Tag Archives: steel bridge

Slow times at the Steel Bridge (and what the cones are for)

Lots of people wondering lately:

Have we been going even slower than usual on the Steel Bridge?

Answer: Yep.

Eastern side of the Steel Bridge span

Current speed for trains over the Steel Bridge span is 5mph instead of the usual 10mph. I’d mentioned this way back when in the “How fast do the trains go?” post – the speed over the Steel Bridge span is typically 10mph in order to (relatively) reduce vibration while crossing the span, which can damage the microswitches & sensors and other mechanisms on the bridge. I say “relatively” because if you’ve ever walked over the upper deck of the bridge at the same time a train is crossing it, you can feel the effect it has going over the span even at 10mph.

But a few Sundays ago, the speed was reduced to 5mph on the span because some of the sensors on the bridge had gotten damaged, and a slower speed means less vibration. At that time, a train order was issued directing trains to proceed at this reduced speed. Since a train order can only last for 24 hours and this was going to last longer than that, a special instruction (which can last for up to a year) was then issued until everything gets repaired.

Within a few days, the cones were placed on the bridge to mark the area affected by the slow order. Ignore the green cone in the above picture for a moment – the yellow cones, which are placed in pairs 100′ apart, indicate that speed is reduced over the span. As soon as the front of the train reaches the first yellow cone, it must reduce speed to the necessary level (5mph in this case) and maintain that speed until the front of the train reaches a green cone on the other side. So in the above picture, the green cone is for eastbound trains and the two yellows are for westbound trains.

A similar arrangement is on the western side of the span, though only one of the yellow cones is visible from this angle because of the grade of the bridge and the concrete divider.

The green cones are placed 200′ from the span. That’s the length of a train, meaning a train can resume normal speed there since it’s clear of the span once the front of it reaches that spot. You may have seen the word “CLEAR” on the bridge about 200′ from either side of the span which predates the cones being used for this current special instruction. That lets you know under normal operating conditions that the usual CBD speed of 15mph can be resumed once the front of the train gets to that point.

I have an old post showing a view from the cab crossing the Steel Bridge eastbound if that helps with the visuals.

Cones and Flags

The cones are nearly functionally identical to wayside flags, which have been mentioned in this blog before. Flags with pointed ends are used in ballasted track, flags on tripods are used on paved t-rail, and cones are used in low-speed paved areas. The tunnel uses flags that are attached to the handrail on the walkway, but I don’t have any pictures of those.

Slow order wayside flag in ballasted track

There are some differences between how cones and flags will be arranged for use. In areas of the alignment that use flags instead of cones, only one yellow flag is used for a slow order unlike the pair of yellow cones used in low speed paved areas. Where flags are used for a slow order, trains must be at the ordered reduced speed when the front of the train reaches the yellow flag. Similar to the cone arrangement, trains will maintain that speed until the front of the train reaches a green flag.

Another example of cone/flag similarities:

Double red cones on Holladay Street during Streetcar tie-in work last fall indicating that this track is out of service…

… have the same meaning as these double red wayside flags (photo from expansion joint work on the Yellow Line last spring)

Writing on riding

Via TriMet Diaries, Dr Jeff wrote what is probably the most poetic description ever of a morning commute on MAX. Unsurprisingly, I love the post. It’s great to see people incorporate Portland and TriMet (especially rail, I admit that I’m biased) into art, whether it’s writing or photographs or anything else.


On some lucky mornings we stop on the bridge. Suspended there above the river, our view is exclusive to transit commuters and to the legions of cyclists who now pass us in our moment of stasis. I wonder some days whether our train operator is just exercising his prerogative, remembering the days of childhood when piloting a train over a bridge and then sweeping into a bustling city must have sounded like the best job in the world. As the train starts to descend into Old Town, I hope my operator is still finding some joy in his job. I hope that amidst all the schedule pressures and time-points he gets just a moment to realize that he’s the one who got to grow up and drive a train.

And of course, I feel compelled to answer those wonderings, even though they were probably rhetorical, but I can’t help it (MAX FAQs: Writing more about light rail than you wanted to know since 2010). No, the operator isn’t stopping on the bridge to take in the scenery – stopping there generally means your train is waiting for signal 14 to clear. It will be red if a conflicting move is in progress (e.g. an eastbound Yellow or Green line train that starts ascending the bridge while a westbound Blue or Red is crossing) or if you are too close to your westbound leader who hasn’t cleared the circuit yet.

There had been a delay, I forget why, the day I took this picture a few months ago. Maybe a bridge lift. Anyway, trains weren’t running on schedule and were back-to-back, so that Green Line train was far enough ahead for us to get up to the bridge, but not far enough to completely clear it. As a result, signal 14, which is visible to the right of that train’s trailing cab went from dark to red when we entered the circuit coming up to the signal because the Green Line train hadn’t cleared the circuit after it.

As for finding joy in being the person who got to grow up and operate trains? Your mileage may vary, of course…  there are operators (both bus and rail) who are phenomenal ambassadors for their jobs, who genuinely love what they do and take pride in it. For other operators, it’s a job that has its ups and downs, the same way accounting or tech support or waiting tables or anything else can be. And sure, there are some operators who are determined to find misery in everything, but thankfully they’re not the majority. On top of that, everyone has their good days and bad days.

The backgrounds of TriMet operators are so varied (many coming from other driving jobs – truck drivers, school bus drivers, Greyhound drivers, tow-truck and taxi drivers, etc; others from office/management positions; others from the military; others who are and were artists, salespeople, clergy, teachers, pilots, etc; others who overlap several of these job paths) that you’ll never be able to find a one-size-fits all answer even to the simple question of “How did you get to be a transit operator?” I have no idea how many bus or rail operators dreamed as kids that this is what they wanted to do versus those who just happened to find themselves doing it because life worked out that way.

But as you might have suspected, it is – hands-down and unquestioningly – the “office” with the best views you can find in Portland.

Rose Quarter

For reader Matt, who had asked about signals at Rose Quarter some 6 months ago and I’m finally writing about it. In other words, it’s a good thing “Professional Blogger / Fielder of Questions” isn’t what TriMet hired me to do.

The Rose Quarter interlocking is very complex (I’ve heard it’s one of the most complex in the country, but I don’t really have much of a basis for comparison). I’d wager it’s probably also one of the busiest, with trains passing through every few minutes. The complexity of this interlocking’s design allows for a lot of flexibility for trains in the event of a bridge lift or other reroutes.

For simplicity, in this post RQ refers to the Rose Quarter platform used by Blue, Red, and Green Line trains. IRQ refers to the Interstate Rose Quarter platform used by Yellow Line trains.

First, the whole thing from above:

As always, click for larger

Rose Quarter Platform

Starting with the signals associated with the Rose Quarter platform.

Looking west into RQ from OCC

Coming into Rose Quarter from the east (Oregon Convention Center platform), the first signals you encounter are 18A and 18B. 18A protects switches 13A, 11C, and 11D, and will remain red with an active ATS magnet if any of those switches are not aligned to move west or if there is a conflicting move in progress (e.g. a vintage trolley coming in or out of the trolley barn). 18B gives you a choice of routes between the special events track which is the middle platform, the westbound mainline track which is located to the right of the special events track, or the trolley barn.

Now in the RQ platform, looking westbound first:

16B and 16C can display identical aspects for identical routes (remember, it’s not where you are, it’s where you’re going) – the only difference is that 16B is for trains heading west from the special events track and 16C is for trains in the westbound main. A white vertical will send you toward the Steel Bridge; a red over white vertical will send you toward IRQ (Yellow Line). These signals will stay red if the bridge span is unlocked for a lift, or if there is a conflicting move in progress with the Yellow Line.

And then east from Rose Quarter:

18D, which is used by vintage trolleys leaving the barn – a white vertical to continue to the eastbound mainline; a red over white vertical for a reverse move onto the westbound mainline.

18E and 18F (similar to 16B and 16C) can display identical aspects for identical routes, with 18E used by trains in the westbound main and 18F used by trains in the special events track. A white vertical will send trains east on the eastbound mainline; a red over white vertical will send trains east on the westbound mainline.

18G is the signal for eastbound trains in the eastbound mainline at RQ – no choice of routes available here. Memory trick for memorizing signal numbers (though I don’t think they do that anymore in rail training) – “G” for Gresham, and signal 18G will get you there.

Then away from the Rose Quarter platform itself…

Interstate Rose Quarter Platform

16E at the IRQ platform. A white vertical on 16E will send Yellow Line trains over the Steel Bridge; a red over white vertical will send them into Rose Quarter. This is how Yellow Line trains can get from Expo to the Ruby yard at the end of the day. Also, when a Yellow Line train operator forgets to change the route code in their trailing cab from Clackamas’s 12 to Jackson’s 50, they get a red over white vertical here.

Then at the other end of IRQ are N2A (for trains heading north from the southbound track) and N2B (for trains heading north from the northbound track) – like Rose Quarter, IRQ is also set up to allow turnbacks in the event of a bridge lift. A lunar on these signals will send trains on the northbound mainline; a red over lunar into the Broadway Siding – you may have been on a train in the morning where it stops at IRQ, kicks everyone off, but then appears to continue north. It only goes as far as the Broadway Siding before turning around and going back west over the Steel Bridge. (Linked video was not filmed, narrated, or posted by me and does not feature me. Linked video is also old, Train 6 hasn’t done that for a while, but 33 does it currently)

Coming off the Steel Bridge

16G will display a lunar for trains heading into RQ (Blue, Red, and Green Line trains), and a red over lunar for trains heading into IRQ (Yellow Line trains).

Assorted pics of and through the interlocking

Both heading westbound toward the Steel Bridge from Rose Quarter

Can diverge to or from IRQ

You can see how you can get from either track at IRQ to RQ or the Steel Bridge

Switches and crossovers

I also have this video which I’d originally posted a few months ago, showing a view from the cab from 1st and Morrison to Rose Quarter. This was a Red Line train, so we got a lunar on 16G and went through the interlocking at the same time as another Red Line Train.

Making a parallel move with a westbound train

Given the design of Rose Quarter, what’s ideal for train movement are parallel moves, where trains can move in opposite directions at the same time. Scheduling trains to do this reduces the need to wait for other trains (e.g. sitting at RQ waiting because a Yellow Line is going through, so the switches are set against you) as well as reducing the impact that trains moving through the intersection has on auto/bike/pedestrian traffic.

Yellow Line trains making a parallel move

Fleet Week Steel Bridge Lifts

Steel Bridge up as the USS McClusky (FFG 41) arrives

The last couple of days saw the arrival of the Naval Fleet for Fleet Week. It happens every year as part of the Rose Festival in Portland, and it requires bridge lifts to allow the ships to proceed down the Willamette River. And yes, this means delays in travel times on the trains – being on the wrong side of the Steel Bridge when a lift of the upper deck is required puts trains way behind schedule and makes for some packed trains for passengers.

Lower deck raised, MAX train on span

When only the lower deck of the Steel Bridge needs to be raised (detailed diagram of the decks and lifting mechanism… Wikipedia, what can’t you do?), MAX service can continue as normal on the upper deck. It’s when the upper deck also needs to be raised that trains will either be held at platforms to wait for the bridge to go back down, or alternatively turned back the way they came.

Raised upper deck of the Steel Bridge

Maritime traffic takes priority over rail traffic, which is why MAX service can and will be interrupted for long periods of time whenever the Steel Bridge needs to be lifted (not just for Fleet Week, but whenever a ship or boat that needs the upper deck to be raised is passing through). If a train is already in one of the bridge circuits when the bridge tender begins to prepare for a lift, the bridge cannot be lifted. That train has to proceed without delay off of the bridge (out of the circuit) so that the bridge span can be lifted. Trains will be held on red signals at all locations leading to the bridge for the duration of the lift.

MAX trains run on that upper deck

The arrival and departure of the fleet make for some difficult days for commuting (and here’s your advanced notice – when the ships leave in the beginning of next week, it’s going to happen again, so expect delays either sitting on the train or taking a shuttle bus). If you’re waiting to board a crowded train, please let the people who are trying to exit the train do so – there will be more room for you to board train once they’re gone. If there’s no room for you on that train, the one advantage you have in a bridge lift is that trains will be stacked up only minutes apart once they can cross the bridge,  so you will soon be able to board one and continue on your way.

In the meantime, please be patient with the delays… enjoy the beautiful weather, and consider going down to the waterfront and checking out the fleet while they’re in town. It’s a neat opportunity for the general public to see these ships up close and talk with the men and women who are serving on them.

We will soon be returning to your regularly scheduled commute.

MAX-eye view

I haven’t posted any video in a while, so here you go. Eastbound from 1st and Morrison to the Rose Quarter, filmed a few years ago.