Category Archives: radio

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).

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.

New radio signs

Oh yeah, and on a completely different topic, the new radio signs are up. I’d first seen the prototype in Ruby Junction a while ago and now they’re live, for lack of a better word. I like them – they look better than the temp version that’s been up for the last year since the mall alignment opened.

And no, I don’t have pictures of all of them. Yet. But I probably will eventually since I already have pictures of two versions of the older sign configurations. Just to have a complete set and all, or at least as complete as it’s been over the duration of my time with TriMet. It’s like my own little museum of signs. Or something.


Question: What are those signs by the train platforms with things like “Main 1” or “A-3 Central”?

Those are reminders to operators to switch to the correct radio channel for the area they are in. The primary method of communication on MAX is over the open-air radio. Operators, Controllers, supervisors, field maintenance workers, etc all use the radio, and since the area serviced by MAX is so large, radio coverage is broken down into channels for each section – since an operator who is only doing the Yellow and Green lines doesn’t need to know about track work done by Orenco, for example.

Radio history

Originally there was one channel for mainline operations (Main 1), used from Gresham to CBD (Central Business District, aka downtown).  When the west side alignment opened in 1997, Main 2 was added and was the channel used from downtown to Hillsboro.

When the Yellow Line opened in 2004, Main 3 was added, and it split the way the channels had previously been assigned, geographically speaking.  The following four pictures were taken in fall of 2008, after the Yellow Line opened but before the Green Line did.

Main 1NE 7th Ave platform, looking east – eastbound trains would switch to the east side radio channel here from the CBD channel

Main 3 from 7thNE 7th Ave platform, looking west- westbound trains would switch to the CBD radio channel here coming from the eastside channel

Main 2PGE Park, Westbound – Trains would switch from the CBD channel 3 to the westside channel 2 here

Main 3 PGEPGE Park, Eastbound – Trains switch from westside channel 2 to CBD channel 3

But then the Green Line opened, adding north-south trains downtown as well as a stretch of alignment to Clackamas Town Center,  so the setup of radio channels had to be changed again.

Radio today (by which I mean spring of 2010)

Those old Main 1 through Main 3 signs are no longer used. Currently there are four channels that are most commonly used for mainline operations (there are also separate channels for the yards and other less-frequently used channels for other purposes).

Map of radio channelsThe 4 channels used on the mainline today (ignore the Streetcar on the map since it doesn’t use the radio that the MAX trains do, neither does WES which has been removed from the map).  Click for larger version.

A-5 PGEPGE Park, westbound platform

In green on the above map, A-5 “West”, from Hatfield Government Center to PGE Park.


In red on the map, bordered by PGE Park on the west, Oldtown/Chinatown on the east, and Union Station on the north, A-4 “CBD”

A-3 82nd Ave

A-3 Oldtown/ChinatownA-3 Union Station

In yellow on the map, bordered by Oldtown/Chinatown on the west, Union Station on the south, and NE 82nd Ave on the east, A-3 “Central”

A-2 82ndNE 82nd Ave eastbound platform

And finally, in blue on the map bordered by NE 82nd Ave on the west is A-2 “East”

Edited, fall 2010 – the temporary signs have been replaced. I haven’t gotten pictures of all of them. The geographic boundaries haven’t changed, just the style of the signs.

Tuning in

Because the broadcasts over the radio are open, anyone with a scanner can listen in.  I don’t have a scanner and so I don’t know how to set one up to follow rail communications, but you can use an online scanner to get an idea of what it’s like.  I’ve heard TriMet rail transmissions over OregonLive’s police scanner, so if you’re curious you can use that as a starting point.  However, since that scanner follows everything, in addition to rail you’ll also hear police, fire, & EMS broadcasts, as well as airport parking shuttles and probably some other things that I can’t identify.  I don’t know of any other free/easy way for the public to listen to radio broadcasts if that’s the sort of thing they’re interested in.

And one last thing…

This is a radio, not a phoneCeci n’est pas un phone

In the cabs, the radio handset looks like a phone.  It is not a phone.  If you see a train operator using this, they are not on the phone.  They are using the radio, which they are required to do, not using a phone while operating which is illegal.