Monthly Archives: September 2011

Writing on riding

Via TriMet Diaries, Dr Jeff wrote what is probably the most poetic description ever of a morning commute on MAX. Unsurprisingly, I love the post. It’s great to see people incorporate Portland and TriMet (especially rail, I admit that I’m biased) into art, whether it’s writing or photographs or anything else.


On some lucky mornings we stop on the bridge. Suspended there above the river, our view is exclusive to transit commuters and to the legions of cyclists who now pass us in our moment of stasis. I wonder some days whether our train operator is just exercising his prerogative, remembering the days of childhood when piloting a train over a bridge and then sweeping into a bustling city must have sounded like the best job in the world. As the train starts to descend into Old Town, I hope my operator is still finding some joy in his job. I hope that amidst all the schedule pressures and time-points he gets just a moment to realize that he’s the one who got to grow up and drive a train.

And of course, I feel compelled to answer those wonderings, even though they were probably rhetorical, but I can’t help it (MAX FAQs: Writing more about light rail than you wanted to know since 2010). No, the operator isn’t stopping on the bridge to take in the scenery – stopping there generally means your train is waiting for signal 14 to clear. It will be red if a conflicting move is in progress (e.g. an eastbound Yellow or Green line train that starts ascending the bridge while a westbound Blue or Red is crossing) or if you are too close to your westbound leader who hasn’t cleared the circuit yet.

There had been a delay, I forget why, the day I took this picture a few months ago. Maybe a bridge lift. Anyway, trains weren’t running on schedule and were back-to-back, so that Green Line train was far enough ahead for us to get up to the bridge, but not far enough to completely clear it. As a result, signal 14, which is visible to the right of that train’s trailing cab went from dark to red when we entered the circuit coming up to the signal because the Green Line train hadn’t cleared the circuit after it.

As for finding joy in being the person who got to grow up and operate trains? Your mileage may vary, of course…  there are operators (both bus and rail) who are phenomenal ambassadors for their jobs, who genuinely love what they do and take pride in it. For other operators, it’s a job that has its ups and downs, the same way accounting or tech support or waiting tables or anything else can be. And sure, there are some operators who are determined to find misery in everything, but thankfully they’re not the majority. On top of that, everyone has their good days and bad days.

The backgrounds of TriMet operators are so varied (many coming from other driving jobs – truck drivers, school bus drivers, Greyhound drivers, tow-truck and taxi drivers, etc; others from office/management positions; others from the military; others who are and were artists, salespeople, clergy, teachers, pilots, etc; others who overlap several of these job paths) that you’ll never be able to find a one-size-fits all answer even to the simple question of “How did you get to be a transit operator?” I have no idea how many bus or rail operators dreamed as kids that this is what they wanted to do versus those who just happened to find themselves doing it because life worked out that way.

But as you might have suspected, it is – hands-down and unquestioningly – the “office” with the best views you can find in Portland.

A last look at Lincoln

It’s only relatively recently that I’ve made a concerted effort to take rail photos (and nowadays it’s usually the result of seeing something and thinking “this would be a good thing to write about”). But I used to just take pictures when I happened to think of it and had a camera with me, and now in retrospect I wish I’d gotten a lot more pictures during past rail construction projects- Interstate, the transit mall, the I-205 tie-in at Gateway, etc. So I figured I’d make it a point to take pictures of Milwaukie/Orange Line related work.

I decided to start with Lincoln Street.

SW Lincoln Street has achieved a certain level of notoriety of late, due to plans to remove 50-60 of the trees lining Lincoln, which is pretty shocking for tree-hugging Portland. John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute took up this cause recently, which is unsurprising considering CPI’s anti-public transit stance, though admittedly it was a well-executed move for them as they want to drum up opposition to the Orange Line. As an overall rule, we love public transit in Portland so CPI never got much of a following for being against the Orange Line in general, but they rallied quite a bit of support in their opposition to cutting down the trees on Lincoln. Know how to play to your audience, I suppose.

The street was quiet save a few pedestrians when I was out there, so I don’t know if these were CPI signs or if anyone else had protested here

On a personal level, I feel strange agreeing with CPI on something. I mean, I don’t know John Charles, and he doesn’t know me, but I’m pretty sure based on his speeches and writings that we would not get along (e.g. he feels operator benefits are gratuitous; meanwhile as long as my friends and coworkers keep dying from job-related illnesses before the age of 60, I am going to disagree with him that operator health benefits are overly generous.) Still, à la “even a broken clock is right twice a day”, I agree with his apprehension at clearing out all of the trees on Lincoln. No, Lincoln isn’t exactly on par with the Park Blocks, but clearing out 60 trees is still pretty significant. On top of that I still have a hard time reconciling TriMet’s capital project spending when operations and maintenance are taking such severe cuts because of no money, so I’m not personally excited about this particular project.

While walking up and down Lincoln, I made the assumption that trees with a painted white dot and the green/black ties were tagged for removal. One thing that CPI didn’t mention is that TriMet will be replacing some of these trees as part of the rail project. According to the Oregonian, these are all London Plane trees currently on Lincoln, and evidently TriMet wants to avoid a “monoculture of one tree species” when replacing them.  The Oregonian lists the new varieties of trees that were selected and provided a statement from TriMet as to why those new varieties were chosen (including that they are drought resistant… was that really a concern for Portland?) Personally, at no point have I ever thought that Lincoln would be better if only the trees were more varied, but then again, I’m no arborist.

Even though the London Plane trees are going to be replaced, I doubt the new Lincoln Street is going to have the same leafy overhang of the current one. Leaves and rail are not friends, so intentionally planting trees that will drop their leaves directly in the ROW isn’t going to work, and I’m assuming that’s been taken into consideration.

Picture of streetcar tracks from last fall, being cleaned of leaf debris

From an operational perspective, I think a bigger concern than making sure the trees are drought resistant is planning how to mitigate the slippery rail/leaf problem. I admit I haven’t gone to any of the open houses or public meetings so I don’t know if it has come up, or if by design the trees will overhang just sidewalks or bike paths and be clear of the ROW altogether. This just sticks out to me as a safety hazard since leaves can potentially impair a train’s braking ability, lift a train’s wheel out of the track, or form an insulating barrier in the rail that can make the train become undetected in that circuit.

Borrowed photo – Lincoln Street is apparently going to have track like this

On a related note, I’m interested to see how the vegetated track is going to play out. I don’t think these are very common in the US – all of the pictures I can find are European. It looks like girder rail running through there in several of the linked pictures (as opposed to something like the embedded t-rail on Interstate), which I think is interesting – I would have guessed that surrounding girder rail with grass/leaves would make it more likely to fill the groove in the rail with debris, such as when cutting the grass. I’m assuming that Lincoln is going to have girder rail since that’s what’s used in downtown and other low-speed areas (it’s cheaper than t-rail and generally effective for low speeds) so I’m curious to see how this is going to work. And I really, really hope people don’t take the grassy track as an invitation to walk on it…

Anyway, back to Lincoln… I noticed a couple of things that seemed strange – first was this pedestrian path and the trees that were marked for removal back here. I’m assuming this is where the platform is going to be. I can’t figure any other reason why trees situated fairly far back from Lincoln would be cleared out, or why the pavement is marked the way it is.

The other thing was how the pavement here in this pedestrian path off of SW 4th just south of SW College was also marked up. I guess this is where the ROW is going to go from the Jackson turnaround? If that’s the case, I’m not sure of the path it’s going to take because there’s not a lot of space between buildings at the eastern end of this path, and it didn’t look like the trees near where this joins Lincoln were slated for removal.

Anyway, I wasn’t really going anywhere in particular with this post, just documenting some pictures of Lincoln pre-construction. If I have time on my days off I’d like to add some during-construction and completion pictures.

SW Lincoln Street, mid-September 2011


Related to the recent post about getting left behind by a train, I wanted to bring up another part of scheduling: the timepoint.

Even though you can get arrival times for each stop, the schedules for bus and rail are not written to match every stop. Instead, a handful of stops on each route are selected as timepoints, and the schedules are written to those specific locations. Timepoints will be the ends of the lines, transit centers, major intersections for buses and interlockings for trains, other heavily serviced transfer points, and a few places in between. If a stop isn’t a timepoint, the “scheduled time” listed for it isn’t a guaranteed arrival time, but instead is an approximation based on how long it should take a bus or train to reach that stop from its last scheduled timepoint.

Visual depiction (borrowed from here) of a bus’s timepoint

On-time performance for a bus or train is determined by its departure time from the timepoints. You may have been on a bus before that pulled over and waited for a minute or two without anyone boarding or exiting the bus. When this happens, many bus drivers will announce to their passengers that they’re running early and so they need to wait briefly before continuing. Buses are more likely to be running early than a train, since an unusually light passenger load or less than the typical amount of traffic can put a bus ahead of schedule, but a train’s schedule is generally more fixed. Still, it’s possible for a train to be slightly early between timepoints, especially outside of normal commute hours. At night, for example, platform dwell time is likely to be low at several platforms if no one boards or exits the train. Also, in areas like the alignment west of Beaverton TC where your leader is a good 15-20 minutes ahead of you, you’ll get all green ABS signals instead of bumping reds on the intermediate signals waiting for your leader to clear that ABS block. These factors can make a train arrive at a timepoint early and be ahead of what is listed as scheduled times for non-timepoint stops.

Each bus and rail operator carries a schedule (called a paddle) for their run. Among other things, the paddle shows the scheduled departure times for each timepoint on that particular run, but it does not show the approximate departure times for non-timepoint stops. Here’s an excerpt from a rail paddle:

Weekday Night Blue Line Paddle

At TriMet, buses are timed to the minute; trains are timed to the half-minute. The + sign on the paddle after the times indicates 30 seconds, so this train has scheduled departure times from Hatfield at 8:40:30pm, Fair Complex at 8:48:30pm, Willow Creek at 8:57:30pm, Elmonica at 9:00:00pm, etc. I chose this paddle in particular as an example because of a recent complaint on Twitter where someone was upset that the 9:05pm eastbound Blue Line from Millikan Way was leaving at 9:02pm*. You’ll notice that Millikan Way is not listed in the paddle, and that’s because it’s not a timepoint. If Beaverton Creek and Millikan Way are quiet – and at that hour, they generally are – a train is not likely to dwell at those platforms for long if no one is boarding or exiting, and so they may run slightly early. They won’t leave Beaverton TC until the time on the paddle, but they may arrive at BTC a minute or so before then and wait there until it’s time to leave.

*This seems unlikely, by the way… There’s no way you can get from Merlo to Millikan in 30 seconds. With short dwell times I could see pulling out of Millikan around 9:04pm, maybe a little before, but not 9:02.

NE 60th Ave – like most stations, it’s not a timepoint, so scheduled departure times are an approximation. They will generally be accurate though.

So as always (and I know it’s not what people want to hear), if you want to be on a particular train, be at the platform ready to board before it gets there, and allow a little extra time if you’re at a stop that isn’t a timepoint. And by “ready to board” I mean have your fare paid and everything – if you wait until the train is approaching the platform before starting to buy a ticket from the ticket vending machine, you’re not going to make it. I’ve never timed exactly how long it takes to buy a ticket (if anyone thinks of it the next time they get one, please let me know how long it took) but I’ve seen plenty of people left behind because they start the process as the train is pulling in.

Also, check out TriMet’s tips about what you can do to help keep buses and trains running on time.

MAX FAQs in the news

For those people that missed the KGW Live at 7 piece that featured Dr. Jeff and me and why trains can’t wait for you, we now have a video (I wasn’t able to record it myself):

I think they did a great job summarizing the door issue, and am very happy to see this kind of thing get media coverage!