Category Archives: safety

Light rail math

By the numbers

This is based on an internal document, but there’s nothing confidential about it and really anyone could work the numbers out if they wanted to. On top of that I think it’s interesting and yet another one of those “It’d be nice if the public saw this” topics, so we’re running with it.

138Westbound on the Blue Line from Gresham

One Blue Line trip westbound from Cleveland Ave to Hatfield Gov Center goes through 94 intersections, 62 pre-empt signals, 59 switches, 47 platforms, 34 ABS signals, 30 gated crossings, 14 Z-crossings, 7 ABS/pre-empt combination signals, and five speed zones in about an hour and 40 minutes from end to end.

A full day’s shift on the Blue Line is two round trips. That means if you have a straight shift on the Blue Line, you’re going through 376 intersections, 248 pre-empts, 236 switches, 188 platforms, 136 ABS signals, 120 gated crossings, 56 Z-crossings, 28 combination signals, and 20 speed zones on a daily basis. And figure in maybe 7 or so train orders that change the rules.

EB WashingtonTurn around and do it all again, eastbound on the Blue Line from Hillsboro

In a year? That’s 90,240 intersections, 59,920 pre-empts, 56,640 switches, 43,200 platforms, 32,640 ABS signals, 28,800 gated crossings, 13,400 Z-crossings, 6720 combination signals, 4800 speed zones, and 1680 train orders.

Annually, that pretty much means there are more than 305,440 opportunities per operator to make a mistake if they’re not attentive. This could be due to personal operator error (e.g. not seeing a signal properly or disregarding a train order) or not properly reacting/responding to problems in the alignment, such as signal failures, switch malfunctions, or gate arm malfunctions. And of course there are countless opportunities for the public to cause problems that operators need to be watchful for, such as trespassing, causing safety hazards on platforms, running in front of moving trains, or reaching legendary levels of dumb things to do with their cars.

pizza deliveryCase in point.

And if anything DOES go wrong, that can often bring in a whole slew of new train orders, reroutes, or sometimes even finding that you’re going to go for another trip when you were supposed to be getting relieved. So add in another set of those numbers for your extra work.

The original intent from TriMet with this was to remind operators to never become complacent or get distracted because of the potential for so many things can go wrong. Fair enough, because the moment you let your mind wander or run on autopilot is when things can and will go wrong. For example, you can’t assume that just because you have your pre-empt that no one will run the red light, or that someone won’t try to walk, bike, or drive around lowered crossing gate arms in front of you. A lot of the work in operating a train is compensating for safety hazards created by the public or the environment – you always have to be prepared for known hot spots and be ready to quickly react if you encounter an unexpected hazard.

vigilanceThe new head of rail training

At the same time, along with this great video piece on rail operation that KATU did last year, this nicely illustrates that if you think rail operators just sit there all day and that operating a train must be easy since there’s no steering involved (and to a similar extent, if you think that any idiot could be a good professional bus driver because just about everyone over the age of 18 knows how to drive), YOU ARE WRONG. No, you don’t need a college degree to do either of these jobs, but when you take into consideration the skill involved to drive a bus or operate a train safely with everything the world and the public throws at you (sometimes literally, especially if you’re a bus driver!), the work is far from “easy” and deserves respect – both from the public and from some of the TriMet muckymucks who often downplay and lose sight of the hard work that operators do.

Au contraire..

And the results are in….

The previously mentioned ODOT inspection (full report courtesy of the Oregonian) was released late last week, and ODOT found no concerns for public safety. Some say now that this undermines the union’s credibility; on the contrary I think it strengthens it.

I didn’t personally take any of the damage photos that the union had circulated, but y’all may have noticed I take a lot of pictures for the blog. Before ATU even circulated those track damage photos and any kind of ODOT inspection was on the radar, I had independently taken photos of some of the trouble areas.

Lloyd Ctr 1 Lloyd Ctr 2

These are both just west of the Lloyd Center platform, where switches 17A,  17B, and 17C allow trains to diverge into the Doubletree Siding. I took both of these pictures on January 26, 2013. The damage here necessitated a slow order (that’s what the yellow cone is for), and the damage to the rail and surrounding pavement is pretty obvious.

How long was that track in this state of disrepair? Well here’s the same spot, July 30, 2012. At that time, I’d taken these partially to show the damage, and partially just as an example of wayside flags in case I ever needed it for the blog. You can also see how the pavement around the rail in the above picture from January is visibly worse than it had been in July, indicating that little to no repair work was done on this during that time period.

Now these switches in particular weren’t shown in the ODOT report, but nearby switches  (15A and 15B) west of Lloyd closer to 9th Ave were pictured in the ODOT report from March 5, 2013:


There had been a flurry of activity of repair work on the rails once the inspection was announced. ODOT was even able to tell that the welding in the 15 A switch had been done recently.

While the 17A switch that I took photos of in July 2012 and January 2013 wasn’t pictured in the ODOT report, here’s how it looked as of March 10, 2013:

March 10 17A

You can see that the holes in the pavement around the rails have been filled in, again clearly showing that this problem had been there for months and only was addressed when the inspection was announced.

The only other pic I got recently was this at 11th Avenue on February 12, 2013.

11thAve WB

I took this facing north and looking down on the westbound track at 11th & Morrison.

And what the inspectors saw:


This picture is taken facing west – my photo of the same area was taken on the left side of the first switch you see (you can see where the brick/cement/cobblestone pavement meet). Similar to the switch on Holladay, the holes in the area surrounding this switch have been repaved as well.

So I’m really struggling to see how this is supposed to undermine the union’s credibility. Apparently TriMet thought these issues were enough of a concern to patch these areas up before the inspectors came. I mean, the above pictures show the Holladay track damage going back as far as last July and still an issue at the end of January (and yes it was like that later than the end of January, but in fairness that’s the most recent I’d been there to take a photo) – if this was just “routine maintenance” and not last minute patching, wouldn’t it have been addressed sometime in the last 8 months and not immediately prior to the inspection?

Doesn’t the fact that these areas were in disrepair for months, and that TriMet saw fit to make last minute repairs right before the inspection just serve to strengthen the union’s concern that the alignment was not properly maintained?

When values become buzzwords

I’m not sure who came up with this whole “Safety at TriMet is not just a priority, it’s a value” thing, but it’s really turning into more of a slogan than an actual practice. Like if we cram the word “safety” into a speech as many times as we can, SUCCESS! That means we have a safe system!

opendoorbanfieldOpen door on the MAX

Except, you know, in practice it doesn’t really work out like that, such as the recent failed door interlock on a MAX train. Or the not as publicized but still recent failed door interlock on a bus. Or all the track damage out there on the alignment that passengers might not notice unless they spot some of the wayside cones/flags denoting a slow order, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of areas of the alignment that are in need of repair.

Is everything at TriMet as safe as it could be? The official answer would have you believe yes, that’s the case. The rest of us aren’t convinced.

safety core valueI know that the Ruby Yard is safe. Why? Because the sign says so!

For those of you playing along from home, KOIN Local 6 has had the most thorough coverage. It began when Bruce Hansen, the president of ATU 757 called TriMet “a series of disasters waiting to happen.” He brought up numerous safety concerns about rail (this is not to say that there aren’t at bus as well, but that rail was the focus of this particular statement, mainly because of the recent door issue), including track damage, equipment failures, and Type 4 visibility issues.

TriMet’s response? Spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt issued a statement that MAX is perfectly safe and these safety concerns are just an attempt to discredit TriMet and draw attention away from the contract negotiations of the union’s excessive healthcare benefits.

How dare you, Roberta? Is it really the hallmark of an organization that values safety like TriMet claims to dismiss broken track and equipment problems as “attempts to discredit TriMet?” I don’t even want to dignify your jab at the union with a response.

KOIN’s latest step in the investigation (no story, just video) looks at some more photos of track damage and briefly goes over a letter from the union in October 2010 detailing in particular the visibility issues with the Type 4s. You read that right, a letter from the union in 2010. So much for Roberta’s claim that the union is only now bringing up safety issues now to try to detract attention from contract negotiations.

The KOIN report didn’t cover this other safety issue, but here is a video from the January 2011 board meeting where union representatives attempted (again, without any resolution) to address the Type 4 visibility problems with the TriMet board, several months after a lack of response from the October 2010 letter:

In short, the union has been trying, without success, to do something about these safety issues for a long time. Addressing this now has nothing to do with the contract.

But if piggybacking off the recent media attention given to the train with the broken door is finally going to get something done about this? Well okay then.

If you haven’t yet, take a look at that October 2010 letter, it’s an interesting read. Here are some of the highlights (and background): In July 2010, ATU gave TriMet formal notice that there were visibility issues with the Type 4s that required immediate attention, including the lack of mirrors, cab design, and external cameras. The “response” from TriMet in August 2010 was essentially “There’s no problem with the trains, they are safe.” The October 2010 letter that is now available on the union website was ATU’s response to TriMet’s refusal to address the problems, and it provides photograph evidence of some of the issues to further support the concerns about safety:

123 field of visionThe field of vision you get from the cab in a Type 2/3 on the left and a Type 1 on the right, given the position of the side windows and size of the window pillar

4 field of visionAnd the view you get in a Type 4, which is substantially more obstructed

what was actually thereThis photo was taken from the same train cab as the above pic – you can hide multiple trains in adjacent tracks in the blind spot of a Type 4

4 camera

And what the cameras in the 4s are like sometimes – remember, Type 4s don’t have mirrors to rely on when the cameras go screwy. Technically there are detachable ones, as seen below in the Clackamas break room, but those are only used by supervisors to get Type 4s with defective cameras out of service. You won’t see a 4 running in service with those on.

t4 mirror case

But back to the KOIN investigation – what was Safety Director Harry Saporta’s response to the union’s evidence?  “I didn’t see anything that was unsafe.”  Clearly Harry has never played the “Gee, I hope everyone on the platform got on my Type 4 because the way the sun is hitting the camera I can’t see a flipping thing, gonna close my doors and hope for the best” game. He should sometime, it’s great fun. And I guess he’s pretty mellow about cracked rails too, since he said those are just routine maintenance problems. (By the way, there have been attempts to call attention to track damage problems as well, long before the contract negotiation mess. THIS ISN’T NEW, ROBERTA.)

My favorite part of the KOIN investigation is that they asked a member of the National Association of Railroad Safety Consultants who has no affiliation with TriMet or ATU to comment on the union’s safety concerns. The response? “This does not look like a routine maintenance issue and could be a bigger issue. If they have proper maintenance they would not have situations like these.”

Well, you know maybe this is a sign that TriMet needs a more capable safety guy if the one we’ve got doesn’t see any of this as a problem while assuring the public that “the system is absolutely safe and there is no need to worry.”

wizard_of_oz_wizard_headIs anyone else thinking of this or is it just me?

Then the plot thickens when ODOT orders an immediate inspection of the rail lines. This was covered by the Oregonian as well, which of course has the outcome of bringing out anti-union trolls in the comments (seriously, there are folks there saying that the union has zero concern for safety, people need to turn against all unions, and that ATU has been hiding these safety issues from TriMet managers as an “ace in the hole”. Hmm, speaking of ace holes…)

The problem is that TriMet is not a welcoming environment in which to escalate safety-related issues to try to get them fixed. Sure, you can find supervisors (who are also union) that will agree with your safety concerns, and even some of the lower levels of management do as well, though neither of these groups will necessarily have the teeth to do something about it. But when several tiers of upper management and the public information officers so vehemently deny any safety issues (as seen in this very instance), operators are often unwilling to try to buck the party line and speak out against them to try to address safety problems – the nail that sticks out is the one that gets hammered and all. Or we see what happens when an attempt is made: sometimes there’s just no response, like the union reps at the 2011 board meeting. Or we are told that our concerns are “an acceptable risk” or like the public is now getting, “there is no safety concern! Everything is just fine!”

I mean, look at the way this incident has been handled. The public already knew about the open  MAX doors on the Banfield, so clearly something wasn’t right. The union then brings up other safety issues that have been going on for years. And what is TriMet’s response? Not even a cursory “We’re glad this has come to our attention and are working hard to fix it.” No, it’s “Everything is safe and this is all just a smear campaign by the union.”

Yeah, way to show that safety is a value.

Look, the union negotiations are a messy issue, but that’s not what’s going on here. The public has a right to know if equipment or other issues are putting their safety at risk. Simply saying “Everything is safe” does not make it so. If safety is a value, it’s time to start acting like it.

Forward, neutral, reverse, off

Oh good, a technical question. Plus an excuse to use a bunch of pics.

Question: What are those signs at Gateway that say “Reverser in Neutral” for?

signal78Example sign near Signal 78

First, a little bit of train anatomy. Here is what’s known as the “master controller” (no, not that one), this particular one is in a Type 2.

mastercontrollerThe master controller: reverser on left, motoring drum handle on right

When starting up a train, operators move the reverser handle first into neutral, rather than to forward or reverse. This essentially lets the train boot up properly. If I understand it correctly (this is getting into more maintenance than operations), there’s also a built-in daily failsafe in the trains that runs a computer check the first time a train is keyed into after midnight, which checks the track brakes and sand, so leaving the train in neutral while it runs this test prevents excessive sand dumping. Anyway, once that’s done, the reverser is used to select the direction of travel.

  • “Forward” is what the public is used to seeing, where the train’s headlights and cyclops (aka railroad light) in the front of the train are lit and the train is moving forward.
  • “Reverse” makes the train able to back up, and so this almost never done since you can’t see where you’re going. This is not to be confused with running reverse traffic, where the train is going the “wrong way” down the tracks but with the operator facing the same direction the train is moving. The only time passengers would be likely to see a train backing up is when cars need to be uncoupled on the mainline.
  • When the reverser is in “neutral” you can’t move the train in any direction, but the train still recognizes that cab as the active cab. The headlights & cyclops will go dark, and will be lit again when the reverser is moved to a direction of travel.
  • “Off” – turns the train propulsion systems off, but does not affect auxiliary power (this is how an operator can leave the train at the end of the line but the lights, HVACs, and doors will all still have power). Type 4s don’t have an off position; neutral serves the same function.

In both directions at Gateway, operators move the reverser into neutral while servicing the platforms. Here’s a westbound red line train coming into the pocket track at Gateway (reverser in forward) and then stopping at the signal to service the platform (reverser in neutral).


Putting the reverser into neutral here is a communication to buses. The layout of Gateway has buses crossing the tracks on either end of the platforms, so putting the train in neutral darkens the forward lights and lets buses know that it’s safe to cross. Elsewhere on the alignment, operators will also put trains in neutral to let emergency vehicles pass (as well as funeral processions, but those aren’t as common).

neutral platformTrain in neutral at Pioneer Courthouse (not sure why, I’m assuming that an emergency vehicle was passing through). 

Not related to the reverser, but for those of you looking at the propulsion and braking modes in the second picture and are curious, the range of propulsion acceleration is 0.3 mph/sec in P1 to 3 mph/sec in P5. That would be a very rough start, so trains don’t leave platforms in P5. The braking has the same range of deceleration from B1 through MSB (maximum service brake, the highest level of braking used in normal service). On the bottom is the maximum brake, reserved for emergency stopping as it decelerates at a rate of 3.2 mph/sec. In the middle, MP is the minimal amount of propulsion you can use, coast is neither braking nor propulsion, and SM1-SM3 are similar to a car’s cruise control, designed to hold the train at different maximum speeds without going over.

October Performance

Lots of interesting tidbits in TriMet’s October Performance Dashboard.

Ridership Changes

Ridership statistics

MAX ridership has gone down, no big surprise since there’s no more free rail zone so people won’t necessarily wait for a train to get from one point downtown to another if a bus shows up first (or if they just walk…) What is surprising is that despite service cuts in September, there are more people riding buses than this time last year when there was comparatively more service. WES is doing marginally better, but at $11.69 cost per boarding ride and an essentially flat graph, it’s nothing spectacular.

On Time Performance

I’d modified my last post with this graph (at the time I published that post, only performance through September was available, but October’s data made it even more interesting). In an Oregonian article, TriMet spokesperson Roberta Altstadt attributes the cause to external issues (e.g. cars crashing in the ROW, and as I said on Twitter, it’s a nice change of pace that the most recent drunk dumbass to go off-road didn’t do it over MAX ROW) and the inexperience of new operators. That new operator inexperience is not even just an issue of familiarity with the alignment – new operators are more likely to have rule violations that delay their trains (e.g. tripping a signal), and are generally not as capable as most seasoned operators are at quickly and accurately describing to Control any sort of mechanical issue they might have which leads to a delay in fixing it. Yes, these are problems that time and experience will help (until they hit the complacency mark around 6-12 months when rule violations often spike again, but that’s another issue…)

So while it’s true that inexperienced operators are part of the reason for the downward slope in MAX on time performance, that doesn’t really get at the root cause of WHY there are so many new operators out right now. TriMet went for about a year and a half without having new rail operator classes, and lately they’ve been run almost back to back due to operator shortage. It’s the same at bus – a long hiring freeze on bus drivers and now oh dear, there aren’t enough operators. So a hiring rush ends up where there’s a lot of inexperience on the roads and rails at once. This could have been avoided if more focus was given to actual operation and new people had been added at a steady, constant rate instead of in rapid succession after a long period of none at all… and I think that’s one of the contributing factors to this:


Bus collisions per 100,000 miles

Ok, if we’re serious about this whole “Safety is  a value, not just a priority” and that’s not just a catch phrase to try and look good, then this warrants a long and hard look. Bus collision rates have been consistently higher (with 2 exceptions) than last year for the past year. After the Sandi Day incident, TriMet head of training Allen Morgan developed an annual bus operator recertification training program, which theoretically would reduce the number of bus accidents. Well it’s a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t work. Or maybe it does work but it’s the initial operating training that isn’t adequately preparing new drivers. Or maybe there’s just too many new drivers at once due to the hiring freeze. Whichever it is, this trend of increasing collisions needs an immediate response, and not just a safety committee that’s all talk and no action.

And so it doesn’t look like I’m just picking on bus and leaving rail alone: Even though it’s not one of the graphs presented in the dashboard, let’s take a look at rail rule violations as well. If there’s a similar trend, then we need to stop seeing how many times we can fit the word “safety” into a speech and actually do something to improve safety.


Tax Revenue

I’m no financial analyst, so maybe I’m looking at this all wrong, and if I am, feel free to correct me. But after that whole panic attack about TriMet having somewhere between $12-17 million budget shortfall… it looks like the actual revenue is almost $16 million over the budget for FY 2012, and about $3.5 million over for FY 2013. Even taking into consideration the passenger revenue chart which shows the budget being slightly higher than the actual (about $2.3 million for FY 2012 and $1.1 million for FY 2013), it doesn’t look like we were anywhere near being short – if so I would’ve guessed that the actual would be under the budget, or perhaps taking the recent cuts into consideration, about even. Instead it appears to be well over. What’s the story?