TriMet MAX riders can only hope — and, if so inclined, pray — that light rail service doesn't experience a meltdown akin to the one that made scores of Portland area commuters late for work last week.
On Thursday alone, just 40 percent of MAX trains were on time, according to data provided by TriMet. By Saturday night, when the Yellow Line was disrupted for an hour after a train struck a deer on the tracks south of the Expo Center station, MAX riders would have been forgiven for thinking the universe was just working against them.
Delays caused by signal and switch problems on the Steel Bridge were so bad that Oregon's largest transit agency sent out a public apology late Friday afternoon.
"The Steel Bridge sees 559 light rail trains crossings each weekday and we know that it is vital to our service," the agency said in an email alert. "We apologize to our riders for recent delays surrounding signal issues on the bridge. Our Maintenance of Way crews have been diligently working to identify and fix the issues."
So what exactly were these vague "signal issues"? For most riders, the agency might as well have said people were left waiting at MAX stations because "a train doodad went kaplooey!"
Roberta Altstadt, a TriMet spokeswoman, said the agency's Maintenance of Way crews noticed excessive wear along the west end of the bridge during its most recent bi-monthly track walks.
"During the past two weeks (or) so, crews completed a number of repairs including excavating the asphalt around the rails and replacing the steel plates (known as joint bars)," Altstadt said in an email. "These are bolted to the rails at the expansion joints (small gaps that are deliberately left between the rail ends) allowing the rails to expand in hot weather."
However, as the track work was completed, Altstadt said, electrical components buried in the bridge's asphalt began to misfire. "Crews identified problem locations and made repairs (Friday) morning," she said. "This work will be further reinforced in the coming weeks when the permanent welds are put in place."
OK. That's a bit clearer.
TriMet has stated repeatedly that it wants to improve the average on-time performance of its trains. But the the long-strained relationship between the MAX and the cranky 101-year-old Steel Bridge hasn't helped shore up riders' and employers' faith in the system.
Trains are supposed to run every 15 minutes from early in the morning Monday through Friday until late at night. Weekend trains are supposed to arrive every 18 minutes.
Of course, schedules often vary by time and location, with headways between trains shorter where lines intersect in the central section of the system. The Blue Line, for example, runs every 10 minutes during rush hour.
Typically, a fixed-route bus or MAX train is considered "on time" if it departs a scheduled time point no more than one minute early and no more than five minutes late.
The September one-time performance for MAX was 76 percent, TriMet data shows. Meanwhile, the average "minutes late" decreased from 1.93 in August to 1.45 minutes in September.
However, when TriMet released daily on-time data for last week, it was based on trains being no more than one minute early and no more than three minutes late, rather than no more than five minutes late.
At any rate, last Tuesday, the MAX on-time performance was about 78 percent. On Wednesday, it was 74 percent.
But on Thursday, the impact of the first day of switch and signal problems on the Steel Bridge was evident — on-time performance was only 40 percent. On Friday, TriMet rerouted Green and Yellow line trains onto the Blue and Red line tracks in downtown Portland. However, the number of MAX trains that were on time improved to about 72 percent.
When compared to other West Coast light rail systems, MAX's performance lands squarely in the middle (a solid C on the grading scale).
In Seattle, for example, Sound Transit's Central Link light rail boasts a on-time rate of more than 90 percent. That's an A.