Category Archives: alignment "what is?"

Sometimes a cat is just a cat

Or, a cautionary tale about not believing everything you read on the internet. Or that MAX isn’t as scary as you might have been led to believe.

A few nights ago, there was a report of a cat on the fishhook. For folks not familiar with where the fishhook is, it’s this section of single track near Gateway used by the Red Line to head toward the airport:

gatewayLooking at Gateway from above, colors and arrows indicating which tracks are used in each direction by trains on different lines

Animals get in the ROW sometimes, and when it happens, Control will put out an informational call to trains in that area to use extra caution. In short, this was all pretty much a non-event. You can listen to the call for this incident here, it should be easy to understand once you know what section of the alignment he’s referring to.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, @TelemachusRome who’s been satirizing TriMet (my personal favorites among recent tweets include the off-leash dog park on MAX and coin-operated seat belts for bus drivers) took this as an opportunity for another joke:

sting operation

Pretty obvious to everyone that this was a joke, especially if you played the audio for the call. Except… except… a talk radio host/blogger who has never been fond of TriMet takes this at face value and runs this story in several places online:

cats and hookers

Look, I know it’s trendy in some circles to call MAX the “crime train” or act like the only people riding it are involved in some kind of criminal activity and you should expect to be assaulted if you ride, but come on. I’ve played this call a few times intentionally trying to parse it as some sort of hooker sting and I still can’t see how someone can seriously confuse a cat with prostitutes. They must go to a more interesting PetSmart than I do.

After this “story” ran, the talk radio host apparently contacted TriMet who replied that no, there’s no prostitution ring on the system and this is audio about an actual cat, not a security bust of said non-existent prostitution ring.

Just in case you were worried about who you are riding a train with.

Oh, and for future reference, when an operator calls in  a “Bambi alert“? That really does mean that someone saw a deer in or near the tracks, not a stripper. The more you know…

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.

Call board safety video

From the “I forgot I had this” files (sometimes I have the memory of a goldfish). This is a short TriMet safety video about call boards and their use to protect workers in the right of way. Safety at rail is not a joke and it’s never taken lightly because of how severe the consequences of a lapse in safety can be. I think it’s a good thing for the public to see things like this because ordinarily they don’t get the opportunity to watch how much effort goes on “behind the scenes” to keep things running smoothly and safely.

Not your normal operating conditions

To date, most of what I’ve written about has been how things work under normal operating conditions because, well, that covers most of what people ask about since it’s what you encounter on a day-to-day basis (how fast do the trains go, what kind of signals do they use downtown, etc). But there are a lot of interesting things that go on outside of normal operations (e.g. manual blocks), and if you were riding the trains through the recent weekend maintenance work between Sunset and BTC or on the Yellow Line, you would’ve seen some unusual moves, wayside flags, and signal aspects.

For reference, these are wayside flags (here stored at the Elmonica yard)

If you missed it, it’s okay, other people went out and took pictures and are letting me use them, so thanks to them I’ve got some content for this post.

First off –

What was the maintenance work for, anyway?

As you may recall (and now that we’re heading into June, I expect this old entry to start getting more traffic if/when we get a heat wave), extreme heat conditions can adversely affect rail. In areas at risk for sun kink, which is a lateral slide in the rail caused by the rail buckling as it expands in the heat, slow orders (reductions in speed over a specified area) are issued.

10mph slow order in between BTC and Sunset

The expansion joints prevent this buckling by having gaps in the rail that give room for the rail to expand, thus absorbing the stress and force of the heat expansion. In order to put these expansion joints in, parts of the alignment had to be shut down.

So what does that involve?

Out of service, Yellow Line

When a track is out of service, double red wayside flags will be used – one in between the rails, one immediately next to them (also seen at Sunset on Pdxrailtransit’s blog). You do not proceed past double red flags for any reason.

Yellow/Red Wayside Flags

Double red flags will be preceded by yellow and red wayside flags like these. These indicate that a train will have to stop within 1000 feet. Here on Interstate, these were placed before the southbound platform at Lombard because trains were using the switches just north of the northbound platform to turn back.


This train has already turned back and is now heading south on Interstate. Those of you with sharp eyes may have noticed a familiar signal in the last two pictures, with an unfamiliar aspect:

Yellow X on summary switch indicator 427

Time lock switch refresher time! These summary switch indicators on Interstate inform operators of the state of the time lock switches. Under normal operating conditions, these display a lunar which tells operators that the switches are aligned normal and are locked. Once the padlock for the switch has been removed, the summary switch indicator will display a yellow X, as shown above. For this work, operators stopped trains just past the 427 A and 427B switches, went back to what had been the trailing cab of their train, and crossed over to the southbound track to continue service southbound. Because the padlocks were off so that supervisors could throw the switches to enable trains to make this move, this summary switch indicator for the 427 switches displayed a yellow X.

Time lock switches were also used on the west side for turnbacks, as shown here at Beaverton Transit Center (also at Sunset for trains to go back east – sorry, no pics of those):

This series of pictures shows an eastbound train approaching BTC via the pocket track, which is normally the end of the line for westbound Red Line trains. This train is going to head west from BTC out of this same track, this time switching over to the westbound main. If you’re not very familiar with the layout here, it may help to see the overhead view – even though it takes a while to get a train through time lock switches, there’s not really any alternative to doing turnbacks from this side, and the time lock switches are still much faster than requiring trains to run reverse (which would involve restricted speed, no signal protection, use of island circuits to cross gated intersections, etc).

Similar to the first picture of the double red flags on the Yellow Line where you can see supervisors ready to throw the switches once the timer counts down, Pdxrailtransit got some pictures of supervisors at BTC who were on hand to throw these switches – remember that time lock switches are manual switches, not power switches, so they can’t be thrown from the cab of the train. Someone on the ground needs to manually throw the switch, and while operators can do it when necessary, it’s faster to have someone else taking care of it in planned situations like these.

So sure, some passengers were not happy with the additional travel delays, but for the people who like seeing some of the more unusual operations of the system, there were some nice examples of that over the last few weeks. Silver lining, right? And the expansion joints will make those areas safer in hot weather, so really this benefits everyone.

Types of track layouts

Know your pockets from your tails.

This post stems from some conversations I’ve had with readers lately about what a pocket track refers to, or where and what the auxiliary track at Gateway is. This is more of an alignment design topic, rather than a discussion of the physical differences between types of rail.

Pocket tracks are those sandwiched between mainline tracks, some of which are used more frequently than others. For example, Red Line trains always pass through the pocket track at Gateway to go west, and they end in the pocket track in Beaverton Transit Center, but the pocket track near Hollywood (linked photo not mine) is mainly going to be used for something like getting a disabled train out of the way and not as part of normal service.

Pocket track by the Fair Complex

Red Line in BTC pocket track

Pocket tracks are also found near the West Portal of the tunnel, near the airport,  and by SE Main Street.

A siding is a track diverged off to the side of the mainline that can be used for turnbacks or temporary storage.

Doubletree Siding with an out of service train- this siding had also been used by the Vintage Trolley

Another siding under the Broadway Bridge (linked picture is not one of mine) has been used for tripper trains. For example, some rush hour service trains that start from Hillsboro would go just past Interstate Rose Quarter, and then pull into the siding to swap cabs and go back west.

A tail track is a track just beyond the end of the line that can be used for storing a train.

Storm on the east sideLooking toward one of  the tail tracks at Cleveland Avenue

There are also several auxiliary tracks at different locations, such as Hatfield, Expo Center, and Gateway. The ones at Hatfield and Expo are functionally very similar: a third track diverging at the end of the line.

Borrowed picture of the auxiliary track (the snow-covered one with no train in it) at Hatfield a few years ago.

Gateway is actually pretty complex, so here’s a picture*, complete with my excellent MS Paint skills.

(like all pictures, click for larger version)

Okay, so this is not quite oriented the correct way, but it’s close (for a correct view without the color designations over it, go here). The platforms are the area near the upper left corner of the picture – Blue, Red, and Green Lines using the eastbound mainline (the bottom track that has all three colors on it), Blue and Green using the westbound, and Red using the pocket track to go west.

The most identifiable feature is the Red Line’s “fishhook” – a stretch of single track that connects the I-205 north alignment with  Gateway. A Red Line will diverge onto the fishhook to go to the airport, and will also come back up the fishhook to go into the pocket track, which is the only track they can access to go west. There’s no way for a Red Line to go directly from the fishhook into the westbound mainline – only Green and Blue Lines will use the westbound main at Gateway.

Notice how there’s a short section of the “eastbound” track that will actually be used by Red Line trains in both directions. This is why you might occasionally be sitting on an eastbound train at Gateway for a while – an incoming Red Line could have locked you out until it gets into the pocket track.

Then there is the one part of the track that doesn’t have a colored line over it, diverging off the pocket track and running between the east and westbound tracks out the bottom right side of the picture – this is Gateway’s auxiliary track.

The Gateway auxiliary track is never used in service to let passengers off the train since there’s no platform there. If an eastbound train needs to be moved into the auxiliary track to be stored, all passengers will exit the train in the Gateway pocket track before the train is moved there.

*This picture is accurate for most trains. Green Lines going from Clackamas to the Ruby yard or from Ruby to Clackamas will use the auxiliary track to get into the pocket to swap cabs and change direction; some Red Lines become Blue at Gateway so it’ll be a Blue coming up the fishhook into the pocket track; if there’s a disabled train in one of the tracks then the pocket can be accessed from either side to get around the broken train, etc, but for most of the service day this is essentially how it works.

Special events tracks – these are found at PGE Park westbound and Rose Quarter (which has the same kind of layout as a pocket track, though the westbound track is not pictured in the linked photo). As the name suggests, these tracks and associated platforms are used for increased service during special events in these locations.

Special Events track at PGE Park

There are also two stub tracks at the north end of the transit mall by Union Station that can be used to store a train. Even though a single-car train is pictured below, both have room to store a two-car train.

North Mall East Stub

To summarize, all of these different types of track layouts increase the flexibility of a rail system by permitting several kinds of train movements and (when necessary) enabling malfunctioning trains to either be temporarily stored out of the way or giving other trains a route to get around them.