(Not quite) open door policy

I am totally doing this to taunt you. That’s how I roll.

Last week, Dr Jeff (fellow blogger and also a super-commuter – as in, his morning commute is Gateway to Hillsboro TC on MAX, then a transfer to the 57 to Forest Grove) encountered the all-too-familiar situation where he sprinted to a train at Gateway and hit the yellow door button, only to watch the train pull out of the platform without him. He blogged in a rather entertaining fashion about what happened, including the ensuing Twitter exchanges with TriMet.

And of course, me being me, I admittedly winced at the role played by the door buttons. Actually, when I die, someone needs to make sure that goes on my tombstone: “Fought the uphill battle of explaining how the MAX door buttons work”  All joking aside though, it sounds like everything in this situation worked the way it should have, including the actions of the operator, even though that meant Dr Jeff missed his train.

Question: Why don’t trains wait?

Some of this will be specific to Dr Jeff’s situation, other parts more general because I know the issue comes up a lot. I get it that it’s extremely frustrating to be on the wrong side of closing doors. I get it that it sucks to bolt for a train only to make eye contact with the operator from a few feet away and then watch the train leave. But there are a lot of factors as to why a train most likely isn’t going to wait for a late runner, and they revolve around how a rail system works and are not about spiting the customer. I mean, it’s not like there’s a “How many late runners did I screw over today by closing the doors as they ran to my train?” club of operators who regularly meet, gloating  “Excellent…” and tenting their fingers as members tell each other stories of stranding passengers. (Though now that I think about it, that sounds kind of fun. Memo to myself: start this club.)

I’ve previously written about why trains on the mall won’t wait for you (short version – the pre-empts cascade which will delay buses if a train does not go when its signal is up).  There are also other areas of the alignment where tight schedule timing means you really can’t expect a train to wait for you, and Gateway is one of them, especially during rush hour.

TriMet TV had an episode about getting left behind, but it didn’t go into a lot of detail about why trains, even more than buses, can’t wait for you. It is more complicated for a train than it is for a bus to wait for a late runner. For one thing, as narrator Shirley mentions, a train waiting for people can make the trains behind it late. As an example, check out the schedule westbound at Gateway in the early morning:

Minutes apart.

Those “Blue Line to Gateway TC” trains listed in the above schedule are actually Green Line trains that are coming into Gateway from Ruby. They go up the auxiliary track into the pocket track, swap cabs, and then go out to Clackamas.

Green waiting in the auxiliary track for a Red coming off the fishhook. Both will be using the pocket track, scheduled about a minute apart with the Red Line going through westbound first, then the Green Line pulling in to swap cabs

I’m not positive which train Dr Jeff tried to get on, but based on the time I am guessing it was 43, which is one that comes into Gateway from the airport as a Blue Line to Hillsboro in the morning. If that’s the case, then that train would’ve come up into the pocket track at Gateway, rather than the westbound mainline.

Gateway Review: The pocket track is the red one in the middle used (mainly) by westbound Red Line trains.

If the train he wanted was in the pocket track, that could be one explanation why it didn’t wait. Trains in the westbound mainline track use signal 72, and that signal does not time out. In other words, I can come into Gateway in the westbound main track, call my signal and sit there, and it will stay permissive for me. However, trains in the pocket track use signal 74, which *will* time out after 90 seconds. So if I come into the pocket track, call my signal and get a green or yellow, but then sit there, after 90 seconds it’ll time out and go back to a red.

Granted I wasn’t there and I don’t know all the circumstances surrounding Dr Jeff’s train leaving that morning, but I’m just throwing it out there that it’s a possibility that if his train was westbound in the pocket track, they did not have time to wait for late runners if they had a permissive aspect on signal 74 because it times out. And given how many trains are moving through Gateway at that hour, waiting to recall it can mess up the schedules of a lot of other trains.

Gateway isn’t the only part of the alignment that can be a time sink if trains aren’t running on schedule. Rose Quarter is another place where you can be locked out by a train making a conflicting move.

Parallel move through Rose Quarter

At Rose Quarter, Yellow Line trains can only make parallel moves with other Yellow Line trains (this is a conflicting move for everyone else) so if a Red, Blue, or Green westbound train gets to Rose Quarter off-schedule, they may have to wait for a Yellow Line to finish going through the interlocking before them. Then on the western side of the bridge is another area for conflicting moves – you may have noticed this eastbound if you are on a train sitting at Old Town/Chinatown or 3rd & Glisan for a while, or westbound if you get stopped on the bridge span at signal 14. Yellows and Greens can make parallel moves on the bridge, and Reds and Blues can make parallel moves, but Yellows and Greens can’t parallel with Reds or Blues. And with a train on the bridge about every 56 minutes of the hour, that’s a lot of opportunities for lost time waiting for a train to finish a conflicting move if the trains are not on schedule.

In other words…

Stop thinking of the trains as isolated vehicles.

They don’t function in isolation, and a delay for a train in one part of the system can ultimately affect other trains in other parts of the system (the whole butterfly effect thing). I realize that the interconnectedness of the trains may not be readily visible to passengers who don’t understand why a train can’t wait just a few more seconds, but that doesn’t make it any less the main reason why trains don’t wait for you. And on a related note, I am not a fan of the “blame the operator” reactions from people who have no concept of what it’s like to operate a train. Obviously, most people haven’t operated trains, and so when people don’t understand how something works at rail and they ask questions, that’s perfectly fine. I am happy to answer questions as are many others. But it does rub me the wrong way when someone who has never operated a train makes assumptions about what will/won’t affect a train’s schedule, and then concludes that the operator must have acted out of spite. From the comments on Dr Jeff’s post:

It *might* have put the driver a fraction of a second behind schedule. It is not that they are cutting off hundreds of extra riders, it is that they are cutting off that last guy who isn’t really late.

 YES they get their jollies about leaving behind a few and quite often its more than one rider running.

But most of the time our transit people here are dicks, and I’m going to bet that driver was too. And yeah, I get having to maintain a schedule, but seriously stopping for someone who is right at the door will not throw them off.

As I said above, it’s really just more in the interest of not making multiple trains late that an operator often will not reopen doors for a late runner. It’s not because I’m out to get you (I haven’t started that club yet). Also keep in mind that there are a number of things outside an operator’s control that can make their train run behind schedule:

DOOR HOLDERS (“here I’ll just hold the door open for you while you buy your tickets from the machine/walk from a block away/finish your conversation/etc”). Yes, you can get on the PA and ask people to stop holding the doors, but many door holders won’t. And you can’t just leave the cab easily to deal with it in person – leaving the cab requires getting permission from Control, keying out, exiting the cab, locking the door, walking back to whatever the problem is, dealing with the problem, keeping Control informed of the situation/outcome, walking back to the cab, etc.

– Slow orders (due to weather, track condition, etc) where you’ll be running below the normal speed limit

– People who don’t realize they’re leaning against the bridgeplate button and therefore the ramp comes out at every. single. stop. Again, you can get on the PA and ask people to check if they’ve got something leaning against the button, but if it’s in the trailing car and the person doing it is obliviously rocking out on their headphones, they’re not going to hear you.

Workers/walking inspections in the ROW, where in high speed areas you drop your speed to 35mph until you pass them. This is a safety issue and you do not violate it.

– Mechanical issues with your train or one in front of you


Please do not be this kind of driver. That train can’t move until the Tahoe gets out of the way. Why the Tahoe driver thought it’s a good idea to be hanging out over railroad tracks like that is anyone’s guess, but this is hardly an isolated incident.

This happens all the time downtown – cars fouling the ROW because they just HAVE to get through the intersection before a train does. Problem is, trains take up more space than just that area between the rails. If the back of your car is hanging over the different color concrete, you’re in the way.

All of these things can slow a train by seconds or even minutes, and those delays can really add up from one end of the line to the other, and there’s not much you can do as an operator to control it. But the one thing that an operator *can* control to reduce delays is not reopening doors for late runners. So even if it looks like it might just cost an operator a few seconds to reopen the doors for you, you don’t know what other delays they’re going to be facing (or have already passed) which is why they really can’t afford to wait for you.

Oh, and as for why an operator will sometimes make eye contact with you as you run to the train but still not open the doors? Glancing in the direction of movement is an instinctive response for someone who has made driving/vehicle operation their profession! And building on that, if the operator sees you doing something extremely stupid to run for their train (e.g. running in front of an oncoming train in the other direction or running up the ROW toward the train you want), don’t expect your stupid behavior to be rewarded with a ride.

I’m just truthfully sayin’.


12 responses to “(Not quite) open door policy

  1. Don’t forget that it takes 5 seconds for the doors to close again, and if the train is downtown that 5 seconds means the preempt just timed out and the train gets to wait for another light cycle which is another minute

    • Oh of course. And also the people who see that you waited for some late runners, so they decide to run for it too, and then get mad that you let those *other* people on the train but not them.

  2. Okay, I have to say that was probably one of your funniest posts! It actually got me laughing out loud a bit!


    You’re going to hate me for asking this, but just strictly out of curiosity/desire to know, what signals (other than pre-empts which are 30 seconds..right?) what signals time out? Are all ABS signals that time out set for 90 seconds? Take your time to answer – no rush :)

    Anyway, once again, great post!

    • Thanks – I’m glad I didn’t come across as too mean-spirited!

      Signals that time out on the Blue Line, east to west (I’m mostly sure I have lists of the other sections of the alignment somewhere, but this was what I have readily on hand).
      90 seconds – ABS signals 160, 158, 128, 126, 80, 74
      60 seconds – ABS/pre-empt combination signals 20C, 20B, 20A, 18A, 18B, 18D, 18F, 18G, 18E, 18G
      90 seconds – ABS/pre-empt combination signals W2, W4, W6, W26
      90 seconds – ABS signals W420, W430, W760, W1010, W1020, W1030
      30 seconds – ABS signal W1044, but only when a train at W1010 makes a selection, otherwise it is 90 seconds
      90 seconds – ABS signal W1048
      90 seconds – ABS/combination signal W1760
      90 seconds – ABS signals W1770, W1774, W1778

  3. This is fabulous and enlightening. For the record, I was a little dismayed at the vitriol in some of the comments on my post, but hey… that’s the internet!

    I harbor no ill will toward the operator. I know they’ve got a tough gig. I hope next time she’ll just meet my eye and shake her head.

    Super commuter. Nice. Don’t forget my one mile walk to the transit center!:)

    • Thank you!

      I really do get how frustrating it is to miss a train. Especially to *just* miss it by seconds. But at the same time, rail schedules are precise down to the 30 second mark (bus schedules, by comparison, are timed to the minute). I suppose we could put forward the suggestion to relax the schedules but then people would complain that the train is too slow & it takes too long to go anywhere :)

  4. I’ve noticed the conflict between northbound Green Line trains (in the pocket track) and Red Line trains coming from the airport. One idea is to have the Green Line train stay on the regular track, drop off everybody at the platform (allowing them to board the Red Line train instead of having to wait for the next train) go past the switch and then reverse into the center track. The downside is that the operator would not have a platform to walk on when switching ends.

    As for the door buttons, there should be stickers that say “only active when lit”

    • An interesting idea, but who would throw & lock the switches? I’m not sure that would save time beyond what’s done now, especially since the switch is pretty far from the platform. If that would involve the operator taking the train past the switch, walking 200′ back to it, unlocking/throwing it, moving the train through, walking back 200′ to the switch to restore power to it and lock it, then walking back 200′ to the lead cab to continue to Clackamas… that would get very time consuming and will also tie up the westbound mainline.

      I agree about the door buttons, but I also don’t know who would notice that. All of the bridgeplate doors have stickers on them that say doors must be closed for the ramp to operate, and that still catches people!

      • Would they have to manually maneuver the switch? It’s the same one used by Red Line trains to merge onto the main track. I understand there would need to be time until the next westbound train.

        As for the stickers, they could only help, and would be right next to the buttons.

        • If I’m reading what you wrote right, you’re thinking that instead of a Green Line coming into the pocket track from the auxiliary track to switch direction, they stay in the westbound main, go past that switch just west of Gateway, and use it to go back into the pocket track? Something will have to throw that switch for them, otherwise if they just change cabs and go back the way they came, they’ll end up in the westbound main again. You can manually throw power switches, which involves unlocking them and manually cutting power to the switch, but you can’t leave it that way. Or were you thinking to go past the switch, unlock it & throw it, relock it then and bring the train into the pocket track?

  5. Pingback: TriMet Diaries Links of Interest (6-September-2011) | TriMet Diaries

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