Archive | Streetcar

How Do We Get an Antifragile Transit System?

It would appear that the failure of a single surge protector effectively disrupted most MAX trips during the morning rush hour yesterday.

That would seem to be the definition of “fragile” – a small failure has a non-linear (and much amplified) effect on the whole system. I could draw a similar analogy with a car taking out one switchbox bringing down Transit Tracker for a large part of TriMet’s system a few months ago.

I recently read Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. He defines systems in three major buckets:

  • Fragile – small failures have big consequences
  • Resilient – hammer the system, it bounces back
  • Antifragile – assaults on the system actually make the system stronger (think human immune system)

So how could we make our transit system not just resilient, but actually antifragile?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this, but I hope TriMet will give it some thought.

Before someone takes a (deserved) shot at Streetcar for opening a service with no spare vehicles (definitely fragile), I’ll point out that having reserve vehicles would not make us antifragile, just resilient. How do we get to antifragile?

Semi-Truck / Streetcar Collision

The afternoon of Tuesday, April 30, 2013, a semi-truck collided with a Portland streetcar at the intersection of SE Market St. & SE MLK Blvd.

I happened to be nearby and captured the process of separating and removing the two vehicles. The truck had a flat tire and bent wheel (in addition to major body damage) but was able to move a short distance under its own power before being towed. The streetcar, which had been knocked off of the tracks by about a foot, was lifted back onto the rails by crane, and then towed back to the maintenance facility using a 2nd streetcar.

According to others at the scene, there were no injuries.

UPDATE 5/1/2013:

The following operations update was sent to members of the Streetcar Citizens Advisory Committee:

From March 27 to April 27, 2013 we experienced a 100% rate of operating all scheduled vehicles. On April 30 a CL Line streetcar was hit by a semi-truck turning left off of SE Market onto SE MLK Jr. Blvd. The accident blocked all of MLK from just before 2pm to approximately 4:30pm. The Streetcar was put back on the rails and towed back to the maintenance facility. We are estimating that Car 002 will return to revenue service around June 1, 2013. The CL Line will be down one train Monday-Friday until Car 021 enters into service. Car 021 (the first production vehicle from United Streetcar) is now expected to enter revenue service May 14, 2013

What’s an Industry Worth?

Brad Schmidt has a lengthy piece in the Sunday O about the delayed delivery of streetcars from Oregon Iron Works.

I won’t debate any facts in the article, I think Brad has a fix on the chronology and events, and I’m not in a position to comment on what he found internally at OIW. I might quibble with his characterization that the prototype is “four years late”. There was a deliberate choice to use the prototype to test a Rockwell propulsion system, and to let OIW take the vehicle on the road for a number of months while selling to other cities.

The question the article poses is whether the jobs created by having a U.S. (and Oregon!) based streetcar manufacturing industry are worth 8 months of delay in getting vehicles in service and getting 5 cars rather than 6? (The vehicle reduction was due to a decision early in the project to substitute an Elin propulsion system for the Skoda system – although there is still a potential to earn back credits that will help fund a 6th car eventually.)

The other question in play is whether the delay is the result of incompetence and the willingness of government sponsors to tolerate it, or if this is just plain hard?

Well, here’s my perspective:

  • Streetcars have a bright future in this country, and the opportunity to have a first mover position in a manufacturing industry is a very good bet.
  • We tolerated a delay of several months from Inekon when opening the extension to Gibbs and had to operate 100% of our fleet daily under similar circumstances. It’s not as if the European streetcar industry has a great track record in on-time delivery.
  • We’re still going to deliver this project within the budgeted contingencies – there will not be an overall project overrun.
  • Yes, it’s hard. I’m not claiming Oregon Iron Works is perfect, but building a streetcar is a VERY complicated enterprise.

Bottom line – I certainly regret the inconvenience to our passengers, but this is a very short-term blip in what I believe is still a terrific economic development opportunity for our region. And I’m grateful our local leaders have the resolve to stick with it.

A streetcar in Hillsboro?

One of them things that make you go hmm…

The Oregonian is reporting on some planning work being done between TriMet and the city of Hillsboro, on the city’s plans for the Amberglen development. Amberglen is a proposed high-density community in eastern Hillsboro, in an 600-acre area boxed in by the MAX line, NW 185th, NW Walker, NW Cornell, and NW 205th. The area–currently occupied by OHSU’s west campus (formerly OCATE), a few office parks, and a lot of vacant land, is in an ideal location for intense, high-density development. Two MAX stops serve it, the Tanasbourne neighborhood is immediately to the north, and lots of intense development also exists around Willow Creek. There’s a fair bit of density to the west in the Quatama neigbhorhood (and a recently-cleared trailer park just to the south, along Baseline).

Naturally, with such major development in the works, it’s only natural that the city get involved with transportation authorities, including TriMet, to plan necessary infrastructure and services to support the project. But the item in the Oregonian‘s reporting that got lots of tongues clucking this evening, was the S-word.

You see, a Hillsboro planning director noted that one preferred transit option would be a streetcar (one that “moved faster than you can walk”–one wonders what that could refer to?), connecting with MAX at the Quatama stop, heading north bisecting the planning area, and then turning west to serve other points in Hillsboro. One idea had the streetcar turning west on Cornell; another had it continuing north to Evergreen (which would allow direct service to the Streets of Tanasbourne mall, and the new Kaiser hospital being built immediately to its north, and which opens this summer).

Needless to say… with all the recent service cuts, and the ongoing dispute between TriMet and its union, the notion that Hillsboro (which recently got into a spat with Beaverton about which city is should be forced to build moreis not providing enough affordable housing, and has managed to annoy Metro with its desire to California-ize its arterial streets) ought to be building streetcars strikes some, including myself, as impolitic.

A few thoughts:

  • Other interesting ideas have been proposed for the area. Here’s a proposal for so-called Personal Rapid Transit, apparently developed by a vendor of PRT systems. Whether planners are entertaining such an idea, I have no idea (but doubt it), but there you go.
  • In fairness to TriMet, I have yet to see any indication that TriMet is on board with this idea. TriMet’s Sean Batty noted the agencies were cooperating and that TriMet was “treating it seriously”, but didn’t say much more than that, at least not to the Oregonian reporter.
  • Both TriMet, and the city of Hillsboro, have had quite a bit of discussion of bus service improvements in the area*–and a good argument can be made that improving bus service ought to be a first step prior to putting rails on the ground. Other than MAX itself, there is no frequent service anything in the immediate vicinity (the only frequent service bus that’s even close is the 57). And other than the 52, which runs along 185th, N/S connectivity in the area is poor. One short-term suggestion, which I’ve made before and will make again: rather than ending the 88 at Willow Creek TC, have it head west on Baseline, north on 205th, right on Amberglen to Stucki, ending near the new hospital and a connection with the 47.
  • A major problem with streetcar circulators in general is that they can interfere with a bus grid–if you are going to put a streetcar in with a grid, ’tis better if the tracks form a component of the grid, rather than meandering in a circle around it. A more interesting idea for a streetcar line (and I offer this as a better alternative, not as something that I think that should be built–unless Hillsboro is coming up with all the money to build it, I can think of better uses for regional capital dollars) would be a line starting at PCC, running down the median of 185th, then west on Rock Creek Boulevard, south over US26 on a new structure extending NW 194th (this overpass could carry cars as well, and certainly with bike lanes, but no interchange with the freeway), then south on Stucki through the area, connecting with MAX at Quatama–then probably south to Baseline, west to Cornelius Pass, and then south to the South Hillsboro development–the city of Hillsboro’s other big future development project. That would be a useful N/S corridor, particular if it got some decent priority treatment. But of course, it would be useful to see a) some actual development in these areas, and b) running bus service along the corridor might be a good starting point.

Overall, this appears to be planner-musing (and possibly trial-balloon launching), not something that is likely to happen in the near future. Hilllsboro still has quite a bit of planning to do, both in Amberglen and in South Hillsboro; and neither of these places will be built out until developers feel it is worthwhile to build. (Of course, developers have a well-deserved reputation for liking streetcars over bus service…) TriMet probably ought not be committing any of its resources to a new streetcar line–in Hillsboro or anywhere else–until it has other aspects of its house in better order. That said, there is a N/S corridor here with a lot of potential, particularly if the development does occur.

*depending on union cooperation.