Does somebody out there have a MAX-shaped voodoo doll?

Westside MAX is down today, as a speeding car trying to negotiate the loop ramp from US26 to OR217 ran off the highway, landing on the MAX tracks at Sunset Transit Center. Nobody at the station was hurt; the driver (who was intoxicated) only suffered minor injuries, and no MAX trains were involved, but the overhead wires powering the MAX line were destroyed. Service is not expected to be restored until this evening.

TriMet users have had it rough in the past several years, and rougher in the past two months, since the latest round of fare hikes and service cuts went into effect. But it seems that the problems have been exacerbated by an unusual number of incidents (many involving MAX) that are, certainly, outside the agency’s control: A car runs into a pole, disabling Transit Tracker for a couple of weeks. This morning’s happenings. Numerous other collisions between MAX trains and motor vehicles–all of which, AFAIK, the fault of the motorist rather than the TriMet operator? It seems as though someone out there has a voodoo doll…

…but that said, there’s an old saying: “You make your own luck”. While the incidents themselves are probably things that TriMet cannot reasonably do something about–should we cover the tracks everywhere just in case a car runs off the road and lands on them?–TriMet’s ability to respond to these things has been compromised. Reduced bus service means that when a bus bridge is needed, then there is a greater impact on bus riders–each bus run which is cancelled is a greater percentage of the total. Reduced staffing levels reduces the number of “spare” operators (including supervisors who are trained and licensed to drive a bus if necessary) available. And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that deteriorating relations with the union has meant fewer drivers are willing to come to work outside their scheduled shifts to help man a bus bridge.

Dedicated-corridor rapid transit is generally considered more “reliable” in that under normal circumstances, it doesn’t have to contend with traffic jams and other things which may impact its ability to keep to schedule (or maintain a specific headway). But the downside of dedicated-corridor running (particularly rail) is that when something does go wrong, the entire line can be taken out of service, rather than just one vehicle. TriMet is actually fairly good about being able to get fallback service running when an incident shuts down MAX (it gets plenty of practice, after all), but a good argument can be made that in this time of reduced budgets (and reduced operational flexibility), doing so is materially affecting service in other parts of the system–far much moreso than was the case prior to the service cuts.

Restoring service hours on the existing network (mainly bus, but also under-served portions of MAX–light rail with 20 minute headways, or worse, is not at all cost-effective) needs to be the agency’s, and the region’s, focus. Given some of the news that has come from the SW Corridor planning, it appears that at least a few folks at Metro have gotten the message, and that business is no longer as usual–but there are plenty in the region who still view public transit through a capital-projects prism. Rapid transit doesn’t make sense unless you have a good, basic, high-frequency bus service for it to networ with. Five years ago, when many of the current plans were drafted, we did; today, we don’t (or are on the knife’s edge). TriMet ridership reached record levels this past summer; unfortunately, these riders were served by fewer service-hours, meaning longer waits, more crowded vehicles, and less reliable operations.

But in the meantime: whoever has the voodoo doll, could you pretty please–with sugar on it–remove the pin?

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