Rose Quarter, revisited

I thought I’d do a post on the operational side of what’s going on around Rose Quarter after an out of control car careened into some signaling equipment last week, since the only side the public sees is pretty much just the loss of Transit Tracker and maybe noticing trains stopping more near Rose Quarter. A helpful primer on this would be the original post about Rose Quarter signals just to familiarize yourself with how this area works under normal operating conditions.

One of TriMet’s photos of the scene. Only one car was involved; the blue car in the background is a supervisor’s car that was narrowly missed by everything

The Impact’s Impact on Transit Tracker

Preface: I am not a signal tech and have nothing to do with Transit Tracker, so if anyone who has a better handle on this than me wants to step in and fill in the gaps/correct me if I’m wrong, please, by all means do so. For all the folks reading the news about this and subsequently wondering why Transit Tracker was routed through here or “stored” in this box, this wasn’t a mythical box that Transit Tracker lived in any more than your computer is a mythical box that the internet lives in. Transit Tracker for passengers is more of a nice little byproduct of what this box (and other signal relay boxes like it) did, not its primary purpose. To the best of my understanding, while Transit Tracker for bus is GPS-based (and therefore it was not affected), Transit Tracker for rail has been based on what circuit the train is in. The crash affected power to all of the intersections between Rose Quarter and OCC, and I know that’s affected the signals but I’m not sure the extent to which circuit detection was affected, but because Transit Tracker isn’t working I’m assuming that it was impacted. This is a centrally located section of the alignment that I am guessing is not getting standard data on train positioning, so the Transit Tracker method of locating trains to predict their arrival isn’t functional. Since ALL trains pass between these two platforms (remember that Yellow and Green are the same trains) all lines are affected.

I’m not above criticizing TriMet when I think they make bad decisions or plan things poorly, but I think this was unfortunately a situation in which there was no right thing that TriMet could have done that would have made everyone happy:

  • Some people are saying that sensitive equipment shouldn’t have been in a high-risk area. As far as I know, given that Rose Quarter was part of the original alignment (called Coliseum there), that box or something like it has probably been there since the mid 80s. But as a conservative estimate, we know that the equipment was 16 years old, so let’s say it’s been there since the mid 90s at the latest. This is the first time a car has come careening off of I-5 doing about 80mph ass over teakettle onto the platform, so I’m going to say that this isn’t really a high-risk area, it was the site of a freak accident. I have not heard of any other crashes in that area coming anywhere near close to where the box had been. Besides, it was tied to the alignment in that area – where else are you going to put it?
  • The equipment in the box was so old that replacement parts aren’t available. Fine, it’s old, but you know what? It worked. There’s probably a fair amount of infrastructure in use right now that’s equally old and not easily replaced (I think the fact that TriMet spokesperson Roberta Alstadt said that the delay in replacing it is due to finding something that can communicate with the rest of the system pretty much says that the rest of it, if it fails, can’t be easily replaced either). And just imagine the fits that people would throw if TriMet were to announce they were spending millions to retrofit rail equipment that would make Transit Tracker more reliable or fit all the rail cars with GPS as bus routes are being sliced and 20+ year old buses are on the road. Would replacing this before this incident happened have been the best use of TriMet’s limited money? How about putting GPS on the trains when the circuit location system works? Setting up bollards everywhere a car might fly into something? Yeah, it’d be nice to replace all of the old equipment but I think there are higher priorities for TriMet when it comes to replacing old equipment (e.g. BUSES) than this would have been.

Sure, the loss of Transit Tracker is probably annoying to commuters, but trains are still able to safely pass through this area with minimal delay. If anything, I think this shows a strength of rail in that while a fixed right of way is never going to be as flexible as a bus, there are still workarounds to even major issues like this to keep things moving. So now on to what’s going on here operationally:

Special Instruction 79

Those of you following along at home on the radio have probably heard a lot of trains calling in either from OCC westbound or Rose Quarter eastbound to follow special instruction (SI) 79. Remember that a special instruction is a temporary modification to operational rules that can be in effect for up to a year, versus a train order which expires after 24 hours.

The operationally relevant part of SI 79

And now, in English.

Eastbound trains must stop and call Control from Rose Quarter. For most trains, this will be from the eastbound main platform and signal 18G, though the SI is set up to allow for eastbound moves from the special events track, westbound main or trolley barn as well (for a review of those signals, refer to the previous post on Rose Quarter). Since the signals cannot be called normally through train-to-wayside communication to get a proper to proceed, the automatic train stop (ATS) magnet in the platform will be active and the train will be tripped if the operator tried to go.

ATS trip and bypass counter inside cab of train

Inside each train cab is an ATS counter like the one pictured, which records the number of times that cab was active (i.e., had an operator keyed in and moving forward) and tripped an ATS magnet as well as the number of times an operator has bypassed an ATS magnet. When you bypass a magnet (also referred to as “key-by”), you have 23 seconds to get past it without it stopping your train. Control keeps a record of the totals in these counters for each train car and cab – it prevents an operator from selectively bypassing an ATS magnet or from tripping and continuing without calling it in. You never bypass a magnet without direct authorization from Control first.

So the operator will tell the controller what car and cab they’re in, and what their new bypass number will be. When they have a fresh parallel walk sign on 1st Ave, they will bypass the magnet so they can proceed forward, ensuring that the switch (topmost one in that picture) is not set against the movement since this area does not currently have signal protection, and also ensure that the intersection is clear of any pedestrian or vehicle traffic. The instructions to stop at 2nd and 3rd and then proceed when safe are slightly different from the standard instructions to SOP an intersection, due to the lack of power at these intersections which means they aren’t displaying parallel green lights. Once into the OCC platform, normal operations can resume as points east were not affected by the crash.

Call board at OCC westbound.
There’s one of these at Rose Quarter eastbound as well.

Westbound the procedure is fairly similar. At the OCC platform, operators will call Control and report their car, cab, and new bypass number. The ATS magnet in this direction is up closer to 2nd Ave by signal 18A.

After getting permission from Control to proceed, trains can proceed when safe through 3rd Ave, which is is street immediately in front of OCC when facing west. They must then stop at 2nd to bypass the ATS at signal 18A, ensuring that those switches in the above picture are properly set for a move into the westbound track (or the special events track if directed there). Once at 1st Ave, the operator will make sure that Rose Quarter is clear and wait for a fresh parallel walk sign before continuing into the Rose Quarter platform and then proceeding as normal to all points west.

This special instruction will be in effect until everything through here is fixed, presumably over the next few weeks. Since all of the steps are packaged into the SI, it cuts down on the amount of radio transmissions for everyone – operators don’t have to call in for permission at each intersection after the initial call to Control, and controllers can grant permission to “follow SI 79” without needing to say all of the steps each time a train goes through here.

Window washer rope around pantograph (Photo by Jason McHuff, more here)

Now consider that the RQ-OCC issues were still going on yesterday and SI 79 was in effect when the window washer’s rope took out Red & Blue Line service downtown (which was pointed out to me was once again the unfortunate car 235) and a semi truck hit a Yellow Line train on Interstate, causing trains to be turned around at 7th or Jeld Wen or Jackson or where available.

Semi vs MAX, picture from Twitter

Yes, there were delayed trains and crushed loads for commuters, but the amount of effort required to keep anything moving at all when that many things go wrong is pretty phenomenal. I do think that there are a number of areas that TriMet needs to improve, such as getting word out to passengers in a more timely manner, not pulling in-service buses out in order to bus bridge (or at least not pulling as many – it leaves bus passengers stranded, puts a lot of strain on the buses left in service). But I still think that it’s good for the public to be able to see “behind the curtain”, so to speak, to get an idea of what’s involved on the back end to get people to their destinations when things go wrong.

9 responses to “Rose Quarter, revisited

  1. wow, a post defending the competence of Trimet.
    I bet your a real company man aint ya?

  2. Your info about RQ is basically right on. The signal cabinet that was destroyed in this freak accident housed TWC equipment allowing requests for signals into and out of RQ. That equipment will easily be replaced with newer updated equipment. The problem is the cabinet or case as we call it has to be prewired , tested , installed and field tested after installation and all cables relanded and tested. None of the signal cables suffered fatal damage. The case should be ready next week to install. As an after thought , the Comm. equipment was installed on the back of the signal case years ago. The cable to the comm equipment was rooted out of the underground conduit that ran to the comm case behind the trolley barn. That will be replaced with fiber to their new equipment when it is installed. The issue will be how the new comm equipment interfaces with the new signal equipment. The manufacturer claims that issue is solved but the magic for Transit Tracker and the Controllers still has to happen back at Ruby by I.T.

    The insurance company of the very lucky driver is going to write a large check if the driver’s coverage goes that high.

  3. I like your posts and your information, Camelopardalis, but I’m going to have to politely disagree with you.

    Your stance holds no water when taken out of the context of Transit Tracker. The destruction of this equipment has impacted rail operations. You have a workaround, and maybe the impact is minimal, but there is still an impact. I work in network engineering for a large organization in the Portland area. (We recently got one of your old network engineers!) We have equipment that is old — so old that it is over 7 years completely out of support, no replacement parts available from the manufacturer. We have almost eradicated it from our network (3 or 4 units left), yet we still have replacement parts on hand. That’s what you do when you have old equipment — you plan for an upgrade but make sure you have the parts on hand to keep the system running until the new equipment is ready.

    You may have been lucky that a car hasn’t taken out this equipment up to this point. But I think you’re even luckier that it hasn’t been vandalized up to now. Tri-Met is not known for not having its equipment vandalized. For equipment as critical as this for operations, there’s a nice brick building right behind its previous location. My opinion is that it should have been located in there, completely away from possible vandalism, let alone an out of control vehicle.

    Finally, you deem Transit Tracker to be a convenience. Yet Tri-Met pushes Transit Tracker as a resource for people. The problem is magnified when you have the two other MAX incidents — the rope into the pantograph and the semi vs MAX affecting 3 of 4 lines. Your riders (that is, your customers) rely on it even more heavily to try to decide if they should take alternate routes. Without knowing when the next train is expected we have no idea whether to consider taking a bus or not.

    Tri-Met has commited a major failure, in the eyes of this customer, simply by not having replacement parts on hand to fix its system.

    • Fair enough. I don’t disagree with the points you make. Speaking personally, I wasn’t aware of the age of the equipment that was damaged until after it happened. But taking it in context of TriMet as a whole, I think it speaks to the issue of TriMet not putting nearly as much emphasis on operating and maintaining what we have as there is on expansion, which is a point I’ve made before and why I agree with what you’ve said here. Take the embarrassing age of the bus fleet as one of the most glaring examples of putting maintenance off… And it’s still difficult to prioritize – of all of the out-of-date equipment TriMet has, where to begin with replacing it? Would this have been the most important thing? Heck, what OTHER aging equipment without replacement parts are in use now that we don’t even know about?

      Regarding the two service disruptions and Transit Tracker as a resource, TT tends to not be reliable during major service disruptions even when it is working. A lot of that is due to decisions made by Control in efforts to prevent/fill gaps in service and to try to get operators approximately in the area where they should be (e.g. if you have an operator eastbound at 122nd in Gresham due to a service disruption but they’re supposed to be getting relieved at Elmo in 10 minutes, that’s a problem). In major disruptions, a lot of it becomes ignoring what your paddle says and going where and when Control directs you to go. So you might get something like a westbound train being instructed to offload at Galleria and turn around at 11th Ave because there are back-to-back westbound trains but a 45 minute gap between eastbound trains, or a Red Line train sent around the Portland mall loop because no trains have serviced that area in a while.

      And that comes back to letting passengers know what’s going on. I don’t think service alerts go out as fast (or as informative) as they should. But even if they did, that might help passengers with smart phones who subscribe to email service alerts or think to check Twitter, or passengers with cell phones who think to call 238-RIDE, but what about everyone else? Some platforms have marquees or LCD displays to let passengers waiting there know about service disruptions, but many don’t. What’s the best way to reach all affected passengers? I don’t know.

      I appreciate that you commented about this.

  4. Wow that was informative – thanks for the insight and the link to the scanner! I’ve been looking hard for it for a while :)

  5. How exactly do you bypass an ATS magnet? You call control, give the car/cab/bypass number, and then they deactivate the magnet? Or is there something in the cab that allows you to bypass the magnet (hence the term “key-by”)?

    Similarly, if you trip a magnet, how do you reset the alarm/etc? Is this something that happens by the operator within the cab, or does control have to do something to the car to reset it?

    • Control doesn’t deactivate anything – there’s a key-by button on the operating console in the car that turns off the sensor on the train car so it passes over without being affected. And the alarms are reset in the cab as well, there’s an audible alert switch.

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