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TriMet GM says cyclists should walk across some tracks

Posted by on April 11th, 2007 at 9:43 am

Two weeks ago, I shared the story of Sharon Fekety. She crashed her bike while attempting to cross a pair of MAX train tracks at I-205 and W Burnside, which resulted in her left arm being fractured in three places.

Fekety was concerned that her crash was the result of TriMet crews using grease on the tracks to minimize noise and facilitate the sharp turn. After her incident, she sent a letter a TriMet GM Fred Hansen. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

“In order to keep other cyclists from having this same problem, I would like to see some sort of signage or warning to cyclists. Or maybe you could stop greasing the tracks where a cyclist might pass.”

Fekety informed me last night that she has received a response from Hansen. In that response Hansen denies Fekety’s claim of grease being on the tracks. Here is an excerpt from Hansen’s letter:

TriMet GM Fred Hansen
Photo: TriMet

“We do apply an environmentally-friendly lubricant to our tracks to minimize wheel noise as trains travel through tight turns. We do not apply the lubrication…at crossings. The nearest location to where you had your accident that lubricant is applied is at Gateway. Because the application is localized and in this case more than 800 feet away, it is unlikely that the wheels of the train could have carried stray lubricant to the crossing where you had your accident.”

[Download Hansen's letter here (130kb jpg)]

Hansen’s response runs counter to Fekety’s claim that several witnesses saw TriMet employees applying grease in the exact location where she crashed (and when they asked the crew what they were doing they confirmed they were applying grease).

Hansen goes on to say that, “…we recommend that…cyclists always walk their bicycles over appropriate crossings.”

Fekety is not satisfied with Hansen’s response and plans to write another letter asking him to clarify TriMet’s official position on cyclists crossing tracks, to define “appropriate crossings” and reiterate her desire for new warning signs to be installed.

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  • bArbaroo April 11, 2007 at 10:00 am

    Dear Trimet,
    We know you care about alternative transportation. So, it must feel really awkward to send periodic messages to other alternative modes that you don’t care about them. I’m sure you do care and the case is that you just haven’t taken the time to understand bikes and peds.

    Asking cyclits to walk their bikes across your numerous tracks is kind of silly, don’t you think. Heck, what if all Trimet passengers had to de-board everytime the train/bus crossed some potential hazard. That would make for a strange ride.

    Anyway, we’d love to work with you to find some other solution to the problem. If you just need some insight to the cyclist’s world, I’m probably not alone in my willingness to enlighten you.

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  • Dabby April 11, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Maybe Tri Met should start walking their trains and buses over our bike crossings……

    There are many problems with Tri Met, and this is just another perfect example of such……

    The letter from a driver the other day is yet another….

    Must I go on?

    Please, say I can go on…

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  • chelsea April 11, 2007 at 11:09 am

    that is total bs. he just says that so a) they don’t have to work on a REAL solution, and b) they can’t be held responsible when this happens again. i would have expected a little more effort.

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  • mmann April 11, 2007 at 11:10 am

    I cross this same spot every day by bike, as well as the even more trecherous crossing at Ruby Junction (where a path veers to the right to avoid the angled crossing – I have a co-worker who broke his wrist there two years ago). You’ve gotta hit them at 90 degrees, especially when wet, but that’s a problem if there’s any traffic around as they run at an angle and you actually have to veer towards traffic to do this. Plus there’s a bush on the parking strip that actually grows out into the bike lane just east of the 205 spot. The only other option is to dismount or ride on the sidewalk. At the very least Tri-met should install some kind of bike warning sign for these locations. I went down once here earlier this year – it was one of the snow commutes and even though I was creeping across I still went down as soon as tires touched metal.

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  • Brad April 11, 2007 at 11:21 am

    Yes! More signs and warnings are needed to alert unsuspecting citizens to danger. I also propose that signs be posted to alert professionally dressed women that their stiletto heels could snag the MAX track. Another to warn joggers that they could stub their toes on streetcar tracks. Other alternative mode users such as rollerbladers, skaters, and scooter riders need signage reminding them to look both ways before crossing the street!

    Tri-Met / Friction / Gravity – the new axis of evil!

    Being the rebel I am, I will continue to bunny hop or choose a sensible crossing angle when encountering tracks. Life is too short to dismount. (Although that would be prudent if one is risk averse.)

    Common sense is now on life support.

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  • mmann April 11, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    Whoa Brad, Of course using common sense when crossing train tracks is the best course. I don’t dismount either. All I meant was that in some places – like the 205 crossing which is at the intersection of 2 major bike routes – there are a lot of newbies riding without much familiarity with just how slick angled tracks can be. At this location, what would be the problem with a sign alerting riders to cross with caution?

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  • Lazlo April 11, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    While still recovering from a less severe spill, I think it’s the rider’s responsibilty to make accomodations for fixed road hazards like tracks. Even so, I think Tri Met would be wise and generous to put warning signs at high traffic crossings like this.

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  • Donald April 11, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    I guess I should put this question to Tri-Met, but is there any way to etch the surface of the track at the crossing to give it a little friction?

    I reckon if there was, those crafty Europeans would have thought about it already and some world-wise reader would have chimed in already.

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  • Michael April 11, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    My lingering puzzle is how we are to safely ride in the legally mandated right lane on SW 10th and 11th, in between the streetcar tracks that run down that same lane. It is a very dangerous place to be.

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  • Burr April 11, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Fred Hansen is just covering TriMet’s ass for when Sharon’s lawsuit and any other subsequent lawsuits for similar crashes are filed. His response has ‘reviewed and approved by TriMet legal counsel’ stamped all over it.

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  • Brad April 11, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    No problem with a sign per se, just trouble with the knee jerk reactions about TriMet. I bet there will be a sign at that location within a month but don’t expect any announcement or mea culpa from the transit company.

    Why does anyone expect that TriMet or any other entity will automatically confess that they may have contributed to an injury? Ms. Fekety wrote a completely reasonable letter but look at the situation from the POV of TriMet’s legal department:

    Letter: “I thought it was my bad luck…but friends saw…grease applied…signs…warnings.”

    TriMet Legal Dept. interpretation: “I think my crash is your fault…and I have witnesses…because you are negligent…I might sue.”

    So a lukewarm and glorified form letter goes out that basically says, “Sorry you are hurt. I have no record of lubricant used at that location. Be more careful next time.” goes out. Not shocking at all.

    I wish Ms. Fekety a speedy recovery and genuine sympathies for her painful experience. I also sincerely hope that she gets this needed change at that location. If TriMet did contribute, then use the courts to hold them to account.

    I take umbrage with the angry factions that always respond with the notion that everything is a plot against or apathy towards bikes – I ride therefore I am a victim. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms. Fekety were the first person to actually pursue a change at this location as most folks quietly collect themselves, blush, and sheepishly move on. The angry crowd just assumes that TriMet gets hundreds of letters weekly about track related spills and simply ignores them.

    If I am wrong about the lack of conspiritorial or outright malevolent behavior towards cyclists by goverment bureaucrats, then please enlighten me with factual accounts and evidence. (Besides the usual PPB/ Balzer / Barnum / judges vs. fixies rant.)

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  • Matt Picio April 11, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Donald asked “is there any way to etch the surface of the track at the crossing to give it a little friction?”

    Nope. Etching the track would be very bad for the trains, for multiple reasons. Mostly it would cause additional wear on the wheels. Friction on corners is bad, which may be why Tri-Met crews were greasing the track.

    As for the greasing denial – the GM may have no idea – it could be something that was ordered by a supervisor, or it could be something unauthorized. Lots of unionized shops use “unauthorized” procedures to resolve maintenance issues, and something like that could be happening here. That corner is the worst track segment on the MAX system due to the tight turn radius.

    (yes, I *am* a train geek)

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  • Donald April 11, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Thanks, Matt.

    (Since you’re a self-described Railophile: My old man was Trainmaster here in PDX for Uncle Pete before returning to the mother ship in Omaha to head up the Harriman Dispatch Center. If you’re ever in Cornhusker land, you should try to get a tour. Very high tech and cool.)

    But really, would a texturized segment of track say 15 feet or so really be a tremendous factor wear-wise?

    I’ll keep looking into this and update the thread if I find anything…

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  • Michelle April 11, 2007 at 5:23 pm

    Michael –

    On a one-way street (like SW 10th and 11th) you are allowed to ride in either the right lane or the left lane (but probably not the middle lane). So say goodbye to those streetcar tracks! Ride in the left lane.

    Michelle

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  • Burr April 11, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    Every lane is a bike lane. I almost always ride in the middle lane of the three lane one way downtown streets, that way you avoid the most hazardous situations with parked and turning vehicles. The lights downtown are timed at 12-15mph, so most average or above cyclists can keep up with traffic, making it completely legal to use whatever lane you want.

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  • mmann April 11, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    OK – this is weird to the point of freaky. As I said earlier today, I cross the tracks there every day and have for years, rain, shine, snow. Only slipped once and that was minor. Today, after writing and thinking about this I went down hard there – sprawling and sliding. Jinxed myself? Broke in the new Poprad, that’s for sure. Anyway, to the guy on the brown Vanilla tourer, Thanks for stopping and I’m embarassed as hell (and your ride really is gorgeous.) Watch yourselves out there.

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  • someguy April 11, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    re: grooving rails for friction – too costly, as another poster has written, will cause excessive wear on the tires of the train.

    as far as the lubing goes, the letter is accurate, inasmuch as Gateway is the closest location where there are lubing machines. However, crews do apply grease (not to the top of the rails, but to the inside “flange” of the rail with paint rollers occasionally. I’ve never seen it on the top of the rail myself, but do know that they “paint” the inside of the flangeway to help reduce wheel squeal.

    As far as the response, I would be surprised if Hansen even read it before his secretary stamped his signature on it. Most correspondence from his office is generated from elsewhere within the Agency and only passed through him because somebody went directly to the GM instead of through 238-RIDE or writing the Customer Satisfaction department.

    I agree – the easiest solution would be to post warning signs. However, the scope of that would be baffling (TriMet is a government agency, so a study group would have to be convened, and a listing of all such crossings would have to be created, checked, agreed upon and amended, then signage procured, then installed.) I am sympathetic to the cyclist that was injured, but don’t see what else she expected to receive from TriMet.

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  • Todd April 11, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    One reader asked for the ‘Euro solution’…better track layout (less sharp turns or shorter trains) and bikes with wider tires.

    Pretty simple. Priceless.

    How about getting Fred on a bike and riding across some tracks during an event of our choice: Bike to Work Week, Pedal Palooza, or Bike Commute Challenge!

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  • Burr April 11, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    someguy – TriMet is not a government organization, it is a private corporation.

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  • Burr April 11, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    excuse me, a municipal corporation.

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  • erikv April 11, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    You know, crossings aren’t the only place these tracks cause accidents.

    My office used to be located in NW Portland, on Lovejoy and 21st. The street car tracks also are on Lovejoy, starting at 23rd. I would ride in between the tracks, and then turn across one to get to my office. Everyone I worked with (including myself) crashed at least once while turning off the street across the tracks, be it due to slippery wet rails or getting a tire lodged in the gap between the road and the rail.

    I don’t know what a cyclist like myself would/should expect TriMet to do about it. Manhole covers and thick paint on the roads are also very slippery when wet, but everyone seems to accept those hazzards as a necessary inconvenience.

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  • rainperimeter April 12, 2007 at 3:47 am

    i’m with brad here. we all know tracks can suck. i don’t like to think of people eating shit on them but come on. accidents happen. i fractured my clavicle one ridiculously cold february night in minneapolis (lets hear it for sub-zero bikers!) but i didn’t write to the city asking for signs warning me of ice on roadways. urban cycling requires paying attention and accepting that you may eat it regardless.

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  • Matt Picio April 12, 2007 at 9:37 am

    Donald – thanks, I’ll do that.

    Re: would such a small area really cause a problem? Yes. Rail wheels don’t react well to any imperfections in the rails – a MAX train weighs 55 tons, and that weight is completely supported by a small patch on each wheel that is in contact with the rail. The force of all that weight wants to push the wheel out of round. Etching the tracks means one part of the rail would be higher than another, and the weight would momentarily be distributed across a smaller patch on the wheel. This causes the wheel to go out of round earlier, and puts stress on the bearings in the wheel hub. The bearing wear is actually the more significant factor, if I understand correctly.

    This is also a big factor with excursion trains with lots of kids around (like the zoo) – kids have discovered that if you lay a coin on the track and let a train run over it, you get a very flattened coin. Kids being kids, this is very cool to them. Unfortunately for the train operators, this practice rapidly increases wear on the wheels and shortens the interval between major wheel servicings.

    In short – even a small patch would have a large effect on MAX maintenance.

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  • someguy April 12, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    Burr, read ORS267. TriMet functions as a government district, with taxing authority, and the ability to cite people into district court for violation of adopted codes and rules. TriMet is very much a government agency. (ORS267 was originally written pretty much to create TriMet back in 1969.)

    Regardless, there is a certain level of bureaucracy that pretty much creeps into even the most mundane of tasks for the district.

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  • Burr April 12, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    As a municipal corporation, TriMet benefits from protections afforded both private corporations and government agencies; in other words, the best of both worlds, allowing them to basically operate with impunity.

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