Wagging the (bomb-sniffing) dog

The Stabbing and the Response

Not a TriMet picture. Other systems have shields that protect operators

After driver Leonard James was stabbed by a passenger, a lot of operators (bus in particular) were wondering what TriMet’s response would be to increase safety on the system. Driver Dan Christensen had a great post on how TriMet seems quick to leap in to action to respond to some safety issues, but very slow to respond to others, particularly this one where a driver was severely injured. After a press conference at Gateway at the end of October, Dan summed it up nicely#Trimet bus driver gets stabbed, so what do we do? We get a bomb sniffing dog!! And he was right – no shields on the buses (like the one pictured above) to protect operators.. in fact, nothing that would prevent another stabbing.

So what did we get?

In that press conference, Snoopy the bomb-sniffing dog was introduced, along with TriMet highlighting other security measures (none of which seem to be anything that would prevent a driver getting stabbed….) Above is an excerpt from TriMet’s official release from the event, and that second bullet point is playing fast and loose with numbers.

What I think of every time I read “TriMet just hired 8 more fare inspectors” or “There are now 26 fare inspectors” or any other number that’s not even close.

There are only four people who work at TriMet with the title “Fare Inspector”. That’s it. Four. That’s how it’s been for a while. While TriMet’s release technically says “full time equivalent of 26” the media ran with that as “26 fare enforcers” (which TriMet never corrected), but whoever these 6 new enforcers are is a mystery. No new fare inspectors have been added in years. Granted, there are new supervisors – in this last round of supervisors that officially started at the beginning of November after their training was finished, there were 8 new road (bus) and 3 new rail supervisors. But that’d be 11 “new” folks starting in November, not 6 as mentioned in the above press release, so no one seems to know where that number 6 came from. Technically none of them are new employees, as supervisor is a promoted position, not something that a non-TriMet operator can apply for, so they’ve all been at TriMet for a while. The addition of these supervisors also wasn’t in response to any particular safety-related event, as they were already promoted and in training when Leonard was stabbed.

As I’d mentioned in my post on field operations, road and rail supervisors work on district shifts or code enforcement shifts. So for example, in a rail district shift a supervisor will be responsible for things like monitoring on-time departures from the end of the line, doing fit-for-duty checks at relief points, assisting with safe movement of trains during special events (e.g. Saturday Market, concerts, sporting events), as well as responding to any incident requiring someone on-call in the area, like a mechanical problem, a fight onboard a train, or a collision involving a train or anything blocking the right of way. In a code enforcement shift, a supervisor will check fares for 8 hours. Granted fare-checking isn’t the ONLY part of TriMet code that’s enforced (they can cite someone for being in violation of any part of TriMet’s code) but it’s primarily what’s done in a code shift.

So I’m assuming the reason why supervisors have been added but fare inspectors haven’t is that TriMet gets more “bang for the buck” with supervisors. In addition to their supervisor roles, they can all do “double duty” as fare inspectors, whereas fare inspectors will ONLY do code enforcement. I don’t necessarily see a problem with that.

Number of shifts by type for road and rail supervisors by day of week, for both the previous supervisor signup and the current one.

do wonder about TriMet’s priorities adding more supervisors seemingly just to add more code enforcement shifts. You’ll notice that there was no change in the number of district shifts for road or rail supervisors with the new folks added, but there has been an increase in code enforcement shifts (the variance in code shifts per day is due to the different days off to sign). And now TriMet is already looking to add more road supervisors, though not rail supervisors. I’m going to make the assumption based on how shifts were added that this is just to add more code shifts, not district shifts. Let’s be honest – as the public is painfully aware, bus service has not been added at TriMet. There are no areas that now have bus service that previously did not – in fact, the OPPOSITE is true. So why add more road supervisors? Just to have more people checking fares? If that’s the case, why bother giving them all the additional training as supervisors? Make them outright fare inspectors and be done with it… in a way it’s a waste of their abilities and training to have supervisors only working code shifts.

Adding rail supervisors now makes sense, at least from my perspective. It gets them up to speed by the time the Orange Line opens, and in the meantime, they do a lot to keep the trains moving. Many minor mechanical issues cause no delay because there is a rail supervisor in the field who can quickly respond. Because of differences in their training, road supervisors are not qualified to troubleshoot trains or relay conditions to Control like rail supervisors can, so any service disruption of the trains (which are FAR more disruptive than bus issues) requires the presence of rail supervisors.

Is fare evasion a problem? Sure. But here’s the thing – there are other problems related to this issue that don’t seem to be getting anywhere near the same level of attention.

Rail Reliability and Performance

On-time performance, not so great for MAX

It hasn’t gone without notice that there have been a lot of service disruptions on MAX lately. Sometimes a major disruption to service is TriMet’s fault (switch/signal problems, train malfunctions), and sometimes it’s not (cars driving into the right of way and either hitting a train/cat pole or getting stuck). Either way, it’s the rail supervisors who have to get the trains running when a disruption happens. In major incidents, rail supervisors doing code enforcement shifts will be pulled off to assist with the situation. They’ll be potentially throwing switches to help trains do turnbacks, working crowd control and directing passengers to bus bridges, clearing trains of passengers, troubleshooting, flagging trains through the area, acting as Control’s eyes and ears on the ground, etc. With the exception of assisting passengers, those aren’t things that road supervisors are trained or qualified to do.

Picture found online – supervisor on scene of accident on Interstate

Anti-rail/pro-bus proponents often bring up the flexibility of bus compared to the inflexibility of rail as a reason to not focus all transportation funding and efforts on rail. And they have a point as we’ve all seen. When a bus breaks down, it affects the people on it and the people waiting for it, but other buses in that line can get around it. When a train breaks down (or any other major rail service disruption), it tends to affect ALL trains and as a result, a significantly larger number of passengers are affected. That includes passengers on the trains who miss connecting buses at transit centers, and it also includes those passengers who only ride buses because in-service buses get pulled from service to run bus bridges when rail breaks down. You’d think, then, that making every effort to reduce how long service is interrupted would be a main priority.

(meanwhile, the other night…)

BMW and tree that took down the OCS at Sunset

Rail supervisors coordinating with Beaverton Police and TV Fire & Rescue

The train that was stranded and had to be evacuated due to no power  – note that the pantographs are down. Before people could safely be evacuated from the train, all potential sources of power to the train had to be cut

I started writing this post before the recent crash at Sunset TC, and that incident was too related to not go back and add into this post before publishing it. For those not familiar with what happened here, at about 11:15pm on November 13th, a drunk driver doing about 80mph on 26 westbound took the 217 southbound exit (the lower curve seen here), lost control, went airborne, and crashed into the right of way below the highway exit, taking out part of a tree on his way down and pulling down the catenary. This killed power in that area, stranding a nearby westbound train that had to be evacuated.

At that hour of the night, there are three rail district supervisors on duty – one stationed on the west side covering Hatfield to Washington Park, one stationed at the Trolley Barn covering Goose Hollow to Expo to 82nd, and one stationed on the east side covering Gateway to Cleveland, PDX, and Clackamas. A major incident like this requires more than one supervisor, so the Trolley Barn supervisor went over to assist the west side supervisor (they were later joined by a third off-duty rail supervisor who was heading home after his shift when he saw the scene and offered to go in to help). Now consider, as we saw on the day that a window washer’s rope broke a pantograph AND a truck hit a train on Interstate (while trains were still delayed at Rose Quarter due to an unrelated car doing 80mph off a freeway and knocking out signaling equipment), just because you have a major disruption in one area of the alignment doesn’t mean that you won’t have one anywhere else… then consider that this arrangement Tuesday night left one supervisor responsible for EVERYTHING east of Washington Park. We’re lucky that there weren’t any other major rail disruptions elsewhere that night…

There are other times during the service day that only one or two district supervisors are responsible for large sections of the alignment. If they get called to a situation at one end of their territory but then another situation occurs elsewhere, it could take a while to get that supervisor to the scene to address it since they haven’t yet learned to teleport. Major disruptions require more than one supervisor on scene, which is why rail supervisors working code enforcement would stop acting as fare inspectors, quickly get to the scene of the disruption and get to work getting things moving again. However, with the new changes to code enforcement, rail supervisors doing code won’t necessarily be working exclusively on or near MAX trains and won’t necessarily have access to a car, meaning that if there is a service disruption they need to get to, they will likely have to rely on TriMet’s buses to get there and we all know what an efficient and timely mode of transportation that is.

Now, I’m not a service planner at TriMet and so I know my opinion doesn’t count for anything when decisions like how many new supervisors to add are made… however I’m just going to throw it out there that maybe prioritizing ways to minimize rail disruptions (if that means adding rail supervisors who have the capability of mobilizing quickly for disruptions, then so be it) should be a higher priority than adding road supervisors strictly for the purpose of doing fare enforcement. Personally speaking, no, I don’t think that checking fares should ever be prioritized over keeping the railroad moving.

And I’ve got a bone to pick about the current state of code enforcement.

The Ticket Vending Machines

The other major issue that I think needs to be addressed before we go all gung-ho with fare enforcement is the failure rate of the ticket vending machines (TVMs). People have been using Twitter to complain about the TVMs recently, which I’m glad to see because it shows at a glance that the problem is very widespread and makes it harder to ignore. There are a lot of people wondering why TriMet even bothers with having a Twitter account (theoretically to monitor, answer, and fix problems with the system) when a problem as blatant as the TVMs is always met with a canned response about riding one platform and buying a ticket there. Passengers with legitimate complaints aren’t being listened to, the machines aren’t being monitored and fixed in a timely manner… It wouldn’t take a lot of effort for TriMet to acknowledge that there is a problem with the machines and made the public feel like they’re being listened to, but as far as anything official is concerned the burden is still on the passenger.

Via Portland Transport‘s Bob R – TVM stuck in a reboot loop

TriMet still has not officially acknowledged any issues with the TVMs (the most recent I could find was Mary Fetsch still insisting that more than 90% of the machines are working, but anyone, rider or employee, who has been out in the field could tell you otherwise). The only response from TriMet after daily complaints from riders about the TVMs was to send out a message reminding people they can buy books of 10 unvalidated tickets. I’ve grudgingly suggested the same thing to passengers reporting broken TVMs as a way to save their own skin even though this “solution” does nothing to fix the pathetic state of the ticket machines. But passengers do need to protect themselves, as there are daily fare missions where people will be cited for no fare DESPITE the unreliable condition of the TVMs.

Excerpt from a supervisor’s report after a Blazers game, via Al M

The TVM problems also end up impacting and undermining fare mission work, as seen recently when a fare mission at IRQ got moved to just the northbound platform because none of the machines on the southbound platform were working. Can’t really cite people for no fare when they can’t even buy a ticket at the platform you’re running the fare mission on, and yes, there is a growing number of code enforcers that are as frustrated with the status of the TVMs as the passengers because it impairs how they can do their job.

This one spawned a discussion on Reddit – four days later, same error message

Speaking cynically, really, what’s the incentive for TriMet to fix them? They either can get a share of the $175 citation off of a rider who doesn’t have a fare, or $25 up front from a rider who buys a book of tickets to hold in their wallet but not use. This completely sucks from a customer service perspective, but from a business perspective it’s admittedly a pretty good move.

Gallery of rider photos of TVM/validator defects recently posted on Twitter.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to have nightly fare missions checking passengers for valid fare when the TVM issues are so widespread. If a person approaches a TVM with $2.50 in hand but they’re not able to purchase a ticket because today that machine only feels like accepting nickels, hey, that passenger did their part. They shouldn’t be required to go to station after station (yes, sometimes machines at consecutive stations fail) waiting 17 minutes each time for a train because they are unable to find a TVM that works.

So there we are. There are a lot of problems TriMet is facing from an operational perspective right now – concern about the bus operator who was stabbed, ticket machines that don’t work, rail reliability issues and potentially not enough resources to handle service disruptions. What did we get in response? A bomb-sniffing dog and more supervisors doing only fare checks. Sure, we’ll all be thankful on the day that dog detects and disarms a bomb on a train, but in the meantime there are some major issues here that merit a well-thought out, proactive response and decisive action to fix from TriMet.

14 responses to “Wagging the (bomb-sniffing) dog

  1. That bit about “buy a book of unvalidated tickets” is particularly irritating. To avoid waiting in line at Fred Meyer, I used to stop at a ticket machine whenever I was downtown and buy 10 at once. (I mostly ride the bus.) But they seem to have decided that ticket machines should only sell pre-validated tickets. Apparently validating tickets 10 minutes sooner will generate revenue!

    Trimet is promising smart phone tickets:


    One can only hope that the vendor for this is more competent than the one for the ticket machines.

    • Correct, when the fare zones were ended at the beginning of September, the machines no longer sold the unvalidated tickets, I think in part because they took so long to print.

      I’ve seen that about the mobile tickets and I like the idea, but I’m curious how it’ll work in practice. For example I’ve heard that the reason why there aren’t validators onboard MAX is that that would allow people to ride with an unvalidated ticket and only validate it if they see an inspector. I would assume the mobile ticketing could work the same way – only buy one if you see inspectors get on the train, otherwise you get a free ride. Since the time stamp on the mobile ticket would show that you bought it right then and there, could you still get cited? Technically you paid, but not technically when you should have. I don’t know what the answer to that is.

      I also think that while mobile ticketing will be a great convenience to a lot of passengers, it doesn’t solve the TVM problem since not everyone who rides transit carries a smartphone, nor should they be expected to.

      • You’ll notice that Streetcar has moved its ticket machines and validators from the cars to the stops. Which suggests the TriMet is all too aware of people who only buy when they see an inspector.

        I agree that the mobile app is not a solution to the TVM problem. (Though it will make easier for me to ride the bus!) When I rode BART, I used a smart card both for fares and to pay for parking. I could replenish it over the web or at a machine in a station. It seems to me that’s what TriMet should be looking at.

  2. The problem is the disconnect between the executive management and the real world.
    We see it over and over and this is just one prime example.

    • I’m new to Portland. TriMet is a great improvement over the transit options I had in Silicon Valley, but I have to agree that management often acts pretty clueless. They particularly suck at corporate communications, as demonstrated by the web site. and the canned responses C mentions.

      But how to fix? Is anybody proposing serious reforms, or is it all random gripes?

      • I don’t know there’s a lot people CAN do… in a nutshell all TriMet policies are approved by the board, which is appointed by the governor. The board is not required to consider reforms proposed by citizens or citizen groups, as seen when OPAL presented an alternative to budget-cutting measures taken a few months ago, to which the response was essentially “thanks for your thoughts, now we’re going to do what we were planning anyway.” A big criticism of the board is that there is no transit dependent (or even regular transit usage person) represented on the board, so their decisions and policies won’t necessarily be in the best interest of the riders.

        • So, we hassle the governor to appoint the right people. Petitions, social media, satirical YouTube videos, yada yada. But who are the right people? Are there any civic leaders who ride transit, or is it all a clique of bicyclists and skateboarders?

          • The folks at OPAL would be a good start. I’m not involved in OPAL but I hear about what they do and think that’s probably the best local organization for representing riders’ needs. I have no idea what it would take to dissolve the board and have a new one appointed, or how to have any say in who the appointees would be.

            (edited for broken link)

  3. I used to use the TVMs for the 10-tickets all the time, and I think it’s ridiculous they quit selling them (although I have a pass now). I always went to lightly-used machines to get them, to avoid delaying people, although now that there is no free rail zone I think the use is up overall.

  4. Globe Sherpa to the rescue!

    My prediction: We’ll now be waiting while people fumble with their phone to buy a ticket when getting on the bus.

    Also: I look forward to seeing “Snoopy” disarm a bomb.

  5. Best article I’ve seen anyone write about these issues, with the best comment stream. If TriMet management is reading this and not getting the point, then maybe all the complainers have been right all along. As someone who strives to be in TriMet management someday and wants to do things differently, this is a very inspiring and refreshing thing to read. Thank you and keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Patrick. I know that there are some managers who read here, but aren’t necessarily in a position of power to do anything regardless of whether or not they agree. To an extent I think this is more of a “senior leadership” and/or board of directors issue, and to be bluntly honest (if a bit pessimistic) I don’t think my opinion or the opinions of other frontline workers or riders carry much weight there.

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