Friday, November 15, 2013

Proof that New Sign Programmer Doesn't Know Portland

To all the residents of the SW Portland suburbs: you may want to sit down when you see this pictures. No more words are necessary.

UPDATE (2/22/14): A couple weeks after this was posted TriMet's exemplary sign programmer went through and changed the signs to spell the cities correctly. They also added double-lined signs on overheads for 54-Beaverton/Hillsdale Hwy and 35-to University of Portland.

I was informed by one of the veteran bus drivers out of Merlo that the reason these signs were wrong was because TriMet had Gillig Corporation program the signs before the buses were shipped. That way, the signs were ready to go upon delivery. Apparently, the person reading the list didn't have particularly good vision and therefore we had poorly represented cities on our buses.

Someone told me a humorous story about the 3100-sign misspellings that may or may not be true, but nonetheless is entertaining. According to the account, the mayor of Tigard was walking down the street and saw a 76/78 bus go by with the word 'Tigran' clearly written on the sign. He immediately called TriMet and told them, "Hey, you misspelled my city's name!"

Thursday, November 7, 2013


You know that saying, "**** happens?" Well, it's true, regardless of which four-letter word you insert there.

This morning, MAX broke. First, a car ended up in the right-of-way up on Interstate Ave, causing delays on the Yellow Line (and, hence, the Green Line, as they are interlined). After that was resolved, a piece of plastic got caught in the wire between SE Fuller Rd and Clackamas TC, delaying the Green Line again. (That darned plastic! Shouldn't it be outlawed? It kills whales and delays MAX trains.) About the same time, there was a switch problem on the Aiport alignment, shutting down the Red Line between Gateway and PDX. Now we have shuttle buses running between Fuller Rd & Clackamas AND between Gateway and PDX. After this, we had another switch problem (maybe we should switch to buttons?) on the Steel Bridge, delaying EVERYTHING. So basically, at this point, everybody is screwed. Sorry, riders.

This is the primary downfall of light rail: an incident affecting one train affects every train behind it because no one can pass. And since the Blue Line can't go around the Green Line, all the trains would be delayed along the Banfield. And then out to Hillsboro and North Portland. But regardless of the mode of transportation, there will be disruptions and delays because of weather, and to a greater extent, humans, two things we have very little control of.

Now, TriMet does a decent job of planning for the weather. They've been known to go overboard in preparing for any possible snow-pocalypse that never happens (because this is Oregon), but you have to give them credit for being ready. And with all the 2600-3100 series buses having automatic drop-down chains, TriMet is basically geared up for any weather situation that may come.

BUT, TriMet is notorious for ineffectiveness when dealing with human errors and technical malfunctions. Now, I'm not talking about actually fixing the problem -- I'm talking about keeping people moving around it.
Whenever something breaks, the story used to go something like this:
   -1000am Problem occurs
   -1010am Sup announces that yes, we do have a problem
   -1017am Twitter announcement says there is a problem
   -1019am Someone says, Let's do a bus bridge
   -1029am Bus bridge in place
   -1030am Problem resolved; trains rolling

Do you see the problem here? Granted, they have done a better job of keeping things moving lately. But there's still a problem. In business school, we call this 'reactive,' as opposed to 'proactive,' management. It's like they run the system expecting nothing to break, and if something breaks, they manage it as though it will be fixed in minutes. This sometimes happens, but it's not what people see. People see the big breaks, and when those do break big for TriMet, they break bad.

Any good manager knows to be prepared for when things go wrong. We call this 'risk management,' which is the art of predicting potential problems and coming up with a plan to make the company work if it does occur. Depending on your industry, you as a manager will have different priorities when it comes to getting the company up and running. If you are a manufacturing firm, for example, maybe maintaining production flow will be your priority.

As a transit agency, the most important thing for TriMet is making sure people get from Point A to Point B (which, in reality, is really its only purpose in existence). I'm not implying that keeping people moving is not TriMet's priority, they just simply do a terrible job of making it happen in the case of a major service disruption. Again, keep this in context. Our maintenance crews do a fairly good job of getting the mechanical systems back up and running. It's the people who are supposed to make sure passengers keep moving who are failing here.

A major problem with this is the use of bus bridges. When the MAX system breaks, shuttle buses are dispatched to fill the gap. (It is important to note that usually the gap is much larger than the actual problem area, as trains need to be able to turn around and there are only a few places where they can.) Sometimes the bus bridge is effective, such as when the person walked in front of the MAX train at Goose Hollow on Tuesday night. This is because many buses were heading back to the yard, and so they quickly diverted them to the problem area. But other times they have to either (1) dispatch buses from the yard, or if there's no available operators, (2) pull buses from other lines. This really ticks people off, because it makes it look like TriMet cares more about keeping the MAX system running than providing bus service. But one of the public communications officers told me once that there is a great absenteeism problem with bus operators, making it impossible to pull enough people from the yard. For example, there was a Red Line breakage between Gateway and PDX a few months ago, but although the break lasted over an hour, they were only able to dispatch one shuttle bus from Powell Garage to fill the whole five-station gap. This was because there simply weren't enough operators in the yard. This is a really big problem, one that no one has ever addressed.

My point? I want to point out two major conclusions:

The system is going to break. We all want a system that doesn't break and flows smoothly on-time everyday. And while the agency should strive for this, we can't expect everything to go perfectly all the time. Things are bound to break. For example, who would have known that a car was going to fly off the I-5 bridge over Rose Quarter TC and smash into the signal box, thowing off train and car signals for weeks until they got if fixed. The agency was criticized for not having the replacement parts, but the reality was that in the 26 years of MAX this device had never had to be replaced. It was an inconvenience, but again, crap is going to happen no matter how much you try to stop it.

Be proactive. Risk Management means having contingency plans in place for the instances that have the highest risk or worst consequences. Having the replacement for the indestructable part may not be necessary, but having a solid bus bridge plan in place (with the necessary resources) to fill the gap due to a switch problem issue is very important. It tells the riders that the agency cares about getting the people where they need to go as close to on time as possible. This means having at least 3-4 buses and operators on call at all times to make this possible. (I don't want to hear any "we don't have the resources right now" stuff---you should budget this before you budget other projects that don't help the current system.) Also, instead of building a light rail line to Tigard (which I do think is important eventually, but not now), we need added spur tracks, passing tracks, storage tracks, and crossovers to help get trains around problems in the current system. That takes money and time, but if you want to do it well, you have to do it right.

I hope that in the future TriMet does a better job of handling these situations, and that everybody understands that things do happen and cuts them a little slack. However, this slack is only possible when TriMet proves that they've done everything they possibly can to make the system work right.

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