Field Guide to Field Operations

(All pictures in this post are borrowed from elsewhere on the internet)

One of the reasons MAX FAQs started was to address incorrect assumptions people have about the trains and how they work (e.g. the infamous yellow door buttons, why a train downtown is not actually running a red light, etc). So far, all of those posts have been about rail operations, but now I’m going to expand a bit into field operations, and the misconceptions people have about this area of TriMet.

Fare inspector writing a citation. Picture from the Portland Tribune

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Quiz time! You’re riding a MAX train and someone in uniform boards your train and asks to see everyone’s fare. This person is:

(A) A fare inspector
(B) A rail supervisor
(C) A road supervisor
(D) A police officer

The correct answer is actually (E) Potentially any of the above. I’ve noticed that people generally have been using the term “fare inspector” to describe everyone checking fares on the trains or platforms, which is not exactly accurate. To further complicate things…

… several sources are using the terms supervisor and fare inspector interchangeably, sometimes inexplicably putting the word supervisor in quotes. They are not the same thing – fare inspectors, road supervisors, and rail supervisors are three distinct jobs at TriMet. There is some overlap between them – similar to how fare inspectors check fares, supervisors can and do check fares on trains and engage in other code enforcement as well, such as enforcing no-smoking or no skateboarding/bicycling rules on platforms. What’s different is that while a fare inspector’s job is essentially what it says on the tin, fare/code enforcement is only one part of what a supervisor does.

Rail supervisor checking fares. Picture from PSU Vanguard

For passengers, it doesn’t really matter what the job title is of the person asking to see your fare. All supervisors and fare inspectors (and police officers) have the same capabilities to check fares, run a records check to see if someone without valid fare is a repeat offender, and issue warnings, citations, or exclusions as necessary. To speed up the process and minimize delay, have your transfer or pass ready when any of these people board your train or meet you on a platform to check fares. If you have a special fare (HC-Honored Citizen or Youth pass) be sure to have proper identification ready to prove you are entitled to that fare, because not having proof is a citable offense.

Truth Squadding the Media (and the Public)

Part of the inspiration for this post was a recent article in the Oregonian with this sentence:

 On July 20, he announced the hiring of six new fare enforcers – each a union employee costing taxpayers $67,276 in salary and $29,647 in fringe benefits – bringing the inspection team to an equivalent of 18 full-timers.

… which had some rather predictable fallout, with commenters saying that temps should be doing this work instead of “quasi-mall cops” or “glorified hall monitors”, people with advanced degrees don’t make that much and these positions don’t even require a college degree, these “starting salaries are too high”, and that the training for this job is the equivalent of asking “Do you want fries with that.”

Let’s set the record straight, piece by piece.

Dirty little secret #1. TriMet employees (yes, even the union ones) are taxpayers too. So enough with the “TriMet union employees cost taxpayers $X” language. It’s pointless and unnecessarily contentious. May as well just say “TriMet union employees pay their own salaries” since that’s equally accurate.

Six new fare enforcers/equivalent of 18 full timers. Uhh, sure, I guess so. First of all, none of these are technically “new” employees – all supervisors and fare inspectors start as bus operators, and these positions are only open to operators, so they are already current employees. Second, back in early 2009, fifteen bus and rail supervisors were recruited, trained, and sent out into the field in their new roles. Then nearly all of them were quietly brought back to their old positions as bus and rail operators for a while, and then reintroduced into their supervisor roles again by the end of 2010. No new fare inspectors or road supervisors have been brought on since then, so I’m assuming that reinstating those supervisors counts as the six new enforcers. Or possibly those six also include the four newest rail supervisors who were added at the end of 2011.

And that “equivalent of 18 full timers” is confusing a lot of people. It’s not that there were originally 12 fare inspectors and these new hires made it 18. There aren’t even 12 fare inspectors to begin with, and no fare inspectors have been added anytime recently, only rail supervisors.

The way it works: some of the shifts available for rail and road supervisors to sign are code enforcement shifts. Assuming that nothing goes wrong to pull a supervisor away from this shift such as an accident, derailment, or other higher priorities, a supervisor on a code enforcement shift will be doing fare checks and other enforcement (e.g. writing citations for smoking or other prohibited activity) for their 8 hours of work. Supervisors on district shifts that are not strictly code enforcement are still responsible for an hour’s worth of code enforcement along with their other duties.

Picture from the Oregonian – a road supervisor (as it says on his hat) and a fare inspector checking fares on a train

So I suppose that if you added up the hours worked by the full-time fare inspectors, the 8-hour code enforcement shifts that supervisors do along with the additional hours of code enforcement that are performed during district shifts, and however many hours are spent by police doing enforcement, it would be about 720 hours per week, or the equivalent of 18 people doing code enforcement 40 hours per week. But frankly that’s more math than I care to do right now, so I’ll just take them at their word.

Quasi mall cop/hall monitor/don’t even have advanced degrees. Ok, you know what? I’m not saying this is the case across the board, but the contempt that a lot of people with college degrees have for blue collar work really makes my blood boil. If you’ve completed a Ph.D. or even a bachelor’s degree, good for you. I genuinely mean that, it takes a lot of hard work and effort to accomplish that. But is it really so offensive to you that someone else put in an equal amount of time and a lot of effort doing non-academic work developing skills outside of a classroom and gets more than minimum wage in return? And I say this as someone who also has some post-high school education – not as much as some of my coworkers, but enough to be able to see both sides, and to at least make it sound like I know what I’m talking about. Well, sometimes, anyway. Related to this point:

Their starting salary is too high. $67k is not a starting salary, and this is not an entry-level position. Want to know what the actual starting salary is if you wanted to be a supervisor at TriMet? A whopping $9.92/hr, which is the pay during training to be a minirunner (part-time bus driver). Then once you actually start work as a minirunner, you make $13.83/hr but again, that’s part-time. On the job descriptions for all of these positions – bus operator, rail operator, fare inspector, supervisor, etc, you’ll see that the pay is listed as a range. You start at the low end of the range and over time your hourly rate increases to the maximum for that position. If you transfer positions (e.g. from bus to rail, from bus to supervisor or fare inspector, from rail to supervisor) you move to the scale for the new position and then progress to the top of that scale.

So by the time an operator becomes a supervisor, they’ve put several years under their belt working at TriMet and are anything but entry level. The last couple of classes of rail supervisors, for example (going back to those that were part of the 15 supervisors promoted in 2009 and including the most recent class) had an average of about 10 and a half years working at TriMet at the time they became supervisors.

And consider the work that a supervisor does.

During parades, protests, and other events, rail supervisors are responsible for coordinating the safe movement of trains through large groups of people. Picture source unknown.

This isn’t sitting in a climate-controlled office from 9-5, interacting with just your coworkers, who are probably of a similar income level and social background as you. Supervisors spend around 70% of their time outside and on foot (particularly when doing code enforcement) regardless of the weather. Similar to police officers, they interact with all sorts of people – the pleasant ones, the lost ones, the aggressive and belligerent ones, the drunk and incoherent ones. They’re out in the field nearly around the clock, as long as buses and trains are in service and beyond service hours as required. And they’re typically among the first on the scene when there’s an accident, collision, or fatality involving a train or bus.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think $67k for doing that kind of work on that kind of a schedule after being with a company for many years is unreasonable at all.

Do you want fries with that? Admittedly my focus here is on rail supervisors more so than fare inspectors or bus supervisors, because rail is the main focus of this blog. Believe me I’m not discounting the importance of road supervisors and fare inspectors, but from a rail perspective, the training and skills that rail supervisors have is invaluable in keeping things moving.

As I mentioned before, while road/rail supervisors, fare inspectors, and police officers can all check your fares on a train, rail supervisors are the only group of those fare checkers who are qualified to operate trains and troubleshoot them in the field, as they all were certified rail operators who maintain their certified status as supervisors. So as an example, let’s say a rail supervisor and fare inspector are on the platform at Gateway to check fares, and the operator of a train that just pulled in calls in that one of their doors is stuck open. The rail supervisor can board the train and fix the problem (most likely faster than it would take the operator to key out and walk back to the door in question), but the fare inspector is not qualified to do that.

Rail supervisors can throw switches and direct trains through non-standard moves, such as this move through the time lock switches west of Beaverton Transit Center. Picture from the PDX Rail Transit blog.

Or in the event of a car accident near the right of way, even if a train wasn’t involved, a rail supervisor is qualified to examine the tracks and surrounding area to determine if it’s safe for trains to pass.

Or let’s say a Red Line train comes into Beaverton TC and the operator discovers when they walk to the other end of their train to go back to the airport that someone threw up in that car. If there is a rail supervisor present, he or she can uncouple the cars and run the biohazard car out-of-service to the west portal pocket track to quickly get it out of the way. This will allow the Red Line operator to leave for the airport (now as a single car) with minimal delay and prevent the Red Line behind it from being delayed getting into the pocket track at BTC.

Broken crossing gate arm? It’ll be a rail supervisor on the scene to relay information to Control and direct trains through the intersection as needed.

(And yes, these are all situations that have happened before and will happen again, but they will have minimal impact on service if a rail supervisor is able to step in.)

Additionally, rail supervisors are qualified to ensure that operators are fit for duty at the start of their shifts as well as after rule violations, such as getting an ATS trip. They also will conduct periodic service quality rides to evaluate rail operators’ performance.

So… yeah. A bit more training involved than just “Want fries with that?”, don’t you think? Six or more weeks of supervisor training coupled with ongoing training as needed, and that’s not even counting the initial bus operator training, initial rail operator training, etc that they’ve already completed. And this just scratches the surface of the type of work that supervisors do in the field.

Supervisors have a lot of interaction with the public, answering questions, giving directions, and addressing safety concerns such as this grate at Rose Quarter. Picture from KTesh’s Flickr.

Of all the investments TriMet could make, I don’t think investing in the front line workers is ever a bad choice – including hiring field operations staff and supervisors in particular. If/when something goes wrong, they’re needed on the scene to get things going again, and when things are quiet they can perform fare and code enforcement, which seems to be something that the public wants anyway as a lot of people complain about things like smokers on platforms and fare evaders. With rail in particular, there are about 53 miles of alignment and trains on it nearly 24 hours a day (and on some occasions, every hour of the day). Putting more people out there able to keep things running? So much the better.

5 responses to “Field Guide to Field Operations

  1. How can anyone who rides trimet complain of more people being on and around the trains for safety, when safety is always the one thing they complain about the most?

  2. What about ‘the hut’? Seems like you should add in at least a sentence or two about those guys (Wackenhut).

  3. I’m finally catching up on this – great stuff. It’ll inform my word choices when I talk about these issues. If any of the explicit errors you point out were on our wiki page about this, I’d love to know.

    TriMet managers have told me several times that the positions of fare inspector and supervisor were combined a few years ago and are technically the same. I may have also heard contradictions of this. What I’m pretty sure of is that they share the same pay scale.

    As for “starting salary,” I’ve continued to use the phrase “starts at $67,000 a year” because it’s not intuitive to me that someone has to be a minirunner before becoming a fare inspector. If TriMet wants to do things that way, maybe that’s sound policy, but obviously the result is that the minimum fare inspector salary is surprisingly high.

    • Just a couple – Myles is a road supervisor, not a rail supervisor. In addition to the hour of code enforcement on supervisor district shifts, there are the 8 hour supervisor code enforcement shifts as well. Also, there are currently fewer than 11 fare inspectors. I’m hesitant to get into the actual numbers of how many fare inspectors, rail supervisors, & road supervisors there are, not sure if that’s confidential given the work that they do so I’d rather direct you to official channels for that information. Unrelated to the actual content, I also see a query error on the page in the “Where does fare jumping take place” section.

      Supervisors & fare inspectors are on the same payscale but the positions aren’t technically the same. A fare inspector can’t fit check a rail operator or take their train over, but a rail supervisor can. A fare inspector will only be doing fare inspection work and not troubleshooting vehicles in the field, but supervisors do both. There’s different training required for those positions, though the code enforcement aspect is the same across them.

      $67k also isn’t the starting salary. The minimum hourly rate for supervisors & fare inspectors is $23.79, which works out to about $49,483.20/year. However, what pay you start at depends on where you were in the payscale of your previous role. So let’s say, just as an example, that you and I are both bus operators – you have 10 years seniority and I have 1 year, so you’re at the top of the bus operator payscale (which is attained at 3 years) but I’m not. We both apply to be road supervisors and we both are hired. You’re going to start at a higher supervisor wage than me because your pay as a bus operator was higher than mine. You don’t go down on the payscale when you go to a supervisory position. Since the top rate for a bus driver is above the bottom rate for a supervisor, bus drivers at the top of their scale will start above the bottom of the supervisor scale if they become a supervisor.

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