Tribune reporter gets a lesson in MAX train safety
"Start slowing down, start slowing down," my TriMet trainer said as the MAX train I was driving approached the agency employee and a Portland Tribune photographer at the end of the test track.
It was Tuesday, Sept. 24, and the regional transit agency had set me up to drive the train as part of Rail Safety Week, a national public service campaign to urge taking precautions around rail lines.
The all-too-brief experience was more than enough to convince me of its wisdom. The 55-ton train, traveling at 15 miles per hour, takes 100 feet to stop. Light-rail operator Brittany Hall urged me to keep it under 15 mph.
TriMet later released videos of what it calls "dangerous behavior" around its MAX trains. They included people walking, biking, driving and riding scooters in front of approaching trains. The demonstration helped me better understand just how dangerous such behaviors are. In one video, a bicyclist actually runs into the side of a moving train, although he gets up apparently unhurt.
Sharp-eyed readers know that in addition to my reporting duties, I am also the automotive editor at the Tribune and post frequent new car reviews. I fell in love with cars in high school in southern Oregon and have owned many over the years, mostly offbeat used ones that caught my interest and required frequent work to keep running. I never made any money off them, and I admit my hot-rodding contributed to some of the repair bills.
Now I get to drive a new car every week, including the evolving crop of electric vehicles, which is one reason I quickly accepted TriMet's invitation.
I am not yet convinced EVs are the future because of their higher prices and the challenges of recharging if you don't have a garage. But I am impressed by the smooth power generated by their electric motors. And a MAX train is really a big EV, powered by overhead lines instead of onboard battery packs.
But, after I arrived at the Elmonica Rail Operating Facility along Southwest Jenkins Road on the western edge of Beaverton, I quickly realized there are a lot of other differences, too.
It was a one of more than two dozen Type 3 double cab, dual-motor trains bought from Siemens AG for the Portland-to-Milwaukie line and future growth. Obviously, the train is much longer than an electric car, 92 feet compared to 14 feet for a Chevy Bolt. The train is also much more powerful, with each of its two motors producing 518 foot pounds of torque, compared to 266 for the Bolt's single motor.
But the controls in the cab are completely different, too. There is no steering wheel, of course, because trains ride on rails. And there are no accelerator and brake pedals, either.
Speeding and braking are controlled by a single lever to the left of the operator's seat. Push it forward to go, pull it back to stop.
There is no reverse, however. To change directions, drivers have to walk to the cab at the other end of the train and start all over.
And, of course, there are many other controls, including buttons for opening and closing the side doors, a switch to sound the horn, a microphone for speaking to riders, and a phone for calling a supervisor in a crisis — all of which is a lot to remember.
But, under Hall's direction, I was able to complete several runs without hitting the cones that marked the ends of the test track.
So here's the safety lesson: Accelerating is what I expected because I already knew electric motors produce all their tremendous torque at once. Despite its length and weight, the train picked up speed quickly when the lever was pushed forward.
But stopping was something else again. Pulling the lever back all the way slowed the train, but did not immediately stop it. According to TriMet, stopping a MAX train at full speed takes one-fifth of a mile or more than 1,000 feet.
Anyone who inadvertently steps too close to a MAX train at any speed is risking life and limb. It's not a car, train or even a TriMet bus. It can't stop short in an emergency, period.
As a car nut, the demonstration offered me some other insights about TriMet's operations, too. There were many trains being rotated in and out of the yard, but there also was one of the earliest trains being salvaged for parts that aren't made any more.
Most of my cars have needed parts that are hard to find, and I've frequently visited area wrecking yards in previous years looking for them. I've also bought nonrunning car parts to plunder for less than the cost of the parts I've needed. So I understood the value of the train that was parked on a side track and missing much of its front end.
I also appreciate a good garage, and was impressed by the large shop at the yard. It can accommodate up to 10 trains at a time, which can be serviced both from above on walkways and from below in deep bays. Most of the work is preventative maintenance, but emergency repairs also can be done there. It's a world removed from the jack stands that have supported my cars in driveways over the years.
Safety in the shop is a top priority. The trains need to be powered up for much of the maintenance and repair work. All of the bays are served by 750-watt overhead power lines. Rail equipment maintenance manager Robert Romo says nothing can come within 10 feet of them when they are live.
And after reporting about Portland housing issues over the years, I was surprised to see the very large amount of new apartments near the MAX station at Elmonica and Southwest 170th Avenue.
You might think density along transit lines is only happening in Portland or at Orenco Station in Hillsboro. But I came across hundreds of new apartments near restaurants and shopping within easy walking distance of the station while driving to my appointment. And, unlike most in Portland, many are surrounded by trees and open spaces. TriMet says about 1,140 people use the station every day.
Some have argued that such stations could be made safer with more crossing gates, fencing and turnstiles. TriMet is trying to strike a balance that keeps everything moving smoothly. Being aware of your surroundings at all times is everyone's responsibility.
You can see TriMet's videos here.
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