Monthly Archives: January 2013

10 secrets, tips and tricks for cold-weather TriMet riders

type IV

Editor’s note:
 Guest post time again, this one via Michael Andersen of Portland Afoot, PDX’s 10-minute newsmagazine about buses, bikes & low-car life. It’s excerpted from the January 2012 cover story and republished here in case you missed it. For more stories like these or to get a one-time email notice when the newsmagazine for Portland transit riders will be available for free on mobile devices this spring, visit

Rain? No sweat. But let’s confess: Portlanders don’t do cold well.

That’s why, last year, our 10-minute newsmagazine for transit riders put some of the smartest folks in town (including TriMet’s professional comfort geeks) in the hot seat and came away with a bunch of tips and secrets for doing winter better.

As a longtime MAXFAQs fan, I was proud to be asked to republish the transit-oriented ones here, and happy to help take the chill off the tail end of this winter. So read these, wipe that drippy nose and go catch some sun.

– Michael

Slim Jim stylus

slim jim color

Smartphone styluses start at $13, touchscreen-friendly gloves at $14. Beef jerky sticks, by contrast, are $1.30, and they work just as well when you want to check arrival times with gloves on. Try it.

In with the old

There’s an easy formula for temperature control on TriMet’s old high-floor Type 1 MAX cars, says TriMet rail equipment manager Mark Grove: “Stay away from the doors.”

Pressure heater


MAX doors don’t actually matter nearly as much as they might. Here’s why: TriMet keeps air pressure inside its trains just a bit higher than Portland’s natural atmospheric PSI. That means opening doors send a burst of controlled air out – not a burst of cold air in.

Dead simple

Type 1 MAX cars have overhead forced-air heating and cooling powered by the same electricity that moves the train (it’s maybe 2% of the total system load). Two thermostats in the return air ducts, on the ceiling just behind each driver cab, aim for a Jimmy-Carter-approved 68 degrees year-round.

Winter radiance

max heater

Like movie franchises, Decemberists albums and mediocre dates, the four generations of MAX cars peaked with the second and third. In 1997, TriMet introduced one of the great joys of Portland winters by rolling out Type 2 MAX trains with floor-level radiators that kick on whenever outside tempeature drops below 55 and inside temperature below 66. On the coldest days, avoid the middle sections of Type 2, 3 and 4 cars – their facing seats still lack heaters underneath.

Everything’s relative


Starting with Type 3 in 2003, new MAX cars have used an advanced thermostat in their overhead heaters that automatically varies the target inside temperature based on outside temperature. When outside temperature is below 60, the target inside temperature is 66, gradually scaling up to a max of 72 when outside temperature exceeds 72. That means less sweat when you’re in long johns and fewer goose bumps when you’re in shorts.

Backseat oven

Like other autos, TriMet buses get all the heat they need from their engines. This one pumps heat forward through a duct system above the handrails, but the back rows of the bus are always hottest, thanks to heat leakage, less crosswind and (on the new, low-floor buses) being closer to the ceiling.

Electric blessing

left-side heater

Cold feet? Try the seat immediately in front of the rear door on newer buses, and the one opposite the rear door on the very newest ones. Most of the buses without these small heaters were phased out last summer with TriMet’s big bus purchase.

Low-tech thermostat

bus thermometer

All TriMet buses are theoretically set at 72 degrees, but at their size it’s hard to keep to. Bus thermostats are tested in off-hours by a six-inch hand thermometer hung from the extreme front of the right handrail.

Platform warmth

type ii

Here’s a science-approved trick to use while waiting for winter trains: Play a game on your phone. In a 2011 study, a team led by Nicola Swain-Campbell of the University of Otago in New Zealand found that people playing a video game were less sensitive to cold water than people watching television. But gamers should hope the battery lasts until the bus arrives. “If they stop while still cold, it might seem more intense as all their attention switches to the sensation of cold they have been ignoring,” Swain-Campbell said.

Nothing to do then but eat your Slim Jim.


On the air


The TriMet online radio scanner (not an officially provided TriMet service, but hey, it’s open air radio…) has been growing in popularity, possibly in part due to the fact that there are sometimes delays between incidents and service alerts explaining the situation from TriMet, and some riders have discovered that they can scan the radio to try to find out what might be going on. Or maybe it’s just that some people like that sort of “behind-the scenes” look at what makes everything go.

However, a lot of what you’ll hear over the radio might be confusing if you haven’t had any inside exposure to how the system works. So this post is intended to give an overview of what you’ll typically hear on a day-to-day basis if you scan rail radio. If you have your own scanner and want to program it to listen to TriMet, the frequencies and talkgroup IDs you’ll need are all listed here.

Communications between rail operators and controllers

On the mainline, operators are identified by their train number. So let’s say, for example, you’re the operator of train 3. If you need to contact Control for something, you will initiate your call to them by stating “Train 3.” The controller of the air you’re in will acknowledge your call by repeating your number back to you. (Alternatively, if the controller is the one initiating the call, they will contact you by stating “Train 3”.) At this point, you respond with your TDL – your Train number, Direction, and Location.

TDL confirms to Control where you are, and also basically gives a heads up to the trains around you if they need to pay close attention to what you’re going to say. For example, if I’m westbound at Lloyd Center and I hear you call in “Train 3, westbound, OCC”, I’m going to pay close attention to what you say because if the reason for your call is a mechanical/police/medical issue, that could potentially delay me since you’re only two platforms in front of me. But if I’m westbound at Lloyd and I hear you say “Train 3, eastbound, 60th”, I don’t have to be too concerned about it because you’re behind me and going in the other direction, so even if you are delayed it most likely won’t affect me.

In certain instances, you can add a word to your initial call to provide additional information to Control. The most common of these you’ll hear is “Relief,” which is used when another operator’s shift is ending and you’re taking over their train on the mainline (as opposed to taking one out of the yard yourself). In this case when Control calls back, you provide your badge number and location. So for example, if I’m relieving train 66 at Gateway westbound, I’d call in “Train 66 Relief”, they’d answer “Train 66”, and I’d reply “Train 66, operator 1234*, signal 72” and let them know if I was signed in and had my train orders. Then they’d let me know if there was anything going on that I should know about that could affect me (track work being done, Blazer game, etc).

*not anyone’s actual badge number as far as I know.


You might also hear someone call in with a “Defect” –  for example, if you notice that when you go into the tunnel, it’s darker than normal and realize it’s because your cyclops doesn’t seem to be working, you’d call in “Train 40 Defect”. After Control answers you, you reply with which car/cab you’re in and what the defect is so they can write that up.

You hope you don’t hear someone call in a “Priority” which informs Control that a train has made contact with a person or a vehicle. These are thankfully rare, but adding priority to your initial call lets everyone else know to keep non-emergency calls off that air because this could potentially be a life-or-death situation and you will need to be able to communicate to Control without being interrupted.

On occasion you’ll hear “Train 3, Train not moving” which is exactly what it sounds like. Alternatively, an operator might just call in with just their train number and after Control responds, inform them that they aren’t moving and what kinds of problem indications they’re having. This will usually lead into troubleshooting, which I’ll save for separate posts because the types of things that can go wrong and what’s done to fix them are too lengthy for this kind of basic overview.

Call Signs

You’ll hear other numbers that aren’t trains being used as identifiers on the air. If you’re just scanning rail, you’ll hear 4-digit numbers beginning with “Nine five”. These are the call signs for rail supervisors. If you’re scanning everything, the 4-digit call signs beginning with “Nine one” are road supervisors, “Nine four” are fare inspectors, and “Nine nine” are lead supervisors. Communication between supervisors and controllers is somewhat similar to how it is for operators – if a supervisor needs to contact Control, they state their number (e.g.”9501″). If a controller needs to contact a supervisor, they’ll state the supervisor’s number, and the supervisor responds by giving their number and location.

Probably the other most common call signs you’ll hear are 3-digit numbers beginning with 6. These are mainly going to be the folks working in the right of way, doing switch and signal maintenance, inspecting the overhead wires, cleaning litter or other debris, etc. Work that they do will generally have an associated train order, which you will hear.

Train Orders

trainorderController’s name removed, no personal information is given out here

If you scan rail radio for a while, you will almost certainly hear train orders mentioned. Remember that a train order is a temporary (24 hours or less) modification to normal operating rules. Control will inform operators over the air when train orders go into effect and when they’re cancelled.

I’ve mentioned call boards before for workers in the ROW, and now you can piece together how that plays out:

  • The call boards go up and the train order goes into effect.
  • Control verbally informs operators that the train order is in effect and what they will need to do (e.g. calls westbound from Sunset and eastbound from BTC).
  • Your train arrives westbound at Sunset. You call and give your location.
  • Control contacts the workers in the ROW (“Unit 666*, there’s a westbound at Sunset”), and 666 responds when it is clear for the you to call your signal.
  • Control gives you permission to proceed on a proper signal
  • This is a HUGE safety issue! I’d posted a short video about this in an earlier post

*there actually isn’t anyone who’s got the mark of the beast as their call sign.

And now, frequently heard quotes on the air:

“Clear on a proper”

Trains can be instructed to hold in place for a number of reasons – as mentioned, waiting for permission to proceed after calling at a call board, holding for emergency/medical/police activity (on your own train or one in front of you), holding because a train in front of you is having a mechanical problem, etc. When things are finally able to get rolling again, Control can’t just tell you to “go”…

120What’s going to happen if I try to go forward now? I mean, aside from the fact that I’m not even in the operating seat, or keyed in.

…so instead, they’ll give you permission to proceed when you have a permissive signal, aka that you’re “clear on a proper.”

“Permission to SOP an intersection..”

This one got its own post a while ago. There will be instances where a pre-empt signal times out before an operator is able to get through the intersection. When this happens, the operator will call in for permission to SOP the intersection, that is, follow the Standard Operating Procedure for how to safely go through the intersection when you don’t have a permissive signal to do so (short version – wait for fresh parallel green light, sound horn warning, proceed when safe).

“Substation is Offline, Notch in the area”

The substations that power the overhead wires will be periodically taken offline for maintenance (the techs that do this work also have call signs in the 600s). When a substation is offline, operators are instructed to “notch in the area.” As a passenger on the train, you’ll be able to tell if a substation is offline if you feel the train leaving very slowly from the platform.


Going back to this picture of the propulsion modes, what your operator is doing when they’re notching up is taking a very small point of power at first, and then spending a few seconds at each propulsion level before notching up into the next one. This prevents arcing or other electrical damage until the substation is back online.

End with time

Control will end transmissions by giving the time (24 hour clock, so it’s not 2:30pm, it’s 14:30).