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MAX tracks claim another victim

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on March 23rd, 2007 at 10:56 am

I just heard that long-time bike advocate, Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee member, and former Alice B. Toeclips Award winner (1999), Sharon Fekety fractured her arm in three places after wiping out on a pair of MAX train tracks last week.

Sign at SW Oak and Burnside

Sharon was riding south on the I-205 bike path after a light rain. As she reached Burnside, she turned right, crossing the MAX tracks, "carefully". Here's what Sharon says happened next,

"I went down and ended up in the Providence emergency room with my left humerus (upper arm) fractured in three places. I just thought it was my bad luck but then I found out today that Trimet greases that particular section of track because it is such a sharp curve. So beware if you are crossing these tracks, especially if they are wet. Next time I will dismount and walk."

I have not heard of TriMet greasing MAX tracks, so I asked TriMet's new Strategic Planning Analyst Eric Hesse about it (he also handles bicycle issues).

He confirmed that they use a "lubricant" on tracks to cut down on noise and to facilitate sharp turns.

He was surprised they caused someone to crash because he says the lubricant is applied "below-grade" on the inside of the track grooves, not above ground.

He added that there are city codes relating to noise and that noise pollution is their primary reason for applying the lubricant but that it is also applied on sharp corners.

Eric was genuinely concerned about Sharon's crash and I'm sure he'll document this incident and bring it to his managers.

Sorry Mom! (I still feel bad about this).

MAX and streetcar tracks are a major hazard for cyclists. I've seen several people crash on them, including my own mother. A few summers ago, my Mom (in photo, right) got caught in the streetcar tracks on Lovejoy and went down hard. She needed several stitches in her chin.

If TriMet is lubricating their tracks, I hope it is being done very carefully and that it does not work its way to the surface.

I also think it'd be great if someone could develop a way to cover the track grooves (when trains are not present) so that bicycle tires don't get caught in them.

Whatever happens, I hope TriMet looks into this practice and makes sure they are not causing a hazardous situation.

[Flashback: Remember what happened when ODOT left slippery, wet paint on their new lane markings? Here's a recap: cyclists crashed on wet paint, ODOT heard about it, and they changed their policy immediately.]

=========
UPDATE: I changed the title of this story from "Greasy MAX tracks claim a victim" because I do not know the extent to which lubricant (vs. the rain) played a role in Sharon's crash.

UPDATE 2: I have heard from TriMet’s Eric Hesse that their Railway Maintenance is aware of this story and is checking the resources and ideas referred to in the comments below. Eric is also running this issue by other relevant managers.

UPDATE 3: I’ve heard an update from Sharon Fekety. Her recovery is going well and she has written a letter to TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen. Here is a copy of that letter (48kb PDF).

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Comments
  • Scott Lieuallen March 23, 2007 at 11:10 am

    I fell a year ago at Burnside and the MAX line. At the time I assumed it was the rubber looking stuff on each side of the tracks, not the tracks themselves.

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  • Michelle March 23, 2007 at 11:22 am

    I have slipped a few times and I have a loosely developed theory but please, everyone, tell me if it doesn't ring true for you: Obviously, the closer the angle of your crossing to 90 degrees the less likely you are to slip. But also, at least in my experience, at a more acute angle, going more slowly actually makes slipping more likely! I've been forced into an acute angle and minced across very slowly and slid right into the groove, and at other times I've gone a little faster and not had a problem. Has anyone else noticed this?

    As for greasing tracks and designing safe crossings for bikes, there are lots of streetcars in Europe. What do they do about the tracks there?

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  • Jessica Roberts March 23, 2007 at 11:37 am

    Every cyclist I know has gone down on tracks in Portland. It's pretty scary, especially when combined with car traffic and wet days. There are track designs that improve safety for bikes (e.g. rubber flanges filling in at street level gaps, making the track flush with street level instead of above it, cement instead of asphalt around it to make sure the paving stays flush with the rails), but even with these treatments they're still a hazard. I wish I knew of the silver bullet to fix this.

    Interestingly, I did a quick google search and found this excellent discussion on this matter. Then I looked closer and realized it was begun by our own Jeff Smith (of PDOT), and includes comments from recent Alice Award winner and former ODOT Bike/Ped coordinator Michael Ronkin. Small world.

    http://www.bikeplan.com/traxq.htm

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  • Adam March 23, 2007 at 11:39 am

    I agree with Michelle's theory. More speed and a right angle seems to help propel your tire over the track. The one time I got caught in the street car tracks (right in front of Powell's, where there were plenty of onlookers) I was going very slow, waiting for another biker to catch up.

    How about a contest or something to see if someone could invent a track cover? It would only need to be a few inches thick for cyclists. Another option may be better warning signs. The ones we have now warn of the danger, but give no suggestions (walking acreoss, crossing at right angle with good speed, etc).

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  • P Fin March 23, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    The rubbery stuff at the Burnside/205 crossing is just as slick, when wet, as the tracks themselves. I once did a full-on butt slide for a good five feet after being , quite literally, swept off my feet (and bike).

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  • Burr March 23, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    It's a big mistake to increase the number of surface rail tracks in downtown Portland. The new north south light rail line on 5th and 6th should be put UNDERGROUND, the way it is in most other major metropolitan areas world-wide.

    There are a variety of materials available to fill the 'flange-gap' but TriMet seems reluctant to spec them.

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  • Clay Fouts March 23, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    I ride across that intersection every day on my commute, and it can be quite a hazard. My experiences suggest it's the rubber running alongside the track that gets so slick. It's a little sketchy when wet, but when covered with snow or thick frost it's nearly impossible to pass over it without slipping. Maybe the snow caused the lube to spread further than usual or something, but I couldn't successfully ride across it for anything during the snow earlier this year.

    For traction it has a pattern of raised circles which might help prevent shoes from slipping, but it's doesn't appear to do a thing for bike tires.

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  • Matt P. March 23, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    My "traccident" was last year on RR tracks that aren't even in service - the old tracks on SE 9th in Sellwood. 3+ years ago, they led to a small industrial building that has since been razed and replaced with rowhouses. The original street trackage on 9th between Linn and Marion is still there, though.

    http://tinyurl.com/2r2rdt

    Regarding lubing the tracks - another thing it could have been is lube from the MAX train's wheels. If the cars are freshly lubed, the sharp turns can cause that lube to squeeze out on one side from the uneven pressure on the axles - the lube can then drool down on the tracks themselves or the rubber plates on the ground next to the rails.

    I've never had an issue with the I-205/Burnside track crossing, but I always cross very particularly and make sure that I'm not leaning to either side of the bike - I don't trust those tracks. Given Sharon's accident, maybe I'll start walking that one, too.

    Sharon, I hope you have a speedy and (relatively) painless recovery!

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  • Matt P. March 23, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    Burr - I agree that the number of tracks should be minimized, but I think absolutely they should not be put underground. Downtown Portland has flooded at least three times (half of downtown is below the 100-year flood stage of the Willamette), and the 1996 flood came within a few feet of the top of the seawall. Underground just doesn't work on 5th and 6th Avenues.

    (and that doesn't begin to mention the expense, with conduits, pipes, lines, and old Shanghai tunnels to contend with, and the potential historical ramifications and their related inevitable lawsuits)

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  • Oregon Cycling March 23, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    Sharon also has a monthly column which appears in Oregon Cycling Magazine. Everyone here at CAT in Eugene wishes her a speedy recovery. We are sure she'll have some choice words in next month's column!

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  • John Mynhier March 23, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    I ride and work downtown and have wondered if they could rough up the tracks a bit from their near polished finish Through sandblasting or some other means. I think if they could do it, it would give cyclist traction on the rails while crossing and not hurt the max.

    Maybe it could work, maybe not -just an idea
    -John Mynhier

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  • Jonathan Maus March 23, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    Update from TriMet: They have read this story and they are taking your suggestions on how to improve the safety of the tracks into consideration. Keep the ideas coming!

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  • Anonymous March 23, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    I've still got the scar on my knee to prove that a certain Swiss city isn't too worried about how cyclists interact with their streetcar tracks. It was my fault. I was being careful, but not careful enough so I went down. I don't blame the city. Tracks, like puddles, broken glass, and crazy people are simply realities of urban bicycling. Sure, some are better designed than others and lubricating them should probably be done with more care, but the bottom line is: they're just another road hazard and their presence doesn't diminish Portland's bike-friendliness.

    Biking in "bike friendly" European cities has taught me that bike friendliness is 1 part infrastructure and 4 parts culture. Because they've got so many more cyclists, some cities have more bells and whistles (separated paths, fancy signals, bike parking facilities), but the big difference is that road users are far more respectful and aware of eachother. They've still got puddles, broken glass, crazy people, and plenty of cobblestones and slippery streetcar tracks.

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  • Burr March 23, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Matt P - You're not an engineer, are you? NYC has train tunnels and other tunnels that go under the Hudson and East Rivers; England and France have the Chunnel, and I'm sure that the subways in NYC, Paris and other cities are below the water table. Believe me it can be done.

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  • Todd B March 23, 2007 at 3:20 pm

    TRIMET also lubricates the MAX tracks at the sharp turn to Goose Hollow. So be aware!

    As for solutions...there are only a few true silver bullets from my design trips to Europe:
    - more bike space for bikes within the street R/W (so they can maneuver successfully to cross tracks), and slower vehicle speeds (in case one does go down)
    - wider bike tires for city use (32mm minimum)
    - less need for track lubricating by appropriate track layout at time of project planning (may require more property condemnation) or shorter train carriage length

    I have not yet taken a fall from train/ MAX/ tram tracks yet...though I came very close to it last month in San Francisco on the Market street bike lanes (an abandoned spur + too much rain and my very small Brompton wheels - 16" dia...I did a nice rear wheelie and thanks for the professional cabbie behind me who avoided me by slowing down in time as I wobbled and did a foot plant)

    I still do not mind riding down the PDX Streetcar tracks - just stay in the middle and use it as a bike lane!

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  • Ayala March 23, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    Ugh, the streetcar tracks on Lovejoy are an absolute bitch. Dislocated my shoulder and made hamburger out of my leg. Looking back on it now, I probably looked exactly like the pictogram sign warning cyclists about the track.

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  • Andrew H March 23, 2007 at 7:04 pm

    Jonathan,

    Thanks very much for this update. I was among the first on the scene after Ms. Fekety's accident (I was the one on the recumbent.) I stayed around until the professionals arrived (which they did very quickly -- kudos to the responders) and was wondering how she was doing. I was shocked to learn how badly she was injured but am glad to hear she's doing well. I had no idea she was such a bicycle luminary -- Toeclips winner, PBAC member and all! I hope she recovers fully and is able to back on her bike soon!

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  • Sharon F. March 24, 2007 at 8:09 am

    Andrew, I wanted to thank the folks who stopped to assist me and waited for the ambulance to arrive, but of course didn't know the names of the four. Your assistance was really appreciated. Cyclists must stick together and watch out for one another and we do. I'll be back riding soon but much more wary of tracks.

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  • Scott March 24, 2007 at 9:15 am

    Heal fast, Sharon. It'll take a while, but be patient.

    As for the crossings, I don't think there's much to be done about the tracks themselves. I would hope that they would use better materials than the rubber that, as others have noted, is very slippery when wet. There are plenty of gritty materials available out there.

    Next challenge: get the DOT crews to put some kind of grippy material on the temporary steel plates they use during road work! They're horrible for anything with only two wheels.

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  • pdxcommuter March 24, 2007 at 9:23 am

    I have a solution to the bicycle vs. track problem: busses. No tracks needed. And the busses can go on most roads.

    I am annoyed that the BTA approves, or does not actively oppose, additional railroad tracks in streets that are, or could be used, by bicycles. Allowing tracks in streets contradicts BTA's "opening minds and roads to bicycling" tag line.

    I am not a lawyer. But, taking money to promote roads for bicycling, while at the same time not opposing railroad tracks in those roads, in my humble opinion, seems to be bordering on fraud.

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  • Andrew H March 24, 2007 at 10:24 am

    Sharon,

    You're very welcome for the assistance.

    PDXCommuter, I don't have a problem with the BTA supporting railways. In my opinion, cars represent a far greater danger to cyclists than rail tracks and any effort to reduce car usage is positive for cyclists. That said, in Austria I saw electric buses, which used overhead wires similar to a streetcar, but ran on regular rubber tires. That seemed to me a very sensible solution: no emissions, but no need to tear up the roads, either. I've often wondered why such a setup doesn't get more play here in Portland. Perhaps the cost of replacing rubber tires over time overwhelms the cost of laying track. It would be interesting to find out.

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  • Jessica Roberts March 24, 2007 at 10:46 am

    It is narrow minded to think that bicycling groups should oppose rail transit just because tracks can be tough for bikes.
    Bicyclists benefit from fewer cars on the road, and mass transit in Portland very directly does just that. Many bicyclists, like me, also choose not to own cars, and we benefit from more transportation choices that help us continue to opt out of the auto lifestyle.
    That doesn't mean that bicycling advocates have no work to do. We can speak up for planning rail transit routes with consideration to existing and future bike routes. We can demand the best possible crossings. We can expect Portland to do better than some of the mistakes made when they installed the streetcar (like right-running tracks on a one-way street, which was absolutely unnecessary and made life harder for bicyclists). And we can continue to seek better materials solutions.
    But let's remember to look at the big picture here. More non-auto transportation choices are a good thing for all of us who bike, and who want bike-friendly communities.

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  • Paul March 24, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    I haven't been on that stretch of the trail personally, but looking at aerial photos of the intersection it seems to be a difficult intersection. Does the path continue south along 97th or does it head east? I wonder if part of the new light rail construction an improved path alignment can be built to move the path to a better intersection with light rail and Burnside.

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  • Caleb March 24, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    About a month ago I slipped into the groove and crashed on 10th and Morrison.

    Google Maps Photo: http://tinyurl.com/ypnmtx

    It is a spot where the streetcar and max-tracks cross or something - there is a whole tangle of turning tracks. It was wet, and I was being cautious, but my wheel just slipped right into the grove (I was slowly crossing the tracks at a 70-degree-or-so angle as I do at least 3 times a week). Someone told me about the lubed tracks near turns which made sense based on my experience - I'd never crossed tracks that slippery before - even when it is pouring rain.

    I promptly got up and back on my bike (since there was traffic bearing down on me) and immediately slipped into another track! That time I caught myself, but it was enough to convince me to walk the bike for a bit.

    A couple motorists behind me seemed annoyed that my tangled body would slow their commute. Pedestrians were pretty nice though (asking if I was okay, etc.).

    Bent my wheel and broke both my lights. Gave me a reason to true my wheel though (and taught me some respect - I walk my bike past there now, or avoid the area entirely by going on the sidewalk).

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  • Martha March 24, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    I agree that while the max tracks are a definent hazzard to cyclists the trains as a whole are beneficial. I also choose not to own a car, and feel that both the max and the busses in my area make that decision alot easier. Not to mention the traffic they get off the roads. I live in the llyod district and I can't immagine what it would be like around there if it weren't for the max line.

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  • Tasha March 25, 2007 at 10:58 am

    I, too, have felt the wrath of the Streetcar tracks (broken right arm last year on Lovejoy and 19th), but it was totally my fault. I didn't know the area yet and I turned very quickly from 19th to Lovejoy. I think the Max lines are a good thing for the city, maybe finding routes that avoid them as much as possible? And bigger warning signs! I saw the "man falling" AFTER I broke my arm!

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  • Adam-8 March 25, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    "I still do not mind riding down the PDX Streetcar tracks - just stay in the middle and use it as a bike lane!"

    This is THE WORST advice I can think of for dealing with the various rail tracks in this city. I've watched people do this on numerous occasions, and the angle they have to cross the tracks at to leave the lane is EXTREMELY dangerous. When I see this now, I speed up or turn off the street so I don't have to watch someone eat it in the tracks.

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  • Todd B March 25, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    To Adam-B...my experience using the PDX Streetcar tracks through the Pearl is but a suggestion based on ones ability. It is counterintuitive at first reading...

    I have found (through trial and error) that most car drivers prefer to not drive on them...so there is less traffic in that lane vs. if I were to ride on the left side of the street.

    Or worse...I see lots more bicyclists riding on the right side of the tracks against the curb...this does not give them enough room to turn safetly across the tracks to avoid debris and it gives motorists a false sense of security that they can pass a bicyclist with room to spare (not!).

    Sure I would love to have an actual bike lane but the powers that be did not provide one ... instead car parking went there.

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  • Bob March 26, 2007 at 11:50 am

    Simple solution...

    DON'T RIDE ON LOVEJOY!

    Really, people, Marshall St is right between the streetcar streets, has 0 traffic, and you can run all the stop signs with impunity. And there are NO STREETCAR TRACKS!

    Take this from someone who lived in NW for 3 years.

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  • brush March 27, 2007 at 12:20 am

    there is another useful skill when dealing with tracks: hopping your front wheel over them. that's how i deal with all acute-angle track crossings, and it's served me well. others?

    .b

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  • nerf March 28, 2007 at 12:26 am

    brush-
    hopping your front wheel over doesn't always help,when the tracks are wet your rear wheel can still slide, i've slid and luckly recovered while just hopping my front over, recently i slid out on the tracks and was hit by a car...boy i can't wait for the new bus mall....

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  • pdxcommuter March 31, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    Let me see if I understand Jessica's argument (in post #22, above):

    1. Railroad tracks are a hazard to bicyclists.

    BUT...

    2. People ride the trains that go on the tracks.
    3. The people on the trains would otherwise drive cars.
    4. More people on trains therefore means fewer cars on the roads.
    5. Fewer cars means more room for bicycles.
    6. Therefore the RR tracks of #1 are worth it for bicyclists.

    I'm not convinced by this argument.

    As I understand it, the trains replaced existing bus lines. If the trains did not exist, presumeably there would be busses in their place. Perhaps those busses would use overhead wires like Andrew saw in Austria (see #21, above,) or like I have seen in Seattle.

    So, the argument really should be whether Portland with tracks for a light rail or a street cars is better for bicycles; versus Portland without the tracks, but with more car and bus traffic.

    Think of it like this. Say you encounter 1000 cars, including a certain number of busses, on your bicycle commute. Those are all the cars and busses that pass you, turn near you, etc.

    Say there was an additional track that you had to cross on your route. That track is for light rail or a trolley. How much reduction in cars and busses makes it worth it to you to have that additional track on your route? 10%? 50%? If I gave you the choice of having, say, only 900 cars and busses, instead of 1000, on your commute, would you take the extra track? What if the track was parallel, like on Lovejoy. Say it was only 500 cars?

    I'd choose the 1000 cards and busses passing me over a parallel track with 500 cars. I'm not sure what my exchange rate is for a right angle track crossing, or a 45 degree track crossing, etc.

    My point: are us bicyclists really getting a reasonable exchange of car traffic in exchange for the hazard of additional tracks? I'm not convinced we are.

    --pdxcommuter

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  • coral April 9, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    Anyone know where I can purchase one of those yellow road signs with the cyclist/tracks? I know it sounds morbid, but my husband just got into an accident by getting his tire caught. He remembers those signs for portland, and now wants one in his garage.

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  • Patty Stubblefield April 17, 2007 at 8:27 am

    I'm not a cyclist, but just a Max rider. I was trying to catch the train and stepped on the rails as I crossed - big mistake. I went down and broke my wrist in at least four places. I blamed my shoes for the slickness. This morning was the first I heard of the possiblity of the tracks being greased. This happened at Cleveland Station in Gresham 12/13/07. Any more stories?

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  • Marc May 15, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    I broke my hip a few years ago at the same site that is the source of this discussion, namely where the TriMet Tracks cross E. Burnside around E. 99th by the bike path. I either went down on the groove or on the rubbery surface surrounding it. No blood, little pain - just about $23,000 of hospital bills that could have messed up my life if it weren't for some generosity by health care providers. My detailed report to TriMet brought no response other than a letter saying there was nothing they could do financically for me. No warning sign there to emphasize to cyclists the danger of oblique tracks and the black rubber. If anyone wants to forward this to TriMet they are welcome to. And at the crossing, Burnside NARROWS, funneling cars and cyclists into one narrow lane with no shoulder. I stupidly turned by front wheel in the direction of the track without thinking in order to minimize the delay for cars behind me waiting for me to cross the tracks. Which I should have done at a right angle with them waiting as long as it took.
    Sorry to go on so long, but that place is a death trap. And what if you fall and a train is coming? Have fun crawling if you see it.

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