Incidents and accidents, hints and allegations

Note: I first started writing this post about a month ago when a trespasser was hit by a MAX train just east of Sunset TC, but I didn’t get around to finishing it. After a person committed suicide by MAX train this past evening, I thought I should finally get this posted.


After April 2010, when a TriMet bus driver made a left turn into a group of five pedestrians killing two and seriously injuring a third, one of the recommendations made to TriMet was to change the language used to describe this and other such events – using the word “incident” rather than “accident.” The thought behind this is that the word “accident” implies nothing could have been done to prevent it, no one is at fault, it’s just a terrible thing that happened, whereas “incident” (or sometimes “collision” or “crash”) is more of a neutral term to describe that something happened, but without placing blame on or absolving responsibility from either side.

So, when something like what happened in August when a person climbed a fence into the right of way just east of Sunset TC and jumped in front of an eastbound train, it resulted in TriMet putting out a service alert like this:

The problem I have is that this language isn’t really neutral either. “Incident?”  Fine. “Pedestrian?” Hang on a second now, this happened east of Sunset TC, where there are no walkways or sidewalks nearby and trains travel in dedicated right of way at high rates of speed next to a freeway. Yes, I get it that “pedestrian” means “person on foot”, but no one is casually going for a stroll where this occurred – you have to either climb over a fence or a jersey barrier to get to the tracks, and if you do that, you are a trespasser. You are deliberately entering a dangerous area you have no reason or right to be in. Allegedly this person was also suicidal, which certainly has a different spin than just “pedestrian.” I don’t think it would be inappropriate for a service alert to identify a person as just that – a person. To that end, I thought TriMet’s wording of the service alert after the recent fatality (train and “person”) was an improvement as far as keeping the language neutral.

MAX: Not Dangerous if you don’t put yourself in harm’s way

Painting MAX as a danger to pedestrians has been a sticking point for me with that list of MAX fatalities that makes the rounds in all MAX safety (and sometimes funding) discussions. The compiler of that list makes the bold claim that “MAX kills people at 248% the rate of cars” which, even though I’m no math wizard, I realize is basically saying “MAX kills people at a little more than twice the rate of cars.” This was calculated assuming that the MAX death rate per 100 million passenger miles is 1.14, and the car death rate per 100 million passenger miles is 0.46.

And where do these numbers came from? Well, according to the source at the bottom of the list, the 0.46 car statistic apparently comes from page 47 of Portland State’s: “Second Annual Portland Metropolitan Region Transportation System Performance Report.” I Googled that so you don’t have to, and provide page 47 below. That’s how we roll here at MAX FAQs, we’re happy to help.

No idea where 0.46 deaths per 100 million miles traveled comes from – MAYBE that lowest spot on Portland’s line in 2000? But the number listed as the national rate is 1.75. I don’t know, saying the car death rate is 0.46 and pointing to this as evidence sure seems like cherrypicking the data.

As for the 1.14 MAX statistic, that’s assuming MAX had 1,666,466,432 passenger miles traveled through 2006 (I have no idea if that’s accurate, that’s the amount provided on the website) and 19 deaths during that time, so a rate of 1.14 deaths per 100 million miles. But consider some of those fatalities:

  • “A 40-year-old woman struck and killed by a MAX train Wednesday night in Gresham was attempting to cross two sets of tracks surrounded by fist-sized rocks, bordered by high curbs and lacking any crosswalk.” = TRESPASSER
  • “A 40-year-old transient was killed by a Metropolitan Area Express train early Tuesday as he walked on the tracks at Northeast 24th Avenue….” = TRESPASSER

Walking through the cut east of Ruby Junction?  TRESPASSING. Being in a restricted area between Goose Hollow and the tunnel entrance? TRESPASSING. Walking in the right of way along the Banfield? TRESPASSING. The recent climbing a fence into the ROW along 26? Not a fatality, but definitely TRESPASSING. And all of these are avoidable on the part of the person trespassing!

Detail isn’t provided for all of the fatalities in the list, but the ones that aren’t blatantly trespassing in areas not meant for pedestrians fall into the themes of ignoring crossing gates and other warning signs, or running for a train in one direction without checking for trains in the track in the other direction. Meaning – they were PREVENTABLE on the part of the person who got hit. And yes, several of them have been from suicidal people who know that getting hit by a train can be a very effective way to end your life. You could possibly make the argument that this is a shortcoming on availability of mental health help, but this is not a shortcoming of MAX or a flaw of rail safety.

Maybe you think I’m being too judgmental of people who were either suicidal or just not paying attention and paid the ultimate price for it. But from my perspective, I have pretty much no sympathy for people who make rail operators unwitting accomplices to their deaths or injuries. I’ve seen the effect that hitting a person has had on several operators – resulting from suicides, trespassing, or or not bothering with basics like looking both ways. Many of those operators were able to return to work, but some end up having to leave rail because of how traumatic it was for them. I mean, not a single rail operator goes to work thinking “Gee, I hope someone uses me to kill themselves today!” For the people who don’t intend to kill themselves but get hit by a train anyway, it’s really hard to work up the sympathy for the “victims” who put themselves in that situation in the first place. On top of that, I’ve seen more near-misses and more instances of people being outright stupid around trains than I can count, so perhaps I’m somewhat jaded and pessimistic.

People go out of their way to put themselves at risk

Near miss at 122nd & Burnside (reader-donated video footage, pre-2009) Doubt these women were suicidal, but they’re very lucky after doing something so stupid.

Suicide prevention is one thing, and I’m not sure how much of that should fall on TriMet’s shoulders, or even what TriMet could do to prevent it from happening. As for the rest of the times where there’s contact between a train and a person, that’s generally resulting from people being where they have no business to be, either because signals and crossing gates are warning of an oncoming train, or because they’re trespassing in the right of way where “pedestrians” should never be walking around (i.e., they’re making an effort to be in a dangerous situation). For those people, can we idiot-proof the world? Well we can try… From TriMet’s side, improvements have been made in attempts to prevent people getting hit by trains. Not long after an incident at Gateway where a man was almost hit when he started walking in front of a departing train, crews were at Gateway installing these:

Theoretically a good idea, right?

Which is great and all, except for the people who make a concerted effort to NOT use them. I have REPEATEDLY seen people try to squeeze along the tactile strip on the outside to cross, even though since there’s no room to balance there this takes significantly longer than just walking around the railing like you’re supposed to. Here at Gateway and other platforms that have installed these sorts of railings to channel people to safely cross, I routinely see people climbing over them instead of walking around.

What do we have to do? Put TriMet employees out there as escorts to hold everyone’s hand at platforms to make sure no one walks in front of a train? I’ve seen people vault over these, miss, and land hard on the platform. When inevitably someone vaults over it the other way and lands in the trackway as a train is coming in, what are we going to call it? An “incident between a train and a pedestrian?” Or my preference, which would be “an incident between a train and a dumbass” but that’s pretty much why I’m not allowed to write any official TriMet statements.

To summarize!

If you don’t want to get hit by a train, it is not difficult to avoid it.

If you are bound and determined to get hit by a train, sadly it’s not difficult to do that.

So if you get hit by a train, it doesn’t seem like you were particularly interested in not getting hit by one. Trains move in a predictable pattern. They will not leave the rails and come after you. If you don’t want to get hit by a train, wait for crossing signals showing a walk symbol, look both ways before crossing railroad tracks, wait when you see crossing gates coming down or a train passing through, and stay out of areas that tell you not to trespass because trains run through there, and you will be fine. Please do this, because *I* don’t want you to get hit by a train. 

BUT, trains are heavy, don’t stop quickly, and cannot swerve. If you trespass in areas where operators have no reason to expect a person to be, disregard crossing gates, signals, and “Don’t Walk” signs, or play chicken with a train, it’s very difficult for something that big and heavy to stop in time to prevent a collision. It’s unfortunately how physics are going to work.

As for the last two incidents of MAX hitting a person, the first was an alleged suicide attempt, the second apparently was confirmed as a suicide since investigators found his suicide note.  Maybe we need to put up suicide prevention signs in some areas of the alignment like bridges have (does anyone know how effective those are? I have no idea).


14 responses to “Incidents and accidents, hints and allegations

  1. I’m generally a safe person around MAX. But I did have what I consider to be a near miss a few years back. I was running late when I got to Elmonica. The eastbound train was arriving. I grabbed my things and started running. As I got to the crossing, I didn’t look east right away to see if a westbound train was coming. Something clicked in my mind, I looked east, and there was a train — not close enough that I wouldn’t have made it if I’d crossed, but close enough to potentially end up as a video — and close enough that I probably made the operator nervous. I stopped, I backed up a step, I looked at the operator, and I put my hands up a little to say “I see you, I’m stopped, I’m not crossing.” The westbound train pulled in safely and I caught the eastbound train.

    There was signage. There were safety bars. There were warnings. And yet I still didn’t notice them when I was running. “You can’t make anything idiot proof because idiots are so ingenious.” – Ron Burns. If someone wants to avoid the safety precautions, they will. If they’re not paying attention — running absentmindedly and on autopilot — it’s not going to matter how much safety equipment is installed.

    I understand your point about the word “pedestrian” on a service alert, but knowing it’s a trespasser doesn’t do anything for me as a commuter in the heat of the moment. The details will come out in the news. One time I was on an eastbound train at Millikan. We came to a sudden stop as we were pulling out. Turns out there was someone jumping out of the bushes next to the tracks. We ended up stopped for about 10 minutes. But if I saw a service alert seeing that there was “an incident” with MAX and “a trespasser” doesn’t make my train start running any faster.

  2. “The compiler of that list makes the bold claim”

    The compiler of that list is known for making bold claims that end up like those trespassers when dissected. So at least don’t get too worked up over him.

    And that turned out to be a really good video with the train shadow showing. I think the second-to-last frame with the other woman in the shadow is especially showing.

  3. I can never ride the train anymore without seeing somebody do something stupid. It stresses me out as a passenger so I can’t even imagine what the operators are feeling.

  4. One other related thing:

    Recently, there were a bunch of supervisors/inspectors doing code enforcement at the Old Town/Chinatown station. They were crossing the tracks mid-platform instead of using the crosswalks at either end (or getting permission to enter the right-of-way). I asked whether they could enforce code there since I think that’s considered non-TriMet city sidewalk but I should have asked if they thought they were setting a bad example in their crossing.

  5. Most of the time when I’m on the Max it’s usually during some sort of an event like the Tree Lighting or something. It’s during those times I notice some of the most offensive displays of human … obliviousness(?) … in the face of large moving vehicles that don’t stop very quickly. The assumption is made that if the train’s moving slowly, it won’t take much effort to stop; these people obviously have never seen cruise ships in action.

    My favorite demographic is still the mother with a young child in a stroller, where the commonly held belief among them is that their child has magical inertial-dampening properties that make trains stop instantly. I don’t think any amount of rumble strips, gates, bars, signs, or PSAs will do much to keep that from happening.

  6. I REALLY REALLY REALLY want to know what that suicide note said.
    They NEVER EVER release the contents of those suicide notes.
    And I wanna know WHY!
    And I would also like to see a biography of people that step in front of trains (or buses) to kill themselves.
    I for one am interested in the lives of these people.
    But alas, our media does not work, it only tells the public what it wants to tell the public. The rest of the mystery remains a secret.

  7. I ride max enough to pretty much be wherever a incident happens. But every time I see someone, even a pigeon get infront of a moving train, I cringe! A couple of times I helped a blind man and a deaf lady downtown not get hit. But unless you are incapable of noticing a giant two car train blowing its horn that’s coming directly at you because you wanted to trespass, you will sadly become the product of darwin’s evolutionary theory. I feel bad they had to kill themselves but it’s a shame two operators have to deal with that, but at least they can get counseling and help afterwords. But when I have children I will teach them two things, the three left steps of not getting run over, and more importantly, STOP WHAT YOUR DOING, STOP BEING STUPID AND LOOK BOTH WAYS!

  8. btw, not commenting on suicides and other such nonsense. Accidents happen sometimes and it is sad when people lose their lives because of a lack of attention. Literally happens to hundreds of thousands a year.

    However my main point of commenting, I just wanted to say absolutely great write up. Lots of good information and thought behind it all.

  9. I have lost count of the multitude of morons seen walking alongside the tracks or standing between tracks in the middle of the street. The dummies who intentionally cross the barricade separating the two sets of tracks on Interstate Avenue really piss me off. Blatant disregard for safety in lieu of convenience. Seems as if the transit police are never around to catch trespassing idiots.

    • Yeah, it’s extremely frustrating, and sucks even more seeing parents basically teaching their kids to do it. At Expo earlier today I saw a father taking his small boy over the track to the bushes to use it as a bathroom – when a train was due to pull in there! The boy was too little to know better but the dad DEFINITELY should have thought “This is a stupid idea and I won’t do this.”

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