Several months ago I raised my concerns about TriMet’s decision to give the upcoming Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line its own color (the Orange Line) rather than simply extending the Yellow Line south through downtown, allowing riders to travel from one end of the region to the other on a single train. Even with the Orange Line name, I had hoped that at the very least the trains would be interlined through downtown with the Green or Yellow Line, but a TriMet spokesperson told me on a tour quite definitively that Orange Line trains would stop at Union Station and would not be interlined with existing service.
Well, none other than Neil McFarlane (General Manager of TriMet) has confirmed that the information I had been given was incorrect, and that Orange Lines actually will interline with Yellow or Green Line trains through downtown. He said that normally TriMet does not come up with a color designation until closer to the opening of a line, so that they can do a thorough analysis of the proper service design, but in this case the color Orange was chosen early on even though they always expected most trains to interline with Yellow Line trains. He did not really have an explanation for the early choice to separately brand the line, but defended the choice based on the operational flexibility gained by being able to interline with either Green or Yellow trains as needed.
While this is welcome news compared with the prospect of trains terminating downtown for no reason, it still presents a pointlessly complicated and confusing situation for both riders and operations. For riders, it means that someone getting on an Orange Line train from Milwaukie whose destination is past downtown will have to consult a schedule to determine if that train will turn into a Yellow train or a Green train. It means someone boarding a train at Rose Quarter Transit Center will have to figure out if their train will go through to Milwaukie or stop at PSU. It means the system map will likely show the lines as being totally separate (see map above) even though in practice they will not be.
For operators, it means trains will have to switch colors at some point and communicate that to riders. Imagine for a moment how many times a day you will have to hear over the intercom, “Attention ladies and gentlemen, just a reminder that this Yellow Line train is now an Orange Line train.” Imagine how confusing that will be for anyone who is not a daily commuter. And where exactly will this color switch take place? Rose Quarter or Union Station? South Waterfront or PSU? There is really no good answer to this, which will make it a real challenge to operate and for riders to understand.
Neil also defended the “flexibility” of interlining with Yellow or Green trains as needed because he claimed the demand on the Orange Line will require different frequencies than the other lines. I very much doubt that is true. The Yellow and Green Lines both currently operate at roughly 15-minute headways all day, and that should be plenty of capacity for the Orange Line as well. It’s not as if Milwaukie is anticipated to become a high-density urban center anytime soon. All these MAX Lines are going out to low- to medium-density areas that we hope will become more dense in the future. Hopefully they will all be able to justify 5- or 10-minute headways someday, but for now there is just not enough ridership to justify higher frequency, especially when bus service is suffering under the weight of repeated cuts to the Frequent Network.
In any case, there is still no valid reason not to simply extend the Yellow Line south and keep things simple. It’s better for riders and easier to operate. We can save the color Orange for another line down the road. I urge TriMet to think this through and not feel like they are stuck with this name because someone years ago thought it would be a good idea–it’s not. If the name is still kept, I hope they strive to make the switch between colors as clear as possible and find a good way to communicate to riders that they can indeed ride through downtown and out the other side.
Zef Wagner is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree at Portland State University, specializing in transportation planning. He will graduate in June 2013 and is currently seeking employment.