Saturday, May 18, 2013

3 Kinds of Blocks

If you were to ask me, the defining characteristic of any TriMet buff is whether or not you can identify the three definitions of 'Block.'

If you are studying TriMet, you will encounter the term 'block' in three different, completely unrelated contexts. This can get confusing, but understanding what they are is essential to any other study of the system.

First, a 'block' is the area inside four intersecting streets, or the distance between one numbered street and another, or the distance between where one numbered street should be and another numbered street, or the equivalent distance overlaid upon a numbered street. I could go on and on, but I think you know what I'm talking about. For example, the stop at 7500 Block SW Canyon would be where 75th Ave would intersect Canyon. However, the stop at 4900 Block SW Barbur would be where a hypothetical 49th Ave would intersect Barbur if the numbered streets were going north/south as well. It is, in effect, 49 blocks south of Burnside.

Now, one interesting point is that when TriMet names bus stops, they may not be named based on the precise address point on the street where the stop is located. Instead, TriMet names them based upon the address sign you see most prominently when standing at the bus stop. This is why the stop at 18200 Block SW Boones Ferry is directly across the street from the 18400 Block SW Boones Ferry: these are the numbers you see most prominently at the bus stop.

Here's an example: if you are standing at the eastbound bus stop on Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy outside the Raleigh Hills Fred Meyer, the most prominent number you will see on that side of the street is the "7700" above the door on the Fred Meyer. Hence, the stop is 7700 Block SW Beaverton-Hillsdale. This is why there's some strange names, like 21907 SW Sherwood Blvd, 18882-19040 SW Tualatin Valley Hwy, and SW Canyon and Red Robin, because that's the best they could come up with based on what you see from the bus stop.

Second, a 'block' refers to the distance between two ABS signals on the MAX system. While MAXFAQs has a really great explanation here, for simplicity's sake, at each signal, a rail operator waits for clearance to proceed past the signal into the block. That block ends at the next signal. Dividing the system into blocks is what keeps trains from running into each other, because two trains cannot be in the same block at the same time. ABS (Automatic Block Signal) territory is on the westside between Washington/SE 12th and Goose Hollow/SW Jefferson and on the eastside between Lloyd Center/NE 11th and Gateway TC, between Gateway TC and PDX on the Red Line, between Gateway TC and Clackamas Town Center on the Green Line, east of Ruby Junction on the Blue Line, and north of Kenton/N Denver Ave on the Yellow Line. The rest of the system does not use blocks to control train locations.

Third, and most importantly, a 'block' refers to a set of trips a bus or train is scheduled to take each day. You see a timetable for Line 6-MLK; it has 64 outbound trips on a weekday. Some bus has to be assigned to each trip, and the block identifies which bus or train is assigned to the trips. Below is the weekday timetable for Line 6, with the current block assignments for each trip.
6-MLK Jr Blvd to Jantzen Beach, Weekday

Each block is assigned a number. For example the bus that serves the first trip on this timetable is Block 603, also referred to as Line 6, Train 03, meaning it's the third train assigned to Line 6. (Don't be confused by the usage of the term 'train;' it is a term that has been used for many years. the Line/Train designation interchangeable with the Block designation.) All buses, MAX and WES trains, Streetcars, Trams, and Trolleys in the system have a block designation. LIFT shuttles use a different system, but we won't talk about those here.

Weekday schedule (paddle) for 603
I make these for all blocks. This is the style you will see
throughout my blog in the future.
An image of the real paddle the operator of 603 uses. Each operator has a
copy of this in his pouch (bus) or on her clipboard (rail).

For buses, a three or four digit number is used. The first one or two digits represent the line number that block is assigned to, such as Line 6 in our previous example. Block 603 runs only on Line 6, but this is not always the case. Block 2901 runs on both Lines 28-Linwood and 29-Lake/Webster, but it has to be assigned to Line 29.

The last two digits represent the train number, which identifies the specific block of schedules that bus/train covers during the day. The numbers usually are ordered by the time they pull out in the morning (i.e. 601 pulls out before 602) but rare instances do exist where they are not ordered correctly. In our previous example, 603 pulls out after 601 and 602, but because it starts its first trip at SW 18th & Jefferson instead of Jantzen Beach after both 601 and 602 are running inbound, it ends up before 601 in the order all day long. However, 603 did still pull out of the yard third after 601 and 602.

Bus 2635, with the digital block display

Now, for buses, the train digits also distinguish which garage the bus pulled out of and will return to. Buses out of Center Garage will feature numbers 01-32; buses out of Powell Garage will feature numbers 34-65; buses out of Merlo Garage will feature numbers 67-89. A bus will never pull out of one garage and end up at another under normal scheduled circumstances (this can be different in the case of a bus trade or a mechanical failure).

The three or four digit block number is always clearly visible in the bottom left of the front window of the bus. Older buses (through 2500-series) have manual signs; newer buses (2600-3000s) have electronic signs.

Bus 1904, with the manual block display

All MAX trains have block numbers assigned under Line 90, and the train number designates which actual MAX line the train is assigned to. Trains 01-19 are Blue Lines out of Ruby Junction Yard; trains 20-39 are Blue Lines out of Elmonica Yard; trains 40-59 are Red Lines (all out of Elmonica); trains 60-79 are Green and Yellow Lines (always out of Ruby), which change colors at PSU. Trains may run as different colors, and all trains run as Blue sometime each day as both yards are only served by the Blue Line. In example, 9021 is the second Blue Line train out of Elmonica Yard (although strange numerical exceptions do occur, as in the fact that 9006 pulls out before 9005). For MAX, the number is most commonly referred to without the '90,' usually just called "Train 21." This two digit number shows up in the bottom right window on each end of the coupled or uncoupled trains (not the cabs facing each other where they are coupled).
Car 217 with manual block display (left); Car 404 with digital display (right)

NS-line Streetcars have block numbers 9380-9389, but they are not seen on the train. Likewise, CL-line streetcars are numbered 9470-9479. WES has 2840-2849. For all these cases, not all numbers are used (i.e. WES only runs three trains currently, 2840-2842).

In review, here is a list of numbers and what they mean:

  • 804: the fourth bus out of Center Garage on Line 8-Jackson Park/NE 15th
  • 2235: the second bus out of Powell Garage on Line 22-Parkrose, which also serves Lines 23 and 25 weekdays
  • 5272: the sixth bus out of Merlo Garage on Line 52-Farmington/185th, also serving one outbound trip on line 36 from downtown weekday afternoons
  • 9004: the fourth Blue Line train out of Ruby Junction Yard.
  • 9071: the twelfth Green & Yellow Line train out of Ruby Junction Yard, serving Blue stations from Gateway to Ruby Junction on pullout and pullin trips.
  • 9473: the fourth (not necessarily consecutive) Streetcar on the CL-line.
Three last considerations:
  1. A bus may pull out and pull back in the morning, and then pull back out in the afternoon. These are called "split-shift buses," and are usually pulled back out in the order of the number available. The actual bus assigned to the second pullout will likely be different than the first pullout. However, MAX trains that return to the yard in the morning will not pull back out in the afternoon. Any new pullouts would be assigned a new block number.
  2. Three-digit Line numbers (152-156) are assigned Line/Train numbers using the last two digits. For example, 5534 is the first bus out of Powell Garage on Line 155-Sunnyside (also on 156). This is not to be confused with 5567, which is the sole bus on Line 55-Hamilton. Buses like this will never pull from the same yard, because that would be too confusing. They would be assigned to a different line.
  3. Sometimes when writing block numbers, a slash is used between the line and train numbers (i.e. 52/72). This helps (1) note the difference between which numbers are line and which are train, and (2) distinguish between Block ID and Bus ID (i.e. there is a block 20/02 and a bus 2002, and there's only a slight chance that that bus would be running on that block, although I have seen it).
TriMet Scanner tweet using the slash to differentiate block from bus

This is a very exhaustive breakdown of the three types of blocks, although there are even details I left out. I will be talking more about these as I write, but this is a good introduction to three concepts that make up the backbone of the study of transit. If you have any questions or your mind is exploding trying to figure this information out, email me at; I would be happy to try to answer any questions.

(Block graphic from, via Google Images)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fact Check

TriMet issues a series of press releases defending its position and trying to "correct" the facts in the KOIN report. What really gets me, however, is the email.

Some of the rebuttals on the Fact Check posts are truthfully valid, while others make me wonder. However, on all the rebuttals, TriMet's missing the point yet again. It's not strictly about the numbers; it's about the perception of the numbers.

I was at first pleased when reading the email that was sent with the link to the second Fact Check post, which was repeated in the first paragraph of the actual post. But then I thought about it again and laughed a little. Here's the content of the email:

We welcome public and media attention regarding all matters related to TriMet. Being transparent helps the public understand the direction and priorities of the agency. At the same time, some of the statements made by the media and public can contain inaccurate information about TriMet. We will “fact check” any communication that misstates the facts. Today, TriMet fact checks the second part of a KOIN report about the agency.

Now, in Al Margulies style, I will break down the email with commentary.

We welcome public and media attention regarding all matters related to TriMet. (Really? Seems like in the past any time there was criticism it was either attacked or ignored.) Being transparent helps the public understand the direction and priorities of the agency. ( took you how long to figure that out?) At the same time, some of the statements made by the media and public can contain inaccurate information about TriMet. (Maybe a better word for "inaccurate" is "uninformed." Because I know Jeff did his best with the information he had, which is how we have all historically operated when the agency doesn't give us enough information to come to the "right" conclusion.) We will “fact check” any communication that misstates the facts. (That's quite an undertaking. You have been doing that on my blog. Why not Al's? Why not Lane's? There are more people listening to their blogs than mine.) Today, TriMet fact checks the second part of a KOIN report about the agency.

Looking at the content of the Fact Check document, there is one point I would like to make. Here's one of the first "facts" Mary explains (concerning where the money for the raises came from):

The promotions and salary increases for Capital Projects staff, those working on the rail project, are initially funded through the contingency funds, but then the agency is fully reimbursed by project funds. Again, project funds are restricted to the project and cannot be used to restore service or reduce fares.

Later, she disputes the comparison of the $100K employees between TriMet and Denver's RTD in this statement:

While both agencies are expanding their rail systems, Denver contracts out all of the work to a consortium of companies. For our light rail expansion, TriMet is managing the design, building and operation all in-house.

Do you see the contradiction here? In the first paragraph, it separates the funds, saying that TriMet is reimbursed for the raises from the project funds. In the second paragraph, it explains that TriMet is doing the project in-house.

Now, I do completely understand the distinction between the Operations and Capital Projects budgets, and I do understand the distinction between doing something in-house and contracting it. However, from the riders' perspective, what's the difference? And more importantly, from the taxpayers' perspective, what's the difference? It's still our tax dollars TriMet is using to build PMLR. Again, the numbers may say one thing, but it's the perception of those numbers that is really where the disagreement is at. And if Denver could contract out the RTD light rail construction, why didn't TriMet?

So, TriMet, when you check the "facts" for accuracy, remember that it's the implications of those facts that is in the public's mind. It's not just all about the numbers.

KOIN Story

Do we need a hero? Well, we have one in Jeff Gianola from KOIN-TV.

Sometimes, these days we wonder whether a journalist is really tough enough to step out and tackle the hard issues. Over the last two nights, we have seen that this phenomenon can still exist, as Jeff Gianola took on TriMet management directly, asking questions challenging the integrity of TriMet.

Actually, in all honesty, he grilled him.

When Neil McFarlane got on board bus 3051 to do an interview, I'm sure he had no idea what was about to hit him. I'm not the kind of person who likes to see someone get shot down, but seeing Neil squirm in his seat as he tried to answer questions without making the agency sound like a bucket of total corruption was rather pleasing. This is because, for once, management was forced to address the things that we riders and bloggers have been calling for them to address for a long time. And his answers were very, very weak.

Jeff worked long and hard to analyze numbers from multiple agencies in order to see where TriMet falls short. It's true that TriMet has the advantage in some details. But it is the issues that really matter, such as base fare for a short distance bus trip, that makes TriMet fail epically. Jeff brought these to light, and didn't shy away from attacking them head on. One could easily tell that Jeff personally cared about this story, which is what greatly affected the impact this story had as a viewer.

Some people (i.e. Joseph Rose at the Oregonian) had issues with some of the numbers. To those people, I'm sorry you feel that way. They are correct. But regardless of what you feel about the numbers, the main point is very clear. There are things that are wrong in the agency, and we can no longer sit back and watch them go untouched and unfixed. It is work like what Jeff did that makes these repairs possible. But it's not only skill that one needs to do such work; it takes a lot of guts and a real passion for change. Kudos, Jeff. You have done well.

My hope, however, is that this is not the end of the heroism. This is only the start. It's going to take the talents and fortitude of more people to turn this boat in the right direction. Look for opportunities you have to make an impact. Because the more people there are fighting, the closer victory will become.

At the end of the interview, Neil asks the question, "What is broken with TriMet?" Apparently, Neil isn't seeing clearly. He isn't seeing it from the viewpoint of the rider, who in reality, is the only reason TriMet exists in the first place. I hope not going forward Neil opens his eyes to see what is wrong. And if he doesn't, then we might need a change.

Read more:

Saturday, May 11, 2013


So, now I finally get to the real point of my blog: all the fine details!

I first envisioned this blog as a way to disseminate all the interesting information about TriMet that I have uncovered over the last 13 years. Due to all the mismanagement, my blog has sounded more like Lane Jensen's blog than just a technically descriptive blog. But priorities have to take precedence. I will certainly be continuing to keep track on here of all the madness that goes on in this environment, and will continue to dive into making sure information is being sent from both sides.

But now I get to delve into the details that excite me the most and inundate all of you with the highest quality set of useless TriMet facts that has ever been beheld by humankind. But it'll make you go, "Oh, now I get why that's like that," and will make you realize just how complex such a system like TriMet really is.

So here's a list and absolutely non-exhaustive list of topics that will be covered on this blog:
  • Bus lines
  • MAX stations
  • Bus fleets
  • Block details
  • Technical systems
  • Web features
Plus much more. So, sit back and enjoy all the facts and useless technical banter that will be here for the foreseeable future.

Because, really, it's all in the details...

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sock Puppets

Boards of directors are not necessarily purposed to represent specific stakeholders. The problem is, TriMet's board IS designed that way. But it's not working.

TriMet's Board of Directors features (at most) seven people, each representing one district in the TriMet service area. Each board member is highly qualified in the business sense, and some of them (i.e. Dr. Bethel in N. Portland) truly understand the community s/he works in.

However, the problem is that each board member is appointed by the governor. This can work, but hasn't so far, mainly because the people appointed currently, respectable as they may be, are not able to identify with the riders in their districts.

The idea of the republican form of government (used in generic terms, not political parties) is that people are chosen from their represented bodies to bring their issues before those in charge of making decisions. While this is a board of directors and not a senate, the fact that they supposedly "represent" their constituents makes it seem more reasonable that they should be chosen from among their constituents by their constituents. Also, although it is operated more like a corporation (which is advantageous in many ways, the stuff of future blog entries), TriMet is a government agency, which means it should represent its people and have accountability from said people. The current structure does not allow for that.

TriMet Board of Directors District Map,

Here is an example. Tiffany Sweitzer is the board member for District 2, which covers NW Portland and an area of SW Portland north of Mountain Park and east of SW 63rd Ave. (See map here) She is obviously a sharp businesswoman, as she is the president of Hoyt Street Properties, a firm that develops property mainly in the Pearl District. However, she is not a TriMet rider, nor is she as informed about the system as she should be for a board member (she didn't know that the Portland Streetcar was not owned by TriMet until recently). It would be too easy for someone like her to represent the best interests of her company over the best interests of the riders the agency actually serves.

Now, I don't mean to pick on Tiffany. She is not alone, as there is only one board member who actually uses TriMet enough to write home about. But the problem's not just that they aren't necessarily looking into the best interest of the riders. They rarely speak up in meetings.

This is where the term "sock puppets" came from. I don't advocate calling people names, but the purpose of a sock puppet sometimes feels eerily similar to what the board does. Neil presents something, they vote it in. Neil presents something else, they vote it in. Maybe they express some concern. But they still vote it in. I'm sure they really believe it's the right choice of action, but that's because they are picked from the same vine as Neil. That's a good thing to some extent, and there should be people on the board thinking along the lines Neil thinks. But the main point of the board is accountability, as they are the only entity beside the governor who is over the general manager. And without people who think differently than Neil, there is no accountability.

So this is why HB 3316 is important. It seeks to put the power of the board back in the hands of the people, where it belongs. Because this is a public agency. The only way TriMet will truly serve the best interests of the metro area is if something like this is passed.

And seriously, if I have to vote for Soil and Water people on my voting ballot, why can't I vote for the TriMet board, something I actually care about?

That We May Know the Truth...

My goal in running this blog is, first and foremost, to facilitate the transfer to true knowledge.

I often tack a tagline to the bottom of my blog posts that reflects my desire to communicate information that will help people understand both sides of the issue. Up until now, I have been enjoying getting to know the bloggers and tweeters who are fighting for the issues that they feel TriMet is failing to consider. It has truly helped me be constructively critical and understand the issues that people (including myself) feel are crucial to making TriMet the best it can be.

However, recall that I have made it clear that my position is one of moderation and not one of taking sides. While I have my own opinions, some of which I have no problem venting on Twitter, I try to keep my position effectively neutral, because I feel that taking this position is the best way to be able to bridge the gap between one side and the other.

So, Tuesday, I had the opportunity to sit down with TriMet's Public Relations Officer, Diane Goodwin, and discuss what issues the fighters are concerned about, namely, the issue of the public's waning trust in the agency. Diane was incredibly sympathetic, even being willing to share with me things about what the agency does that makes her frustrated. This meeting opens a dialogue allowing future opportunities to communicate to the agency what needs to be communicated. It also serves the original purpose of this blog, which is to communicate information from TriMet that it has incessantly failed to put out. Much of this information can dispel controversy and close the door for pointless speculation.

Now, I know that some of you (bloggers in particular) are going to shun me getting information from the agency and posting it here. That's because you no longer trust anything the agency says. I understand this, and people in the agency understand this, too. This is what I hope to remedy, helping facilitate the transfer of useful knowledge that will make things finally make sense.

However, as I am a moderator, as well as a blogger with opinions of my own, it doesn't mean that I will not continue to be critical of what the agency says or does. Just because the reasons for doing something are factual, it doesn't make them right. But you'd be surprised about how much information TriMet gave me to explain their actions actually makes sense. The reason for the distrust is twofold: (1) the information is not being spoken loud and clear, and (2) their ways of implementing some decision have been faulty or untrustworthy.

But that was then and this is now. I will try to help clear up the confusion so we can see why things are the way they are, but I will also continue to give advice, both here and in person, to those who are responsible for TriMet so that people can regain their trust in them.

So stick with me on this blog and don't turn it off because you think I'm spreading lies. I say this to both sides.

(I will have more information that Diane gave me coming soon here.)

That you may know the truth, and where it's lacking, that together we find the truth.