Light Rail

Portland's Light Rail System Can't Take the Heat

High temperatures disrupt service, exposing problems with the system's design.

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MAX blue line in downtown Portland
Richard Eriksson

Portland's recent heat wave brought residents a brief respite from the usually cool and wet Northwest weather. It has also unfortunately brought with it a respite from timely and efficient public transit.

As temperatures rose above 90 degrees Fahrenheit throughout August, the city's Metro Area Express (MAX) light rail system reported severe service interruptions across its entire network. Trains were forced to slow to a crawl or sit idly in between stops, leading to drastically extended commute times and a flurry of angry online comments directed at TriMet (Portland's largely taxpayer-funded public transit authority).

TriMet has explained that the delays were the result of a phenomenon known as "sun kinking," which is when higher-than-usual temperatures cause rail and power lines to expand and buckle, forcing trains to reduce speeds or stop running altogether.

This explanation has been the standard response from TriMet over the years, but as the Willamette Week (a weekly Portland newspaper) was quick to point out, plenty of other light rail systems in the country experience similar or hotter temperatures without the same service interruptions.

Phoenix, Arizona, routinely sees temperatures far in excess of Portland's. However, its Valley Metro light rail service has proven immune to heat-related service delays. Valley Metro Public Information Specialist Ann Glaser writes in an email that Phoenix's system has been able to avoid such problems by setting its tracks in concrete and calibrating its power cables to withstand high temperatures, things she says it was able to do without a significant increase in construction costs.

Portland's MAX incorporates none of these features, instead laying its rail lines directly on gravel in many places. TriMet's explanation is that its system "is designed for the average temperature ranges of our local climate." But this claim seems suspect given that the brains behind Seattle's light rail system decided local climate conditions—which are nearly identical to Portland's—warranted Phoenix-style concrete-supported tracks. As a result, the Sound Transit authority has had to issue no service delay warnings due to heat, despite temperatures rising above 90 degrees multiple times this year.

TriMet is currently experimenting with limited fixes to the most severely affected areas of track. However, networkwide fixes are still years away. But that didn't stop the agency from spending some $1.49 billion on the new MAX line completed in September 2015 that—you guessed it—was built with the same rail-on-gravel design, ensuring sun-kink-caused delays will be a summertime ritual for even more commuters.

This will no doubt frustrate Portland's small businesses, a portion of whose payroll taxes go to TriMet. A business with a $1.5 million payroll already owes $10,856 per year (and rising) in such taxes. One wonders how successful those small businesses would be if they, like the transit authority, hiked their prices while providing sporadic service to customers.

Correction 9/9: An earlier version of this article suggested TriMet is an arm of the city government. It's actually an independent agency.

Correction 9/20: This article originally described $10,856 as the amount an average small business in Portland owes in payroll taxes. It's actually the amount owed by a Portland small business with a $1.5 million payroll. TriMet also reached out to clarify that 15 miles' worth of its tracks are embedded in concrete; the other 45 miles are laid on on gravel. The text has been updated.

NEXT: Friday A/V Club: Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Number 6

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  1. Phoenix and Seattle are really throwing Portland under the bus. Come on, guys. Light rail cities need to stick together.

    1. Fort light rail to work when the sun is out, it helps to paint the trackways white .

      1. Only if you’re racist.

      2. Fort light rail

        Was the last Civil War battle fought in 1863.

  2. “is designed for the average temperature ranges of our local climate.”

    Whoever said that should be profoundly embarrassed.

    Basically he’s saying that, whereas we all expect 6-sigma from private business, one sigma is good enough for government work.

    1. City engineers are the BEST AND BRIGHTEST!!!!!

  3. As with anything else, rail expands and contracts according to temperature. Segmented rail could increase or decrease the spacing between adjacent segments with temperature, but that option is not open to welded rail. So the standard practice during track installation or repair is to heat the rail above its normal expected operating temperature, then weld it; when it cools off, it is in tension, where it spends most of its service life. If the temperature goes too high, the track buckles as it goes out of tension and tries to go into compression.

    (just a note: ambient temperature is not the real problem; direct sunlight will heat the track far above ambient.)

    We have gravel trackbeds on the SF peninsula, and temperature ranges that surely exceed those of Portland, especially during the normal rain-free bright sun summer season.

    1. So the standard practice during track installation or repair is to heat the rail above its normal expected operating temperature

      So the Portland engineers heated the rails above 54.5?F?

    2. Clarifications and corrections to my first post:

      First, it isn’t gravel; it’s crushed rock. Not the same thing. (But we know what you mean.)

      Second, with exceptions for bridges, elevated stretches, and the like, rail (and highway) roadbeds are always based on crushed rock. The ties may be concrete, but they still rest on crushed rock.

      Third, re the observation from Pay up, what I of course meant was that the rail is heated to a temperature above its normal operating range.

      — Dave

  4. I thought these guys believed in a warming climate?

    Actions speak louder than words. Looks like they are not only lying about global warming, but about believing in their own lies.

    1. “””I thought these guys believed in a warming climate?”””

      That is what I thought, but I guess the vast evil conspiracy against sensible climate change action is even bigger then we thought!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    2. I’m actually kind of surprised that they haven’t outright blamed the rail problems on global warming. Yet.

    3. For all Tri-Met’s manifold faults, “never shutting up about climate change” isn’t on the list.

      (I mean, sure, Portland area; I bet they have some boilerplate about it and all that.

      But all they really do is constantly demand more money for more stupid tracks and trains.)

  5. But that didn’t stop the city from spending some $1.49 billion on the new MAX

    Hey Christian, Trimet isn’t a city agency. It’s a independent transit district covering more than just the city of Portland. And by independent, it has the power to raise taxes, rack up enormous debt and obligation, seize private property, and generally waste money all under the oversight of an unelected board is appointed by the governor. So much for taxation without representation.

    1. That was an error by Christian’s editor (me). Thanks for catching it and letting us know.

      1. Wowsers! So tell us, how does Christian pronounce that last name? (Not to get all micro-agressy or anything!)

  6. Come visit Washington. Metro doesn’t experience an increase in delays due to weather. Your chance of delays and death are always higher than other systems.

  7. Portland’s recent heat wave brought residents a brief respite from the usually cool and wet Northwest weather.

    What is it with heat fiends and their aversion to comfort?

    1. I also like the irony that the yearly ice buildup also… brings MAX to its knees.

      It’s like nobody involved in spec’ing the system actually lived here for more than half a spring or something.

  8. TriMet’s explanation is that its system “is designed for the average temperature ranges of our local climate.”

    That is about as retarded an engineer philosophy as designing a bridge to withstand the average winds and traffic volumes. Or designing a car’s gas tank to not explode during the average temperature for the nation.

    Real engineers design stuff to survive the worst case scenarios that can realistically be expected to happen during the entire lifetime of the design element.

    I realize this is a PR flack trying to spin bad engineering, but apparently even their PR is designed for the average question that might be posed to them.

    1. Or what Cato said.

      1. Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam?

  9. I’m making $86 an hour working from home. I was shocked when my neighbour told me she was averaging $95 but I see how it works now. I feel so much freedom now that I’m my own boss. This is what I do,

    ?? ? ? ? http://www.review40.com

  10. “If you can’t take the heat get yo ass out the kitchen. We’re on a mission.”

    1. We’re on a mission.

      From God?

  11. Designing anything for “average” conditions should be automatic engineering malpractice.

  12. I have to say that Light Rail is one of the few areas where I can get progs fuming mad about government programs. I always start out by pointing out how many “world class” city transit systems have turned on hard times because of the egotistic need to replace buses with light rail. I explain how cheap, nat-gas (or soon, electric) buses can provide far more convenient and high capacity transit solutions, and how light rail is largely about rewarding insider developers who get to make pretty mixed-use condo developments at stations and fellating the DINKs who buy those condos and use the light rail to get to cushy downtown jobs or to stadiums where they sit in their high-priced seats at sporting events.

    Plenty of progs still sputter about prestige and city planning, but the true bleeding heart liberals often come around to see how a system that should be helping the poor has been perverted to serve the elite and classist while forcing the poor into poor job situations, terrible inefficient cars, etc.

      1. and I liked that he worked the DINK’s reference in…hadn’t heard that in eons.

    1. Yeah, bus systems seperate the serious public transportation folks from the people who just want to signal. Buses are dirty and have low visibility. They aren’t something you want to use unless you are poor, but they have much more flexibility and require essentially no specialized infrastructure.

    2. Also, buses are flexible and can be easily re-routed if there is an accident or whatever. Of course this works both ways. Progs like rail because it demonstrates a commitment to providing transport for poor neighborhoods, and neighborhoods where progs live.

      1. buses are flexible and can be easily re-routed if there is an accident or whatever.

        or like when the train breaks down and the buses are used to bridge the service gap around the affected station.

    3. Prestige! It’s so important, because reasons!

      City planning, oh, FFS. Those poor deluded fools.

      Buses are the perfect “city planning”, because they adapt!

      (I do, however, admit Megan McArdle’s insight into the one bonus a light rail system has in terms of “getting people to invest in development” – it signals an unavoidable commitment to the route precisely because it’s utterly inflexible.

      If there’s a light rail line down this street, it’s still gonna be there in 20 years, no matter how stupid an idea that is!)

  13. Ironic that Portland, of all cities, would go with gravel-only beds and opt to leave out the cement. Next, Pittsburgh discovers plastic and carbon-fiber rail cars don’t stand up to blizzards.

    1. Portland Cement and Pittsburgh Steel, Made In China.

      I hereby propose the new names of “Beijing Cement” and “Shanghai Steel”.

      1. Wrong Portland.

        Isle of Portland, Dorset, England.

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