of time left over after doing all of that to spend memorizing every person on the platform and who they are with. It’s sort of like one of those old memory tests from grade school where you’re shown a bunch of random pictures for 30 seconds  and then have to identify which ones have vanished or changed position. In this case, sure, the operator probably saw the father/daughter on the platform while coming in to the stop, but didn’t have the recall to know that the person who got off the train at the last second was the father leaving without his child because of everything else they were concentrating on. And also keep in mind that the trains are about 200 feet long – there are a lot of doors and passengers to scan in the mirror, not just one.

Westbound into Pioneer Square North

Overall, what I’m getting at is that the operator is responsible for the safety of the train as a whole (which includes being prepared to stop if a car or person enters the right of way), but passengers have to show personal responsibility as well. While no one wants to intentionally separate a child from his or her parents, it really is up to the parents to look out for the safety of their children on and around the trains because that’s part of being a parent, and it is not part of an operator’s job description to be a babysitter. I can’t imagine any situation in which I’d put a 2 year old on a train and turn my back on her to exit the train. However, if I were so inclined and someone let me borrow their toddler, I bet you I could very easily put the child on a train and exit without the operator knowing I did it. Since no platform is perfectly clear what with ticket machines, shelters, schedule information, trees, architecture, artwork, and other people present, it’s not hard to not be seen by an operator as a train comes in to a platform, and since the operator’s attention is on a number of different things to keep everyone safe, it’d be easy to get on the train, leave the child and get right back off. This has nothing to do with the quality or training of the operator and everything to do with the actions of the passenger.

Native Norwegian and fellow blogger EMS had written about the differences in cultures where trains are common, drawing from her own experiences growing up in Norway. I don’t have a link available, but I remember she had talked about how in Norway people acted much differently around the trains both on foot and driving because they were an expected part of the landscape, and she saw very different behavior here where trains are comparatively newer. And I think there’s something to that – maybe because rail in Portland is relatively new, maybe because our light rail acts like a streetcar downtown but a commuter rail to the suburbs and because of that streetcarishness, people expect the trains to wait for them or think they can stop on a dime, I don’t know. But in areas where commuting by train is common, these kinds of separations are not – like one commenter over at the Oregonian said:

I grew up in New York City. My family lived in the outer boroughs and owned a car, so we didn’t do too much subway riding, but when we did I remember very clearly the lesson I got EVERY time: If the doors close and Mommy is on the platform and you’re on the train, get off at the next stop and wait for Mommy to take the next train and find you. If the doors close and you’re on the platform, stay there; Mommy will go to the next stop, switch directions, and come back for you.

That speech is a rite of passage for NYC kids. You don’t hear many stories of parent-child separations on the subway, but you’d better believe every kid in the city (and every parent) knows what to do if it happens. And nobody sues the MTA over it.

It’d be nice if that level of common sense existed in Portland.

Personally I think this is a really good idea, and while I don’t know how well that would work with a two-year old, I’d hope that parents of slightly older children will teach them some sort of plan like that in case of separation on the trains.

And a final note about bicycles..

Picture borrowed from Bike Portland – please don’t do this.

This whole issue stemmed from the fact that the father tried to bring a bike trailer onto the train, yet bike trailers are not permitted on TriMet vehicles. The bike hooks on the trains are designed for standard-sized bicycles – not tandems, cargo bikes or bikes with atypically large frames (e.g. Xtracycles), or bicycles with trailers. This is not done as a slight against bicyclists, it’s just an issue of space and safety – the doors and aisles of the train must be kept clear in case evacuation is needed. I understand that the hill between Albina/Mississippi and Overlook is steep and I wouldn’t really want to do it on a bicycle while towing something, but there are very clear rules about the types of bicycles that are permitted on TriMet vehicles.


One response to “How to lose a kid in 10 seconds

  1. WOW!
    Impressive piece of journalistic work here!

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