Friday, July 27, 2012

Tunnel Visions: Portland's MAX Light Rail

Every once in a while I hop out of New Westminster, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

It's easy to skip over Portland. Tucked away as it is in Cascadia's southern fringe between the cultural touchstones we call Seattle and San Francisco, in years gone by a lot of people just passed over it completely--not that Portlanders minded not having to share their city with the rest of the world, of course. In my own younger days I was barely aware of it, but over the past twenty-five years, Portland has become a significant force in the realm of public transit, both as an example to emulate and a challenger to surpass.

Like most American cities, Portland once relied on a streetcar system, and also like most American cities, after the Second World War it proceeded to tear the tracks out of the streets and build a roaring concrete spaghetti-plate of elevated expressways. Unlike most American cities, however, Portland didn't conclude that ordinary buses were good enough and leave things at that. Perhaps there's always been something weird about Portland, and while Seattle was spending its time digging a tunnel underneath its downtown to slam more buses through, Portland was quietly building Cascadia's second rail transit system.

As a contemporary of Vancouver's SkyTrain and a product of the 1980s, the MAX Light Rail system provided me with a finer insight into the early days of light rail. It's a product of a time when ideas like transit-oriented development were still finding themselves, back before cities were clamoring for money to build new urban rail networks. Portland was a trailblazer. That's not to say that it lacks problems and doesn't have room to improve--the one-two punch of the Great Recession and retirement obligations inked in richer times make it hard for TriMet, the MAX's operator, to keep the books balanced. Nevertheless, MAX has been making transit in Portland easier for years, and even after another coffee-loving city which shall remain nameless had a quarter-century to catch up, I found MAX far more effective at getting around--especially given the size of the city it serves.

Effective, and a bit strange and unlike any of the other transit systems I've studied so far... but honestly that's not much of a surprise, because Portland is a bit strange and unlike any other city I've visited.


Pedestrians cross Morrison Street in the Portland Transit Mall, well ahead of the next Blue Line train bound for Hillsboro.

Since its first revenue run back in 1986, the MAX (that's "Metropolitan Area Express") light rail system has expanded from a single east-west line connecting downtown Portland with some of its satellite suburbs into a network of four lines reaching in all four cardinal directions with a fifth under construction right now, supplemented by the Portland Streetcar and the modest Westside Express Service commuter rail line. These connect Portland to the suburban communities of Beaverton, Hillsboro, Clackamas, and Gresham, but if you want to get to Vancouver--that is, the other Vancouver, the one in Washington state, you're out of luck. The Yellow Line was originally envisioned to cross the Columbia River, but voters nixed that idea when it was put to them.

All of the lines come together in downtown Portland, which means that if your destination is within a couple miles of the Transit Mall, there's a good chance that the MAX can deliver you there. Around Pioneer Square, where the rails cross, you'll find a stop at practically every intersection. The system is a boon to travelers, too; if you're landing at Portland International Airport like I did, the baggage carousels are barely five minutes from the Red Line station, and from there it's a direct ride all the way downtown. Likewise, train or bus passengers alighting at Union Station can heed the "GO BY TRAIN" sign, with Green Line and Yellow Line trains passing nearby.

As far as I can tell, none of Portland's original streetcar network survived to be incorporated into MAX, and the early-modern nature of the system distinguishes it both from reworked streetcar systems like the Muni Metro in San Francisco as well as the entirely 21st-century METRO Light Rail in Phoenix. To me, the MAX felt rather like a hybrid system. Within Portland, especially downtown Portland, it acts like a streetcar--stops are frequent and the rails are embedded directly in the street, although the installion different directions on parallel streets, such as westbound trains using Morrison while eastbound trains run along Yamhill, reduce the sort of traffic issues that lead to fulminations about streetcars "blocking up the street" such as there are in Toronto these days.

Outside central Portland, the situation changes drastically. MAX trains switch from street-running to former railway lines, and stop spacing drastically increases as the train spends as long as five minutes along a route threaded between the busy Interstate and indistinguishable business parks of the sort you'll find clustered around highway off-ramps all across North America. Though at times a route running parallel to the highway can let transit riders lean back in self-satisfaction as they roll past a traffic jam, there are spots in the system--such as the approaches to the tangle of tracks around Gateway Transit Center--where they screech to a crawl.

Still, the nature of the system means that its efficiency is inherently limited compared to elevated or underground rail--the MAX is far from being a true rapid transit solution, simply because a fair chunk of it runs on streets. Once the system transitions to the former freight rights-of-way its speed picks up considerably. Nevertheless, rush hour travel time for a Green Line train from Pioneer Courthouse Square to Clackamas Town Center Transit Center--and isn't that a hell of a mouthful--a journey of twenty-one stations and around thirty kilometers, came out to fifty minutes.

Some of the stops I passed along the Green Line between Portland and suburban Clackamas reminded me of nothing if not miniature GO Transit stations, plunked down right next to the highway and outfitted with significant long-term parking--the big daddy here is the Green Line terminus at Clackamas Town Center Transit Center, where a hulking grey multi-story parking garage squats immediately adjacent to the platform, and there's no question as to how most riders are getting there. To a degree, it's understandable; the railway lines taken over by MAX have been there for a while, and they didn't exactly attract transit-oriented development. Nevertheless, once you get outside the central city, it's as if MAX changes its mode entirely and becomes a high-frequency commuter rail system.

One of the many streetside ticket vending machines you'll find in Portland.

Still, for such a large system fares on MAX are eminently reasonable, and with the integration made possible by TriMet operating it along with the regional bus system and the Portland Streetcar, it's easy to get around for cheap. Sometimes you don't even need to pay a fare at all; much of downtown Portland and rather a bit beyond is enclosed within the Free Rail Zone, established back in 1975 as Fareless Square, and within this space it's all hop-on, hop-off without any ticket required at all. Unfortunately, thanks to TriMet's budget difficulties this freedom isn't long for this world, and on September 1st the Free Rail Zone will--poof--disappear. For now, though, it's a boon to Portlanders and miserly tourists alike.

At the time of my visit in early June, TriMet's service area was divided into three zones extending outward from central Portland, similar to the way TransLink has divided up Metro Vancouver but without interference from vagaries of geography. Even so, when it comes to the price tag TriMet has TransLink beat: an adult all-zone ticket, which allows the holder unlimited use of transit services for two hours, costs only $2.40. An unlimited-use day pass, which was my ticket to getting around Stumptown, set me back only $5. The September reorganization that's getting rid of the Free Rail Zone will also eliminate the zoned fares, and while the adult fare is being raised ten cents to $2.50, the price of a day pass will remain stable--still making it one hell of a deal. Here in Vancouver, it's twice that price.

The most direct way to get the tickets is to buy them directly at the stations--MAX is not one of those systems where you can buy your fare aboard. There on the side of the street you'll find ticket vending machines that accept cash, credit, and debit cards, and while they didn't have a problem running my Canadian credit card, some machines don't take cash at all and others just don't register the card you're sliding through the reader again and again. It's not necessarily a gamebreaker, since stations have multiple machines, but if you're in a hurry that uncooperative hunk of metal can mean the difference between taking your seat and watching the train breeze away while you're only seconds from the doors. What surprised me the most about these outdoor machines is that a lot aren't even covered--after all, Portland isn't exactly the driest city in the world.

There's one thing they don't go out of their way to tell you, though, but if you're a tourist seeing the sights it's a good way to save a bit of money--at the Oregon Zoo, directly adjacent to Washington Park Station, showing that you got there by MAX means you're eligible for a slight discount on zoo admission. So you can go in and see all the critters for even less than you'd expected to pay, all thanks to the rails.


People gather at Oak Street/Southwest 1st Avenue Station in Portland's Old Town.

The nature of MAX stations is highly dependent on what part of the system you'll find them in. Within Portland itself, they're as lightly brushed-in as possible while still serving the function of stations; there'll be a sign denoting the name of the station with colored circles indicating what lines service it, a couple of ticket vending machines, a few benches, TV monitors with next-train arrival times, some garbage cans, and perhaps one or two long shelters in case the rain comes pelting down. They're rather reminiscent of stations on the METRO Light Rail in Phoenix, in that respect--though Phoenix is far more likely to be the world's driest city than Portland.

The only areas where you're required to have a valid fare are aboard MAX trains and other TriMet vehicles, so there's no need for any permanent barriers; instead, they just blend into the surrounding urban environment. This does change from time to time--in its article "TriMet Life," Willamette Week drew attention to TriMet's practice of establishing temporary barriers around the MAX station at Jeld-Wen Field, home of the Portland Timbers, for fare enforcement purposes after games let out. It sounds similar to the way that the TTC staffs Exhibition Loop with collectors while the CNE is running, but without any fixed structure.

When it comes to fixed structures, though, Washington Park Station makes up for all the rest of them put together. With its platforms dug out two hundred and sixty feet beneath Washington Park, it's the farthest underground that urban transit has taken me so far. As Portland's only subterranean station, it's no surprise that it maintains a geological theme throughout, from the smooth stonework of the surface building to the rock core samples on display in the clear tubes at platform level. Public art also has a firm presence there, making up for its general absence at the central Portland stations, with the platform wall adorned with renderings of dinosaurs, dodos, and the development of the human skull, descriptions of geological and biological history, and a timeline of invention that goes from writing in 3500 BC through soap and the seismograph to microprocessors in 1969. Having that sort of stuff to read while waiting for the next train was a welcome change from the "advertising and also a few news clippings" standard that I've found in places like Vancouver and Toronto. What really struck me about washington Park is the entrances and exits: while there's presumably an emergency staircase or two for if things go sour, all regular access between the platform and surface is entirely by elevator.

One of the platforms at Washington Park Station, North America's deepest transit station.

Once outside downtown Portland the station designs change significantly, reflecting their surroundings as well as the time in which they were built. One of my trips took me out to Beaverton Transit Center in the suburban community of Beaverton, Oregon, the Red Line's western terminus but an intermediate station on the Blue Line. It's also the point where the Westside Express Service commuter rail connects to the rest of the system, but if not for the absence of huge sprawling parking lots it could have been any GO Transit station in the sprawling fringe of the Greater Toronto Area.

It's a complex station, as MAX stations go; there are three tracks serving Red Line and Blue Line trains, a fourth a minute's walk away where the WES commuter trains unload, and a modest station building that wouldn't be out of place on the Barrie Line, and stops for the multiple bus routes that converge there. It's open and simple to get around, but to me it felt like an outpost of transit flying the flag in an indifferent wilderness.

Now, I didn't see much of Beaverton while I was there, so I can't speak on what that community is like... but from the environs of Beaverton Transit Center, there didn't seem to be much of anything for the station to connect with. The half-vacant Canyon Place shopping center to which it's adjacent seems more like it's hiding the station. On my admittedly brief walk around the area, the only hint I saw of the transit center's existence was a "NO PARK AND RIDE" sandwich board in the mall's parking lot--otherwise, had I not arrived through there, I could easily have not realized what was right next door.

Outside of Portland, where the nature of the streets demands the use of side platforms carved out of the sidewalk, the stations themselves vary between side and center platforms; the problem I found is that there's not much consistency in terms of "group of side-platform stations" followed by "group of center-platform stations," and so on my ride out to Clackamas I found myself performing the Nanaimo Station Shuffle--that is, stepping out of the car to let people in or out, because that's the only move I can make--as soon as Lloyd Center.

The terminus at Clackamas Town Center Transit Center is a center platform sandwiched between two tracks--and there "sandwiched" is not an exaggeration, but a simple statement of fact. The platform is perhaps twelve feet wide, and when you combine that with an unloading train that was still standing room only, I had to fight against a human riptide to get to the best position for the photograph I wanted.


Two Type 2 trains rest side-by-side at Beaverton Transit Center.

The MAX may have a relatively short history, but that history is clear to see in the shape of its rolling stock. Until 2009, the system relied on trains that made no secret of their 1980s design heritage, even the ones produced in the 1990s and early 2000s. These older models, the Type 1s manufactured by Bombardier and Types 2 and 3 by Siemens, harken back to the early days of light rail in North America. With their boxy frames and physical rollsigns, they first struck me as predecessors of the Kinki Sharyo cars used in Phoenix and Seattle or beefier cousins of the ALRV, and their lines are reminiscent of the ALRV-derived rolling stock that were used by the Santa Clara VTA Light Rail until 2003 and which are still used by TRAX in Salt Lake City. They're close to being one model in multiple varieties, like the Mark II cars on Vancouver's SkyTrain - recognizeably similar to one another, but with noticeable design differences.

For me, the differences between the Type 1 cars and their immediate successors are most obvious on the inside--they're high-floor vehicles, which is not particularly surprising for something that entered service in 1986. Subsequent MAX rolling stock is low-floor, with the entire car accessible without having to climb a single stair, and MAX was among the first of North America's light rail networks to roll out low-floor cars, back in the late 1990s. No matter what type, they are big and roomy and feel very open with their high ceilings. Type 2 and Type 3 cars have spaces for bicycles as well as dedicated wheelchair spots, and priority seating for seniors is marked out near the doors. The operator, like in many other designs, is completely separated from the passenger space. Considering the amout of assaults that happen when that's not the case, it's not a bad idea, though the double-ended nature of the cars does cut down on seating somewhat as a result.

These cars are smooth while accelerating and quiet when driving, with the loudest noise coming from the thankfully-present air conditioning system, although when they're at top speed I noticed a tendency towards what the notes I took at the time call "a manic electric wail." It wasn't anything particularly annoying, as I recall, only a bit unique.

These older cars are most frequently seen in two-car consists, but due to the limitations imposed by the size of Portland's blocks they can't get much larger than that. Still, they are double-ended, so it's a fairly common thing to encounter one-car Green or Yellow Line trains later in the day.

Then there are the Type 4s.

One of the new Type 4 Siemens S70 trains running the Blue Line to Gresham negotiates a curve along SW 1st Avenue.

Even if you've never been to Portland, you may already be familiar with the Type 4 train. Outside Portland they're known as the S70, and it's quickly becoming one of the workhorses of modern American light rail; it's also used in Charlotte, Houston, San Diego, Salt Lake City, and even on the French networks in Paris and Mulhouse, where they're used in a tram-train role. It would also have been the main rolling stock of the expanded Ottawa light rail system until that plan fell apart a few years ago. If Surrey's light rail ambitions get off the ground, they may end up using them here.

They're futuristic, fast, and sleek--"the sleek ones" is how I thought of them before I got around to looking up what they were actually called. Their rollsigns are digital and, for me, far easier to understand at a glance--where Type 1 through 3 trains have the written destination on a background of the line color it's serving, Type 4s just have a simple square of color next to the destination. As far as I recall, all of the cars have side-mounted rollsigns as well, a necessity given the degree of interlining that occurs across the system.

As befitting modern vehicles, the Type 4 trains are all low-floor and manage to squeeze in a little more room for seated and standing passengers, topping out at a per-car capacity of 172 and thereby beating out even the modern Mark II cars on the SkyTrain. I never saw Type 4 trains running on their own, though, and there's a good reason for that--unlike the rest of the cars in TriMet's inventory, Type 4s are not double-sided. Instead, they have seating at the end of the car opposite the operator's cab in the same way as CLRVs and ALRVs do. One of the other things that struck me as odd about the Type 4 cars is that the lion's share of the seats face backwards. They also make unique sounds--on multiple occasions while riding different Type 4 cars, I encountered an odd creaking noise during braking and not during braking, because that really narrows it down, you know?

Across all of the cars there's a very limited advertising presence, and most of the ads that are there are for TriMet itself. These include civil rights reminders of the sort that surprised me on encountering them in the BART--surprised that this kind of thing needs to be spelled out--in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Korean, and Chinese, but otherwise the notices tend to be in English or Spanish only. There are passenger assistance alarms, but no mechanism for a passenger to request an emergency stop.

There's not much bench seating in MAX rolling stock, mostly just in the central articulated sections of the cars, which works just fine for me--I hate bench seating, those rows of seats next to each other along the walls of the car. Mostly the seats are arranged two-by-two, though there are a handful of single seats here and there. They're hardly common, though. I imagine that during busy periods, they would become rather hot commodities.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

The wide-open interior of a TriMet Type 3 car.

There are no barriers to riding the MAX. There are no fare-paid zones, no turnstiles, nothing--it's an honor system, like the SkyTrain still is until they finish the reconstruction, and though there is fare enforcement done on the system I never encountered it during my four days in Portland. Proof of payment is all that you need, and that proof of payment can take you far; a ticket or day pass purchased at a MAX ticket vending machine is equally valid on the Portland Streetcar or TriMet's bus system.

The rules for passengers are fairly standard, the sort of thing you find at transit agencies across North America: no consumption of food and drink, no blocking of aisles or doors--a rule, incidentally, that may be very difficult to follow depending on the design of your rolling stock, such as the Mark I SkyTrain cars--and no bicycle riding, rollerblading, or skateboarding on TriMet property, although these restrictions generally are followed as closely as you'd expect. More than once I saw someone hop on their bike or skateboard and ride along down the platform only seconds after getting off the train.

Like other, modern systems, MAX is equipped with automated voice announcements, and it generally follows the pattern I've noticed earlier of "female English speaker, male Spanish speaker," although for some reason Green Line notifications seem to use a male voice regardless of language. Destination information is simple, taking the form of "This is a Green Line train to Clackamas Town Center," repeated in Spanish. At every stop the cars announce which doors will be opening, a technological leap that most transit agencies are still puzzling over, though I found it an odd bit of anthropomorphization in that the announcements state this in the form of "doors to my right." Unlike other agencies, there are no door-closing chimes--the car just tells you that "the doors are closing."

The announcements also mean that, whether you're a new Portlander or an fumbling tourist, you don't have to mispronounce street names out of ignorance. Here's a hint: "Couch" and "Glisan" are not said the way they're spelled.

Depending on how you arrive in Portland, reaching the MAX can be easy or a little less easy if you don't know to look for it. At Portland International Airport, the signs pointing to the MAX platform are difficult to miss, as is the huge revolving door that leads to the station and the wall of Red Line schedule pamphlets. If you come by train to Union Station, it's only slightly more tricky because there's no signage anywhere that I could find admitting to the MAX system's existence. If you came by bus, there is room for potential misunderstanding: while there is a platform right outside the main terminal doors, served by the Green Line and Yellow Line, boarding a train there will take you away from downtown Portland.

Whether you're going to or from downtown, headways can be a bit of an issue. In the Free Rail Zone, of course, it's effectively irrelevant--the high degree of interlining delivers a train every few minutes when things are going well, and if you're not going far you may be able to just hop on the first one that shows up. Beyond that, though, the time between trains telescopes massively. At 9:33 AM on a Saturday, for example, the next Green Line train was scheduled for arrival in eleven minutes, and the next one after that wasn't expected until 10:21; nearly a forty-minute separation. There are commuter rail systems that have better headways than that. Likewise, as early as 9:30 PM, I observed Blue Line trains already starting to be short-turned at Willow Creek Transit Center, well in advance of the line's usual terminus at Hillsboro.

One thing that you do have to be careful about while in downtown Portland, when it comes to stations, is making sure that you're at the right station--not in terms of whether this platform will take you in the direction you want, but whether or not it's a MAX station at all. In addition to rail, Central Portland is heavily served by buses, many of them paralleling MAX routes for at least some distance in the core, and it's easy to confuse a bus station for a MAX station if you're not careful. The main differences are that the stop sign will have a logo of a bus instead of a MAX train, there will be no ticket vending machine--since tickets can be purchased directly aboard buses--and the monitors will have arrival times for multiple bus routes. Still, it's an easy mistake to make that could eat up time you don't necessarily have.


A Green Line train unloads passengers at Union Station.

I won't ignore that TriMet and the MAX have problems--it's a common affliction of transit providers everywhere. Vancouver has TransClunk, Toronto has Take the Car, Portland has Try-Mess. Even though MAX is setting ridership records, even in a city like Portland and its surroundings it still has to reckon with ingrained cultural attitudes of car ownership. The article that Willamette Week published about the system while I was there was enlightening, because when reading between the lines it made it seem like there are a lot of people in the Portland area who are still essentially unfamiliar with the system, even after twenty-five years.

Part of this is due to the structure of the system; even in Portland, there's a lot of the city that it doesn't even come close to serving since the old rights-of-way didn't go that direction. Expansion of the Portland Streetcar, as well as the construction of the new Orange Line south to Milwaukee, will bring higher-order transit service to areas that lack it. Nevertheless, Portland itself has hardly reached "built-out" status when it comes to transit, and there is a lot of room for it to expand physically and culturally.

It faces problems doing that, of course, problems strongly rooted in the past. Portland's downtown is heavily evocative of the past, from the towering architecture that still stands as a badge of 19th-century prominence, to the numerous "FOR RENT" and "FOR LEASE" signs that mark a city in some respects still recovering from the one-two punches of the postwar migrations and the recent economic crash, and the ubiquity of parking. There's one parking garage at SW Alder and SW 4th that advertised an $11 per day rate, and one street away at SW 3rd there was another garage hawking an $11.50 "Early Bird" special and a maximum daily rate of $16, and they were just two of many. It didn't seem like it would be particularly difficult to find a parking space in downtown Portland, and though community opposition did rally to prevent the 1950s transit vision from fully materializing, Portland remains heavily stocked with highways. Against that sort of convenience, and when culture has spent decades encouraging the use of private automobiles, any transit system would be at a disadvantage. Even today, there are people still campaigning against the extension of MAX service to their stomping grounds.

But MAX has potential nevertheless. Potential power to the MAX!

Previous Tunnel Visions

1 comment:

  1. It's all lovely unless your a transit dependent rider who doesn't live within walking distance or work within a walking distance from the MAX.


    I know, I live here and have followed the ins and outs of Trimet for years.

    When you don't live here and look around it looks so wonderful.

    When you actually live here and use Trimet regularly things are not a rosy as the facade would have you believe.