What Happens Now When a Streetcar Goes Out of Service?

As I’ve mentioned here before, because the cars from United Streetcar/Oregon Iron Works are a bit behind schedule (the first car is on the test track at OIW now! but it will still be there a while) to support the new east side line, we have to run every car in our 11 car fleet every weekday (we can give one car a rest on weekends).

This is very tough on our maintenance staff, who are responding heroically (they did this same drill during one of the South Waterfront extensions, when the cars from the Czech Republic were late).

But things happen, so we have to have contingency plans.

The normal operating pattern is 6 cars on the ‘NS’ line on the west side and 5 cars on the ‘CL’ Loop line.

If we have a car down, the fallback plan is to reduce the Loop line to four vehicles and short-line it. This means that instead of going south to Market St., cars on the Loop would turn around at Lovejoy and go back over the bridge.

This actually results in BETTER headways (15 minutes instead of 18) but means passengers from the east side have to transfer to get downtown (and vice versa).

When this contingency plan gets activated, the reader boards in the shelters will have a message indicating that it’s in effect.

The choice to pull a car from the Loop line rather than the NS line is motivated by customer service: we have 11,000 riders every day on the NS line – and 3-5,000 on the CL line – so we want to keep service on the NS line as stable as possible.

Of course, our strong desire is not to have to use it!

28 responses to “What Happens Now When a Streetcar Goes Out of Service?”

  1. Chris:

    Before the new line opened I had figured, after inspecting trackage and switching in the Pearl, that it would run just between OMSI and the Pearl. But last week I was startled by the sight of units coming north on 10th hanging right onto Lovejoy and the Broadway Bridge.

    Then today, after deboarding at 10th and Marshall, I was astonished to observe a unit headed east on Lovejoy hang a right onto 11th, creating not more than a minute or two headway between units headed south on 11th to PSU.

    In your exchange with Zef on a recent post you remarked that the line long had been planned as a loop. I, too, see little advantage to operating it in such a mode, and definite defects, as Zef pointed out. This even before TriMet’s new bridge is completed.

    Could you give us a post with analysis of what went into the decision for the loop topology? Personally, I find the new line a convenient way from inner Southeast to the Pearl, but can take any of a half dozen buses to travel from SE to downtown and points west. Max too.

  2. My husband finally got me to walk the few blocks to MLK to try the new streetcar over the weekend, and it was one of the new cars in testing. It was a horrible ride, as the drive mechanism made this awful squealing sound the whole time. It gave me a headache and made my stomach feel strange, and he had slight vertigo for the next few hours after we got off in Downtown. The ride was quite slow over all, and the streetcar stalled out for a minute in the middle of the bridge. Next time I use the streetcar (and that will be in Downtown), I will make sure it’s a Czech built one or I’ll just walk. We should have let the pros do the job. I recall that BART had a lot of teething issues just like this when it first started because they refused to use off-the-shelf technology and contracted an American business not experienced in making metro cars. Maybe we should have learned from that.

    Apart from the noise, the streetcar was pretty slow, especially in the Pearl. I don’t get there very often, and I am always amazed how many people are trying to drive there. The density of the area is not much help if people going there refuse to use anything but there cars, and the traffic really delays transit. A little signal priority could go a long way towards speeding up this line. The same could be said for MAX in Downtown as well. I understand it’s supposed to have priority at the lights, but my experience tells me it seldom works right. The headways are lousy all right, as well. When we arrived at the station, it was just a few minutes after one had gone by. We had to wait about twenty minute (as the streetcar was late) for the thing to come. Meanwhile, east-west buses went by that we could have used. We could have walked to our destination much faster than the streetcar got us there. Hell, it’d be faster in most cases to just take the bus across the river and walk or us a MAX line or bus line to go north to the Pearl. I’m even more baffled as to the purpose of this streetcar, and this is coming from a card-carrying rail buff! It’s presence on my side of town makes no difference to me, as the 15 and 70 are far closer, more useful, and faster routes to use. I think we wasted a lot of money building this streetcar line as it is. Damn shame.

  3. If streetcar is down entirely, we use a bus bridge as a replacement. But interspersing buses with streetcars would be pretty confusing.

    The vintage trolleys are not ADA-compliant, and we try very hard not to use them for scheduled service.

  4. This issue was discussed with great attention at the CAC meeting today.

    I don’t know how operating vintage trolleys would be affected by ADA regulations. (When they run at other times on streetcar or MAX tracks they are augmenting service rather than maintaining a minimum.)

    What concerns me in particular about the short line option, although it greatly reduces headways for those experiencing the service interruption, is that (depending on where you are going) the transfers can be inconvenient. One of the transfers is same-platform, but another can require a four-block walk with a corner to turn.

    To answer Nick’s question, the line is designed with left-side platforms along some segments. Conventional buses (and all of those utilized by TriMet) can only board on the right side, because that’s where the doors are.

    As was discussed at the meeting today, right-side boarding is OK if you’re replacing the entire service, because you can post signs at the affected stops advising all riders to board across the street.

    But if you’re substituting a conventional bus for a single streetcar, that causes confusion for riders, because you don’t know whether your particular vehicle is going to be a bus or a streetcar, and therefore don’t know which side of the street to wait at for boarding.

    But there is a potential alternative: The Lane Transit District in Eugene-Springfield operates BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) vehicles which have doors on both sides, and can board on either side of the street.

    I suggested this as a potential alternative today. I don’t know if LTD has any spare vehicles (the Eugene-Springfield system is expanding, so it’s possible), and I also don’t know if there are any compatibility issues with the streetcar platforms in Portland.

    But if it is at all possible to run those vehicles and rent one to “fill in the blanks”, I think it should be pursued.

    A few years ago, I also suggested that the LTD-style (EmX – Emerald Express) BRT buses could be run on the Portland transit mall on the left-side, in the multi-modal lane. This could boost capacity of the Mall without requiring additional lanes or construction (aside from shelters and ticket machines).

    To reiterate, I don’t know of LTD-EmX-BRT (there’s an acronym combo) would actually work on the streetcar route, but if they are actually feasible, the costs/benefits of running them until the new streetcars arrive should be seriously considered.

  5. @ Bob R:

    Which transfer is same-platform? NS (towards 23rd) to CL transfer involves walking from 10/Johnson (or 10/Northrup) to 9/Lovejoy. CL to NS (towards PSU) transfer involves walking from 11/Marshall to 11/Johnson (or 13/Lovejoy).

    Transfers between both lines were not well implemented, IMO. The only same-platform transfer is at 10/Northrup from CL to NS (towards 23rd) but this will always be required except for yard-bound streetcars.

  6. Sorry, I understand now, you mean the same-platform transfer at 10/Northrup from 23rd bound NS trains to short-running CL trains that are returning east on Lovejoy towards Lloyd.

    Carry on.

  7. Running the vintages makes sense to me. Call them off-scheduled, rolling historical displays, whatever you want, but please just supplement the service with them like they do on MAX. If people are doing their best to get ADA cars out there as quick as they can, and If this is frequency that could not be improved in any other possible way, and somebody in a wheelchair is stuck waiting exactly as long as if the unfortunately inaccessible Vintage Trolley’s had not been available, does that really violate laws?

    It wold improve ridership on the new line, it would improve quality of service for customers, and the public might appreciate such resourceful attempts to solve a tough problem.

  8. I’m with Aaron. If the vintage trolleys are all you have, put a couple of them into service during peak hours (one on each line) as placeholders until the new streetcars arrive. If someone complains and takes formal action and it turns out there’s an actual ADA problem with the decision, you apologize and stop doing it. Assuming everyone is reasonable, you can have 12 vehicles in service (10 streetcars, 2 vintage trolleys) at the busiest times of day. And after a few months it will be 12 streetcars.

  9. I would also love to see the vintage cars on this line. It’s a shame that they just sit in that barn all year! They should be out at the very least, on every Saturday.

  10. It seems like the vintage trolleys could be a nice tourism deal as well. Tourists flock to the F Line in San Francisco, I could see some of them going out of their way to take one here.

    Even if they don’t do it now, it might be a cool tourist draw (and a service bonus) once the loop is open to run one clockwise and one counter-clockwise.

  11. The San Francisco F-Line is accessible through the use of wayside ramps and lifts, similar to what MAX used to have before the introduction of low-floor cars.

    The MAX lifts were notoriously slow and unreliable, which is one reason why low-floor cars were so welcomed.

    There are no such ramps or lifts on the current streetcar route. I doubt such lifts could be installed in a timely or economical fashion for the short time-frame that we’re expected to endure without the new streetcars.

    However, that doesn’t discount whether use of Vintage cars should be investigated for practicality or legality. (Or substitute BRT-style buses, for that matter.)

  12. When the Portland Streetcar first opened, it ran a vintage trolley as part of the regular schedule. There was even a V on the posted schedule to indicate when the trolley ran. The trolley was a legal and practical option then; why not now?

  13. No so practical. We had to do things like put that V on the schedule so people with disabilities would know they could not use that vehicle. Not the kind of customer service we want to provide.

  14. I’m not saying the vintage trolley is an optimum solution. The optimum solution is “the next two streetcars are here already.” Since that’s not an option, printing a V on the schedule to attain service frequency targets strikes me as an economical temporary solution since you already have the vehicles on hand and would only need them a few hours out of the day. It works very well for more than 95% of your riders. As Aaron pointed out, a mobility impaired passenger would need to wait longer anyway if there’s no vehicle on the tracks. Is it better to inconvenience ALL of your riders to avoid inconvenience to a few?

  15. One consequence of the temporary streetcar shortage is that there was no way to write a schedule that doesn’t result in “streetcar bunching” at certain points. There are times when NS cars have to sit and wait at Lovejoy to wait for a CL car to turn right off the Broadway Bridge. There are also times, like I witnessed yesterday, when there are 2 or 3 streetcars bunched up along 10th and 11th. If I understand correctly, once all the cars are in service and headways improve, it should be possible to space the headways to avoid these bunching situations. I really wish the line had been delayed further so that it could have opened at full capacity, but I understand there was a lot of pressure to go ahead and open it.

  16. To evenly space cars on 10th and 11th we have to have equivalent headways on both lines. Which means we would need to get CL down to the 15 minute headways on NS.

    Unfortunately, to do that, we either need to budget another vehicle on the CL line (which we don’t have the funs for) or we would have to find A LOT of operational efficiencies on CL (signal timing, etc.). We don’t expect that in the near future.

    Hopefully when TriMet can put some money back into the frequent service lines they can also find a few bucks to help us make 15 minutes.

  17. I really wish the line had been delayed further so that it could have opened at full capacity, but I understand there was a lot of pressure to go ahead and open it.

    I’m happy they opened it earlier rather than later. Besides the fact it was late, I think it’s the better alternative. Maybe they should brand it a public beta test. But even as such, that could be a service win, a transparency win, and at the end of the day it should provide more comprehensive, real-world QA for the operator than if they spent this time internally testing the system. And it’s not so bad that there’s additional pressure to eek out trip time improvements!

  18. … However, simply running all the available vehicles in a death march and allowing all hell to break lose every single time something unexpected happens is really negating that whole “service win” thing, and probably means not every detail is getting as much attention as it might otherwise.

    What’s really frustrating is they’ve actually got a golden gift solution from the heavens just gathering dust. I hope folks at Portland Streetcar are as disappointed as I am that they are not using the Vintage Trolleys. I don’t understand what the insurmountable obstacle is.

    I don’t buy the legal thing. Is there a technical problem? I see doors in the right places, a height that should work with the platforms, compatible wayside communication. Heck they even have Automatic Train Stop, which is what will prevent any regular streetcar from crossing the PMLR bridge until they’re upgraded.

    By the sounds of it, they’re always living right on the edge and even just one extra car might make a world of difference. Why not have just a single Vintage Trolley, not pre-scheduled at all, just ready to go in the event that something is broken and there aren’t enough cars, so you don’t have to turn streetcars around before they reach their destinations? No “V”s to put on schedules. You can announce their general presence through an alert on the tracker displays… they aren’t good for much right now anyhow. Run them on the CL loop only as there aren’t very many people who live on the eastside alignment with disabilities who have grown accustomed to it yet, and they still have the accessible line 6.

    The trolleys do lack real-time GPS – but when the streetcar is having service problems that require bus shuttles, those don’t show up either.

  19. Why couldn’t real-time GPS be installed in the trolleys? That way the tracker board could alternate between PORTLAND STREETCAR CL 3 min 33 min VINTAGE TROLLEY CL 18 min.

    Although based on my experience last night at the “Mobile Music Fest”, the streetcars don’t have “real-time” GPS either. I started at the 7th and Holladay stop with a scheduled 6 min arrival that took closer to 12. After that, I had waited at Grand and Taylor for a “4 min” arrival that took more than ten minutes. Then I waited at Hoyt and Grand nearly 20 minutes watching the transit tracker shifting the arrival time between 5 min, 4 min, 3 min, 2 min, 3 min, 1 min, arriving, 2 min, 3 min, 1 min, 2 min, arriving, 2 min, etc. What’s going on with that? If that trackers can’t provide even remotely accurate information, why have them at all?

  20. I don’t see much political support for increasing TriMet’s operating subsidy for the streetcar anytime soon. On the contrary, the subsidy reduction was a key component of the budget fix this year and yet OPAL and other groups still think it is too high. I agree.

    There is a key equity issue regarding streetcar subsidies. If TriMet invests new revenue in increasing frequent bus and MAX service, it benefits a wide swathe of people all over the region. Since TriMet is a regional agency that collects a payroll tax from all over the region, this is fair and equitable. The streetcar is not like other frequent service lines, because it only benefits central city residents, businesses, and visitors. Sure, the central city produces a good deal of the payroll tax, but the central city also gets the bulk of bus and rail service even without the streetcar. Asking the region to pay for a downtown amenity is not very equitable.

    That said, TriMet does have a clear policy of helping to operate transit that is built by other entities. “You build it, we’ll drive it,” essentially. So there will probably always be some level of streetcar subsidy, but I just don’t think it should be increased from current levels. So how do we increase streetcar service? The answer should be a dedicated funding source that is paid by the central city. A hotel/motel tax, restaurant tax, parking tax, etc, could be used to not only subsidize the streetcar, but could also bring back the free rail zone or pay for a reduced fare zone. The central city needs to realize that if it wants amenities, it has to pay for them.

    At a recent debate, one of the candidates for mayor recalled going to a community meeting in East Portland where he mentioned the streetcar. Several people there asked, “what’s a streetcar?” This anecdote is illuminating, because it reminds us that a huge swathe of Portland region residents (perhaps even a majority) rarely go downtown if ever. Most people both live and work outside the central city. A strong downtown is important, but it is not the be-all, end-all of the region, and a regional transit agency needs to focus on regional mobility, not a downtown circulator.

  21. The streetcar arrival times are supposed to be real-time; however I have heard there are some issues with the new line.

    Also, if I remember right, the vintage trolleys did not have the equipment so they would not show up in the arrival system.

  22. While waiting for the bus at SW 11th & Adler in the afternoon, two streetcars came 3 minutes apart from each other. Is this normal now?

  23. two streetcars came 3 minutes apart from each other. Is this normal now?

    Were they the same line or different lines?

    An advantage of overlapping the two lines on 10th/11th is much shorter headways between PSU and the Pearl Dist.

    But right now there aren’t enough vehicles on hand (see all of the above) to effectively schedule operations to maintain consistent headways between the lines where they overlap.

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