Tag Archives: prevention

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?

Incidents and accidents, hints and allegations

Note: I first started writing this post about a month ago when a trespasser was hit by a MAX train just east of Sunset TC, but I didn’t get around to finishing it. After a person committed suicide by MAX train this past evening, I thought I should finally get this posted.


After April 2010, when a TriMet bus driver made a left turn into a group of five pedestrians killing two and seriously injuring a third, one of the recommendations made to TriMet was to change the language used to describe this and other such events – using the word “incident” rather than “accident.” The thought behind this is that the word “accident” implies nothing could have been done to prevent it, no one is at fault, it’s just a terrible thing that happened, whereas “incident” (or sometimes “collision” or “crash”) is more of a neutral term to describe that something happened, but without placing blame on or absolving responsibility from either side.

So, when something like what happened in August when a person climbed a fence into the right of way just east of Sunset TC and jumped in front of an eastbound train, it resulted in TriMet putting out a service alert like this:

The problem I have is that this language isn’t really neutral either. “Incident?”  Fine. “Pedestrian?” Hang on a second now, this happened east of Sunset TC, where there are no walkways or sidewalks nearby and trains travel in dedicated right of way at high rates of speed next to a freeway. Yes, I get it that “pedestrian” means “person on foot”, but no one is casually going for a stroll where this occurred – you have to either climb over a fence or a jersey barrier to get to the tracks, and if you do that, you are a trespasser. You are deliberately entering a dangerous area you have no reason or right to be in. Allegedly this person was also suicidal, which certainly has a different spin than just “pedestrian.” I don’t think it would be inappropriate for a service alert to identify a person as just that – a person. To that end, I thought TriMet’s wording of the service alert after the recent fatality (train and “person”) was an improvement as far as keeping the language neutral.

MAX: Not Dangerous if you don’t put yourself in harm’s way

Painting MAX as a danger to pedestrians has been a sticking point for me with that list of MAX fatalities that makes the rounds in all MAX safety (and sometimes funding) discussions. The compiler of that list makes the bold claim that “MAX kills people at 248% the rate of cars” which, even though I’m no math wizard, I realize is basically saying “MAX kills people at a little more than twice the rate of cars.” This was calculated assuming that the MAX death rate per 100 million passenger miles is 1.14, and the car death rate per 100 million passenger miles is 0.46.

And where do these numbers came from? Well, according to the source at the bottom of the list, the 0.46 car statistic apparently comes from page 47 of Portland State’s: “Second Annual Portland Metropolitan Region Transportation System Performance Report.” I Googled that so you don’t have to, and provide page 47 below. That’s how we roll here at MAX FAQs, we’re happy to help.

No idea where 0.46 deaths per 100 million miles traveled comes from – MAYBE that lowest spot on Portland’s line in 2000? But the number listed as the national rate is 1.75. I don’t know, saying the car death rate is 0.46 and pointing to this as evidence sure seems like cherrypicking the data.

As for the 1.14 MAX statistic, that’s assuming MAX had 1,666,466,432 passenger miles traveled through 2006 (I have no idea if that’s accurate, that’s the amount provided on the website) and 19 deaths during that time, so a rate of 1.14 deaths per 100 million miles. But consider some of those fatalities:

  • “A 40-year-old woman struck and killed by a MAX train Wednesday night in Gresham was attempting to cross two sets of tracks surrounded by fist-sized rocks, bordered by high curbs and lacking any crosswalk.” = TRESPASSER
  • “A 40-year-old transient was killed by a Metropolitan Area Express train early Tuesday as he walked on the tracks at Northeast 24th Avenue….” = TRESPASSER

Walking through the cut east of Ruby Junction?  TRESPASSING. Being in a restricted area between Goose Hollow and the tunnel entrance? TRESPASSING. Walking in the right of way along the Banfield? TRESPASSING. The recent climbing a fence into the ROW along 26? Not a fatality, but definitely TRESPASSING. And all of these are avoidable on the part of the person trespassing!

Detail isn’t provided for all of the fatalities in the list, but the ones that aren’t blatantly trespassing in areas not meant for pedestrians fall into the themes of ignoring crossing gates and other warning signs, or running for a train in one direction without checking for trains in the track in the other direction. Meaning – they were PREVENTABLE on the part of the person who got hit. And yes, several of them have been from suicidal people who know that getting hit by a train can be a very effective way to end your life. You could possibly make the argument that this is a shortcoming on availability of mental health help, but this is not a shortcoming of MAX or a flaw of rail safety.

Maybe you think I’m being too judgmental of people who were either suicidal or just not paying attention and paid the ultimate price for it. But from my perspective, I have pretty much no sympathy for people who make rail operators unwitting accomplices to their deaths or injuries. I’ve seen the effect that hitting a person has had on several operators – resulting from suicides, trespassing, or or not bothering with basics like looking both ways. Many of those operators were able to return to work, but some end up having to leave rail because of how traumatic it was for them. I mean, not a single rail operator goes to work thinking “Gee, I hope someone uses me to kill themselves today!” For the people who don’t intend to kill themselves but get hit by a train anyway, it’s really hard to work up the sympathy for the “victims” who put themselves in that situation in the first place. On top of that, I’ve seen more near-misses and more instances of people being outright stupid around trains than I can count, so perhaps I’m somewhat jaded and pessimistic.

People go out of their way to put themselves at risk

Near miss at 122nd & Burnside (reader-donated video footage, pre-2009) Doubt these women were suicidal, but they’re very lucky after doing something so stupid.

Suicide prevention is one thing, and I’m not sure how much of that should fall on TriMet’s shoulders, or even what TriMet could do to prevent it from happening. As for the rest of the times where there’s contact between a train and a person, that’s generally resulting from people being where they have no business to be, either because signals and crossing gates are warning of an oncoming train, or because they’re trespassing in the right of way where “pedestrians” should never be walking around (i.e., they’re making an effort to be in a dangerous situation). For those people, can we idiot-proof the world? Well we can try… From TriMet’s side, improvements have been made in attempts to prevent people getting hit by trains. Not long after an incident at Gateway where a man was almost hit when he started walking in front of a departing train, crews were at Gateway installing these:

Theoretically a good idea, right?

Which is great and all, except for the people who make a concerted effort to NOT use them. I have REPEATEDLY seen people try to squeeze along the tactile strip on the outside to cross, even though since there’s no room to balance there this takes significantly longer than just walking around the railing like you’re supposed to. Here at Gateway and other platforms that have installed these sorts of railings to channel people to safely cross, I routinely see people climbing over them instead of walking around.

What do we have to do? Put TriMet employees out there as escorts to hold everyone’s hand at platforms to make sure no one walks in front of a train? I’ve seen people vault over these, miss, and land hard on the platform. When inevitably someone vaults over it the other way and lands in the trackway as a train is coming in, what are we going to call it? An “incident between a train and a pedestrian?” Or my preference, which would be “an incident between a train and a dumbass” but that’s pretty much why I’m not allowed to write any official TriMet statements.

To summarize!

If you don’t want to get hit by a train, it is not difficult to avoid it.

If you are bound and determined to get hit by a train, sadly it’s not difficult to do that.

So if you get hit by a train, it doesn’t seem like you were particularly interested in not getting hit by one. Trains move in a predictable pattern. They will not leave the rails and come after you. If you don’t want to get hit by a train, wait for crossing signals showing a walk symbol, look both ways before crossing railroad tracks, wait when you see crossing gates coming down or a train passing through, and stay out of areas that tell you not to trespass because trains run through there, and you will be fine. Please do this, because *I* don’t want you to get hit by a train. 

BUT, trains are heavy, don’t stop quickly, and cannot swerve. If you trespass in areas where operators have no reason to expect a person to be, disregard crossing gates, signals, and “Don’t Walk” signs, or play chicken with a train, it’s very difficult for something that big and heavy to stop in time to prevent a collision. It’s unfortunately how physics are going to work.

As for the last two incidents of MAX hitting a person, the first was an alleged suicide attempt, the second apparently was confirmed as a suicide since investigators found his suicide note.  Maybe we need to put up suicide prevention signs in some areas of the alignment like bridges have (does anyone know how effective those are? I have no idea).

A short course in light rail safety

From the archives…

MAX coupling

Not dead. Just resting.

Coupling Info and FAQs

This is going more in-depth on an old anatomy post where couplers were mentioned. The coupler at the end of each MAX car (with the exception of the A-end of a Type 4) allow for both a mechanical couple and an electrical couple between cars. The mechanical couple is what physically keeps the cars connected, and the electrical couple is what allows the cars to communicate. By design, both a mechanical and electrical couple need to be established in order for the train to move.

Although the Type 1s, 2s, and 3s are capable of being coupled into consists longer than two cars, MAX trains do not run in longer consists longer than that. There are rare exceptions to this (e.g. getting a disabled train out of the way), and yes, some 20 years ago trains were brought back into the Ruby Yard in longer consists but the length of city blocks downtown and the subsequent design of all the train platforms limit the length of MAX trains to two cars.

Note: There are several categories of TriMet employees who are qualified to couple and uncouple cars (operators, supervisors, mechanics, etc) but for simplicity I’m just going to go with “operator” in this post.

The Electrical Couple

The coupling process won’t make much sense without describing this first. At the top of the coupler is the electrical coupler head. Under normal conditions, this is either coupled to another train or covered, but occasionally one with the cover up will sneak through ground inspection without being noticed (or alternatively the operator will forget to switch it back after uncoupling cars).

Electrical coupler head on a Type 2 with the cover raised

There are two positions for the electrical coupler head – electronically isolated and electronically normal. If one or both electrical heads between coupled cars are in the isolate position, there will be no electric communication between the cars. When coupling cars, the first goal is to establish a good mechanical couple, and to do that the car doing the couple will be electronically isolated at the beginning of the process.

This switch inside the cab controls the electric coupling of the train

Coupling cars

First, as with just about everything else done with the trains, the operator will get permission from Control before coupling. Next, they’ll do a ground inspection of the car they will be coupling to in order to ensure there aren’t any safety concerns, such as personnel working on or around the car. They will also make sure that the car they are going to couple to is set to electronically normal. The operator will make three safety stops in the coupling process (because hey, you’re essentially about to drive one train into another train) – the first one car length away from the car being coupled to; the second about 10 feet away, and the third at about 3 feet away to ensure that the couplers of both cars are aligned. Then very slowly, the operator will bring their car forward and couple mechanically to the other car (this happens automatically).

The operator will then perform what’s called a “tug test.” As mentioned in the last section, the car that the operator is in is electronically isolated. When there is no electrical communication between the trains, the brakes will apply. In a tug test, the operator remains in the coupled cab and attempts to put the train in reverse and move. The test is a success if the cars do not move – this shows that the mechanical couple was correctly done because it’s holding the operator’s car (which should otherwise be moving backward) to the car with the brakes applied. If the operator’s train car moves backward, it’s either because the mechanical couple failed and the cars came apart, or the cars were not electrically isolated. A visual inspection of the couplers will also be done.

Next is the “trainline test” which is also done from the coupled cab. The operator will now set the car they are in electrically normal (remember that the car they coupled to is also electrically normal). Now there should be communication between the cars, and the easiest way to test this is to open and close the doors. In the yard, this will be done on both sides of the train, and the operator will watch to see that the doors in both cars open. On the mainline, this will only be done on the doors that are on the platform side for safety reasons. If the trainline test is successful, the coupled cars are ready to go.

The finished product: Two successfully coupled train cars. Note how the electrical coupler heads are raised and the covers are on top of the coupler. When the cars are separate, those will slide down over the electrical head.

Uncoupling Cars

A simpler process – again, always done with permission from Control. The operator will do a safety inspection and then press the “uncouple” button in the coupled cab (pictured in the first section of this post, it has a cover over it to prevent it from accidentally being pressed). Next the operator will back their car from the other one to separate the mechanical couple.

Mainline uncoupling

Uncoupling on the mainline is not preferable, but is sometimes necessary in order to cut a bad car and leave a “sportscar” train in service. The exception to this is, of course, the Type 4s, because they can only be fully operated from one end so they can’t be uncoupled on the mainline.

And then the 4s

The coupling and uncoupling processes above apply to the Type 1s, 2s, and 3s. The 4s are more complicated – as you can see in the above picture, they don’t match the coupler heads of the rest of the fleet. Under each Type 4 cab (the A-end) is  a fold-out mechanical coupler head which can be used to mechanically couple a 4 to any other car to be towed or pushed. Type 4s can’t be electrically coupled to the other types of cars, and are the only cars that have the step of connecting the canon plugs of the cables on either side of the mechanical coupler head to electrically couple.

Mechanical coupler head under the A-cab of a Type 4


What’s that bag over the coupler head? (seasonal)

These covers basically work like shower caps and are put over the coupler heads in snow/ice conditions to prevent ice from building up on the couplers. Metal covers used to be used but I don’t remember how long it’s been since they were.

Why is a coupler off-center?

deformation tube bend

The coupler heads are designed to be able to bend around curves in the alignment, so if you see a coupler like this, it isn’t broken. They should be straightened out during a ground inspection, but sometimes one gets missed. The operator or a supervisor will move it back into place when they see it.

What happens if the train cars come apart?

If that were to happen, they stop – the default position for a train car is “stopped” and the loss of electrical communication will apply the brakes in the trailing car, much like how the tug test works. I’ve heard some people are not comfortable riding in the trailing car due to “runaway train” fears if the cars separate, but the purpose of the tests done after coupling is to ensure that that doesn’t happen, so this isn’t something passengers need to worry about.

Today I learned: The more you write the word “coupler,” the weirder it looks.

One lucky cyclist. And by lucky, I mean an idiot.

Nearly a “train vs cyclist” incident

Last week, a cyclist on Burnside nearly got hit during the classic one-two-punch where a train in one direction blocks the view of a train going the other direction. The good news is, if you obey traffic signals including crosswalk signs, you run no risk of being hit by a train in a situation like that because you will have a red light and a “don’t walk” sign. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work if you’re a dumbass who ignores warning devices. This is also unfortunate for three passengers on the train who sustained minor injuries as a result of the the hard stop caused by the operator using emergency braking to avoid the cyclist.

The story was picked up by the Oregonian, complete with video from the train, as the Type 4s have nice forward-facing cameras. Some of the comments on the Oregonian article were… actually rather surprising. A few people didn’t seem to think this was that big of a deal,  saying that the cyclist was “obviously stopping” and “would have waited for the train to pass if the driver had not chosen to stop”, and others feeling that this story was unfairly targeting cyclists.

No, let me tell you something:


Unsafe behavior around the trains is not limited to cyclists. I have seen plenty of stupid actions by people on foot, by people driving cars, and yes, people on bikes. This particular incident wasn’t targeting cyclists, however it was a recent event where people on a train were injured, and a cyclist happened to be the cause. Oblivious people are going to do stupid things around trains regardless of what form of transportation they use. In this case, it was a cyclist. Tomorrow it might be something else. I’m not going to say this guy is representative of all cyclists, but I will say that he’s representative of the boneheaded things people do around the trains.

Video by punkrawker4783 showing pedestrians & drivers acting unsafely

As for this not being that big of a deal? With all due respect, you watched a video in an article titled “Bicyclist prompts emergency MAX train stop in Gresham.” You knew what this video was going to show and you were watching for it. And that’s sort of like watching Titanic where you know what’s going to happen (SPOILER ALERT: The boat sinks) so it’s not a surprise when you see it. But consider this from the operator’s perspective for a moment, who didn’t know that this was going to happen at that intersection.

As an operator, you are aware that every single time you pass a train stopped at a platform on the mainline, there is a chance that someone is going to run around the back of it into the path of your train. You also know that cars waiting to turn left – like the one in the video – might run that light. So you reduce your speed (as the operator of that train did) because of those chances, but you never know that this intersection is going to be the one where someone darts out in front of you. But when it happens, you are going to brake hard to bring the train to a stop to avoid hitting them.

Diagram of a Type 4’s cab from the outside. The camera is located at #7

Consider too that the video from the train shows a view that is from a fisheye lens mounted close to the windshield near the top of the glass, so you’ve got a great field of vision in the video. Compare that to the operator’s eyes, which are not fisheye lenses and are situated much lower and further back from the windshield than the camera. Additionally, those pillars on either side of the windshield form a considerable visual barrier:

Left-side pillar in a Type 4

So the view you see in the video shows the cyclist – who you were expecting to see – likely before he entered the field of vision of the operator (who was not expecting to see him). And yes, suddenly seeing someone heading into the path of your moving train is a big deal. People have been killed doing the exact thing this cyclist did. To state the obvious, trains don’t swerve. You have a split second to react and hit the brakes when you see someone who isn’t paying attention and is on a collision course with you, and that’s all you can do – you’re not going to keep going, assuming that they will stop.

To the person who said to train MAX operators not to use the emergency brake… are you serious? Emergency braking on the Type 4s is explicitly covered during Type 4 training – when I did mine a few years ago, we took a 4 onto the test track at Ruby, brought it up to 35 mph, and used the emergency brake to practice both using it and recovering out of it in a controlled setting before encountering situations like this. And yes, the emergency brake is a hard stop, even harder if you’re using it at a low speed. But what other option is there? Run the risk of killing someone who isn’t paying attention?

Operators are not mind readers. I see a cyclist heading on a collision course with a train, and my instinct is to stop the train, not to assume that he’s going to wait for me and then cross behind the train. I can’t tell if he’s obliviously ignorant or intentionally suicidal, but I’m not going to waste a lot of time mulling it over, I’m going to do what I can to not hit him.You don’t put your faith in someone incapable of obeying a red light/don’t walk sign to have the intelligence to get out of the way.

Incoming westbound train, Millikan Way

Some people suggested putting up mirrors in areas where the view of a train might be obstructed. Those are already in place in a few areas of the alignment, such as the above picture taken at Millikan Way. However, similar to crossing gates, warning lights, and don’t walk signs, these won’t help you if you willfully ignore them.

Oh, and one more thing?

Among other things, reading was not this gentleman’s strong point

Yeah, riding your bicycle is not permitted on the train platforms in the first place. Had someone been doing code enforcement on that platform at that time, he could’ve been looking at a $175 citation (or more) before getting the chance to put himself – and others – in harm’s way.