Friday, 3 August 2012

PORTLAND MAX & Streetcar

On a relatively short (I'm writing this on my 18-hour trip to San Francisco), only 4 hour long train journey from Seattle I got to Portland last Friday, where I have spent the last 5 days (27-31 July 2012). Portland has always been quoted as a pioneer city in public transport issues, so I'm going to have a critical look here, too, of course.

Before getting started with some detailed analysis, Portland is indeed several years ahead of other US cities, it introduced low-floor cars in 1997 when these were even rare in Western Europe (Germany's first low-floor trams ran in Bremen in 1993), and it boasts some innovative elements in public announcements systems, like full video screens along the Transit Mall showing departure times of the next trains and buses. Portland was also the first US city to add a streetcar system to its light rail network, but is rather undeveloped when it comes to commuter or suburban rail.

Portland is served by two long-distance Amtrak trains, the Coast Starlight, that links the entire West Coast from Seattle to L.A., and the Empire Builder to Chicago. The North West, however, is served by a couple of Cascades trains, which run between Portland and Seattle, with a few being extended north to Vancouver, BC, and a few south to Eugene, OR.

Tri-Met operates all rail and bus services in Greater Portland. They have a proper customer information office located within the Tourist Office at Pioneer Courthouse Square, the actual heart of the city. And, they do distribute a full bus map, which is handy in size, but rather simplified, but it helps a lot to identify which bus to take. The downside is, that this map is nowhere posted at bus stops, not even in the central areas, where stops have shelters (and thus available walls to post them), timetables, next-bus indicators and even a diagram map for each line stopping there. Like at the light rail stops, there are downtown maps showing the stops for each bus line.

MAX (Light Rail)

The MAX system has four lines, all radiating from the city centre, with four legs on the eastern side and only one on the western. A southern leg is currently under construction. All trains run, or better crawl through the downtown area, and here is actually the strongest criticism I have to give, that within the central area it is one of the slowest systems I have been on. The Blue and Red Lines, which serve the original downtown route along Yamhill and Morrison Streets give you the feeling of being on a tram-train, i.e. they are very slow in the centre, and once they get out of it, they switch to a contrasting rapid transit alignment to catch up the time lost in the centre, with long station distances for the first sections, parallel to a freeway out to the Gateway junction, and in tunnel towards the western suburbs.

The original Blue Line section east towards Gresham is a typical European-style light rail once it gets beyond Gateway and onto the middle strip of E Burnside St, with a separate right-of-way (an indirect leftover of a long-gone interurban railway) and railway-type Vignol rails, but with intersections; stations are evenly spaced, not too far from each other, so many people can walk up to the stations. The Cleveland terminus has some sidings beyond the station, but trains terminate in the station, at least during off-peak hours. Like on other routes, some intersections are protected by automatic barriers, while others are not.

The Westside extension first travels through the long Robertson Tunnel under Washington Park, with a tube-type station of that name far below the surface, but elevators take only some 40 seconds to take you down. This is the only underground station in Portland, and with the neighbouring Sunset station the only metro-style station. It has a pretty plain design, but with interesting engravings on the walls referring to the nearby zoo. After leaving the tunnel, trains continue on a fast route to Sunset, paralleling a major freeway. The alignment gets a bit awkward as trains leave Sunset, as they have to take a U-turn inside a tunnel to get to the other side of that freeway and then turn south to get aligned parallel to another freeway before turning west towards Beaverton – one of the compromises you make when choosing a freeway corridor.

Beaverton is the most important hub west of Portland, with lots of buses and the WES commuter railway running south to Wilsonville during peak hours. It's a three-track station, with the Red Line using the centre track to reverse, and with lots of people crossing the tracks!
The section beyond Beaverton all the way to Hillsboro was built along a former railway route, but unlike in other US cities, the stations are generally surrounded by residential areas, many of which had obviously been built after the light rail had arrived; there are, however, still a few undeveloped green areas the trains travel through. The average distance between stations is maybe approx. 1 km, so the line is easily accessible on foot for many people. Once in Hillsboro, MAX runs on-street, though on a slightly raised right-of-way covered with red bricks and thus separated from road traffic, but emergency vehicles could go on the MAX reservation. The Hillsboro 2-track terminus at Hatfield Government Center does not have reversing sidings.

The next leg to be added was the Red Line branch to the Airport. This diverges from the original route at Gateway in another awkward U-turn, but in this way, three lines serve the Gateway Transit Center and allow people from the Clackamas and Gresham areas to transfer conveniently to get to the Airport. The turnout is single-track for about 2 km and gets aligned on the eastern side of the airport freeway. Already on the double-track section it enters a short tunnel to get into the median of that freeway (I-205) for a while, with Parkrose/Sumner TC station, before leaving it again on a flyover to serve two stations in a retail estate, Cascades and Mt Hood. The final approach to the Airport is again single-track, but two tracks (no sidings) are available at the terminus.

A couple of years later, the Yellow Line opened along North Interstate Avenue, branching off the Blue & Red Lines just after crossing the Willamette River on the old Steel Bridge. Most of the route is again on a European-style light rail alignment in the median of the road with intersections. To avoid unnecessary delays at traffic lights, several stations have staggered platforms, located each after the road intersection. After the Kenton/N Denver station, trains climb a viaduct across some railway tracks and a creek, but reach ground level as they approach Delta Park/Vanport station. From the terminus Expo Center (rather a large P+R station, with no sidings beyond the station) an extension is planned across the Columbia River to Vancouver in Washington State, so after St Louis, this could become the second bi-state light rail system. The project is, however, linked to a proposed new I-5 freeway bridge.
The newest section was added in 2009, introducing the Green Line, which runs primarily along freeway I-205 from Gateway to Clackamas Town Center, first on the eastern side and the switching to the western side in a tunnel south of Main Street station. Although stations have crossings for passengers to reach the island or opposite platform, there is only one road intersection (which leads to a car park squeezed in between the freeway and the light rail line at Main Street) on this branch. There is a single siding beyond the terminus, but trains seem to use the scissors-crossover north of the station at least during off-peak hours.


Together with the Clackamas branch, a second downtown route was opened along 5th and 6th Avenues, along the existing Bus Transit Mall, although these roads still have one lane for car users, too. Bus stops are located between MAX stops, so trains run on the right lane to stop, but switch to the central lane between stops, thus allowing buses to pick up passengers at the curbside. This might seem to be annoying, but the change of lanes is done in a very smooth and elegant way you hardly notice it. What is noticeable, however, is the useless detour at Union Station, where the stops are quite a long way from the railway station anyway, so a more direct route along Glisan Street which would allow faster speeds would have been a better option (the new streetcar routes actually runs above the mainline platforms and doesn't have a stop anywhere near). The MAX stops are in fact located on either side of the Greyhound bus station, an area that attracts many homeless people, and you don't want to hang around there too much in the evening. So if you arrive by train at night, take a taxi from the Amtrak station directly, as unless you know the area, it will even be difficult to find your stop in the dark!
Initially terminating in the loop at 11th Avenue between Morrison and Yamhill Streets, the Yellow Line was then also diverted onto the new Transit Mall route to terminate at PSU (Portland State University), so both downtown routes are now served by two lines, theoretically resulting in a train every 7.5 minutes, with a basic 15-minute headway on each line. In reality, trains come rather at random, it feels. The Red and Blue Lines share large parts of their routes, but are not combined to provide a regular headway, as the eastern section is also shared by the Green Line.
Since its opening in 2009, the last Transit Mall passengers have to get off the trains at 5th Avenue/SW Mill Street, although a further stop just before the loop was planned from the beginning. From what I could observe, this and the respective boarding platform on 6th Avenue is now almost complete after a students' residence had been built between them, so they may be put into service shortly. At this point the Milwaukie extension will continue (though sometimes referred to as the Orange Line, it should become an extension of the Yellow Line). Work on this extension seems to have started on all sections, most notably the viaduct across Harbor Drive and the new transit-only bridge across the Willamette River which is to be eventually shared by streetcars and MAX.

So, except for the detour at Union Station and the two U-turns described above, the alignment looks pretty good. The slowness in the city centre is partly due to an excess of stops, sometimes only two blocks from each other (and 1 block is just long enough for a 2-car train!), partly due to slow alighting and boarding and doors reopening too often (which is nice when you are the person that's happy to still hop on...) as well as long traffic-light cycles or no devices to keep the lights on green for the trains. So, in this field, some improvements could be made. On outer sections, traffic lights seem to be well coordinated with the trains as no annoying delays of that kind can be observed. On some of the faster sections, trains seem to speed up to 100 km/h and run very smoothly.

MAX Stations
Just like in all other cities I have visited on this trip, all the stations are in very good condition and looked after. They mostly have one of a few standard designs, with partial roofs. Passenger information is generally on a good level, with timetables and maps, etc., even an area map showing connecting buses. What I found useful is a large-print, simplified display of basic headways during different times of service. Digital next-train indicators, however, are not available everywhere. Some stations have LED indicators, others have the new video screens, which are not ideally located. Ideally these indicators should be placed at the point where you access a station, however, they are often under the roof and you have to look for them. Mostly there is more than one ticket-vending machine, although shame on Tri-Met, many display a map without the Green Line and Transit Mall in service since 2009! I suppose this will be replaced soon anyway with the new fare system being implemented in September 2012. In the downtown area, the platforms are actually the slightly raised sidewalks. Stations are identified primarily by a square information post at the front end of the stop. Several stations are enhanced with artwork, on the Green Line to Clackamas and on some Yellow Line stations the pillars that support the roof are clad with a varying glass tile pattern.  

MAX trains
Tri-Met operates three (actually four) different types of trains, generally as 2-car formations. They are named accordingly as type 1, etc. The first type, built by Bombardier, has high platforms, and therefore always runs with a second car of type 2 or 3. Due to the short block lengths in the downtown area, 3-car trains cannot be used. Also the underground station Washington Park or the open-trench station Sunset TC are only laid out for two cars. So capacity can only be increased by adding more trains (the current timetable shows “15 minutes or better” ...). Many type 1 and 2 trains now run in the new livery, which does not distinguish between high-floor and low-floor cars, so you need to look out for the wheel-chair sign on the front if you can't distinguish the Bombardier stock from the Siemens stock.
Type 2 was built by Siemens and was the first low-floor (70%) vehicle in the U.S. when put into service in 1997. Apparently, they asked them to create a front similar to that of the Bombardier stock, although the latter have a slightly more narrow front. Like type 1, they came in a white livery, but with the red stripes on the sides showing their low-floor entrances (the end sections without doors are high-floor). Two of the four doors on each side have retractable ramps to bridge the gap, but access is almost level even without them. Type 3 is basically identical to type 2, although delivered in a new livery.
The 20 cars of type 3, however, have a complete different look with a rounded front, although otherwise they have a similar layout. They can only operate in pairs of their own type, as each car is only equipped with one driver's cab. The question arises, why they didn't order long single walk-through trains instead? Maybe restrictions in the workshops? I assume they have an auxiliary driving console at the parlour end of the car. While the older trains have purple seats, type 3 was delivered with more timeless blue seats. Although the seats are of the bus-type arrangement in the raised section next to the driver's cab on all types, you cannot enjoy the view out the front window, as the window to the driver's cab is covered with what seems to be a film allowing only the driver to look into the passenger compartment. All trains have video surveillance and air-conditioning. They also feature racks to hang up your bicycle.
All in all, they are very spacious but I find them all to big for street operation. The older tyes 1-3 have a very intimidating open lower part where the coupler is located, which in the case of type 4 is closed at the driver's cab end. But compared to basically the same S70 model used in Salt Lake City, for example, they also look too big, a slimmer design would have been preferable. All types provide a very smooth ride on sections with Vignol rails, which is on most routes, and even at high speeds, but they get very loud as they enter downtown grooved rails filled with a lot of pebbles and other debris. Also for pedestrians, passing trains are rather noisy. The slowest section is actually that across the old Steel Bridge, a section shared by all lines, but a least the noise produced there doesn't disturb any neighbours. Trains don't blow their horns at intersections, just a short bell to warn passengers who are about to cross the tracks in front of the train.
Trains have both visual and acoustic station announcements and all sorts of other announcements, too, and mostly in two languages, English and Spanish. I'm not sure whether it is necessary to add a Spanish version, it is a nice gesture towards a certain community, but I think serving them too much in their own language doesn't really help them in the long run, as they won't be able to avoid using English fully if they want to get a proper job. The other question is, of course, why only Spanish? Vancouver, for example, would have endless announcements in all different languages. Interestingly, the important message “The doors are closing” is in English only! But at least now I know what it will be like to travel on light rail in Mexico.
The train destination is displayed on the car front, but especially on the type 1-3 trains this is hard to distinguish as trains mostly also have a strong centre top headlight switched on.


A third route through the downtown area is used by the streetcar system. Like MAX, trams travel along different streets in each direction. The streetcar serves the popular Nob Hill and Pearl District areas at the northern end, and PSU and the emerging South Waterfront area at the southern end. Although stops are shown with different names, transfer between MAX and Streetcar is usually easy and just around the corner. There is a track connection between both systems at 10th & Morrison, and on a short section at PSU, both urban rail systems actually operate side by side, but they never share tracks so far, but will in the future on the new bridge across the Willamette River.

The streetcars are basically the same as those in Seattle and Tacoma, rather small, and actually too infrequent, now running about every 12 minutes, which is a long wait considering you could walk to most places easily. Hopefully with the new Eastside line opening shortly, the headways on the central stretch will be shortened (but I still haven't found out yet, how this new extension will actually be operated before it may become a full circular route one day). As the streetcar is designed primarily to hop on for short trips, it should be more frequent. But apparently there are not sufficient trams to reduce intervals, and the opening of the new route has been postponed due to delayed delivery of the new vehicles from United Streetcar in Portland. It is announced for 22 Sept 2012. The Streetcar stops are equipped with small next-train indicators, maps and schedules, as well as a bus stop-like shelter. Interestingly, many of the otherwise simple stops are sponsored by some nearby company, which is announced together with the stop name. Aboard the streetcar, maps can be picked up. Unlike MAX, announcements are made in English only.

WES Commuter Rail

The “Westside Express Service” (WES > I think WEX would sound better and match MAX) is a rather unique service for US standards as it uses DMUs, diesel railcars, either running as single cars like a railbus, or in pairs. These were newly built by Colorado Railcars for this service, but there are also some second-hand ex Alaska railcars to help when the new trains are out of order. There are generally three trains in operation to serve the 5-station line south from Beaverton to Wilsonville. The stations have high platforms and thus allow level boarding into the high-floor vehicles. A sort of “Mind the gap” message is announced, although the gap is actually neglectable. As there are also lots of companies in Wilsonville and along the line, trains are busy in both directions, operating only in the morning and afternoon rush hours, every 30 minutes on easily memorisable times (a slightly longer, but irregular headway could be operated with just two trains). WES mostly runs on a single-track freight line, with a newly-built track in the median of an urban road to allow trains to approach the Beaverton interchange.


As of now, Portland is among the cheapest and most easily understandable transit systems. There is a 3-zone fare system displayed clearly on maps. Most of the downtown area and reaching four stations on the Eastside too, is fare-free on trains, but not on buses, so right the opposite to Seattle. Curiously, the free rail zone extends far into the Eastside (I suppose it is sponsored by the Lloyd Center, a major shopping mall), but in the west it ends just one stop after Pioneer Square. On match day, strict ticket checks are made at JELD-WEN Field, to make sure noone takes a free ride for one stop!
This should, however, change shortly and the free rail zone will be abolished altogether, so you'll require a ticket for everything. A day pass is sold at 5 USD valid for all zones, and I guess you can't get it cheaper anywhere. It also includes the WES commuter trains. My proposal is to introduce a 1-dollar short-trip or downtown ticket instead, this would help to avoid overcrowding and thus speed up boarding in the central area, while at the same time allowing cheap short trips, too.


Portland MAX & Streetcar at UrbanRail.Net


  1. I'm not sure about your"cheapest" fare system remark. I researched that and found it was among the most expensive in the US.

    I enjoyed reading your post, you hit some of the problems but left out plenty others that only a person who lived here and used the system regularly would know.

  2. Dear Al,

    could you quote a few cities in the U.S. that offer a day pass for less than 5 USD for a comparable service?

    You are also welcome to add your experience and share with others.

  3. Hi Robert,

    First off I hope you enjoyed your stay here! I've lived here in Portland for a number of years and most residents see it as beneficial to have the level of transit infrastructure that we have. It's started to pay dividends too - the cost per ride on the MAX is less than half the cost for a ride on a city bus.

    A couple of notes - the turnaround at Union Station does appear to be a space-waster, but I think it's there only because they needed enough space to do a complete turnaround loop at the north end of the Transit Mall. They occasionally run one-car Mall-only trains when service is light (Sundays) or when bridge-raising keeps the eastside trains from crossing the river. The heritage trolleys also turn around there (they operate historic trolleys up and down the Mall about 8-10 Sundays per year). And I think the planning for the Orange Line also played a part in their decision - those trains will turn around at Union Station as well.

    As for the Streetcar, I'm not holding my breath for them opening up the new line at the end of September (as much as I'd like them to). The latest news is that they will be lucky to have just one out of five of their brand-new Union Streetcars ready by then, which means best-case scenario, they'll have 12 streetcars total at that point. They operate six cars during most of each weekday (maybe seven during rush hours), and the eastside expansion will double the amount of track they need to put cars on. Let's just say that if they do open on time, they'll have to cross their fingers that none of their streetcars breaks down. When they do open, the system will operate as two distinct routes (see the newly-released map here:

    Did you get a chance to see the ex-Alaska Budd railcars that WES has? They are pretty nifty...I love when they show up to do a run, although it's pretty rare. I've taken a number of pictures of them when I've caught them in service; if you'd like to include a photo in your upcoming book, just let me know and I'll send over some samples for you to take a look at. I also have some shots of the heritage trolley if you're interested. I'm actually quite a fan of your books and I'd be happy to contribute!

    All the best!
    -Chris McDowell

    1. Hi Chris,

      thanks for your comments and explanations. I do hope, though, that the Orange and Yellow Lines will be linked to form one line only, just like the Blue Line (or are they trying to avoid those long runs?).

      I did spot an old Alaska train but just from the train I was on while they crossed at the mid-way station. You're welcome to contribute a photo of this and the heritage trolley to my book (get in touch directly at, thanks). I didn't see the latter, I had forgotten to check beforehand whether they were actually running on the Sunday when I was there.

  4. Great, thanks! I sent an e-mail off to you with a link to view some photos. The vintage streetcars are pretty rare - the budget only allows eight days of operation per year, and five of those happen in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The vintage cars are run as a fun feature promoting "do your Christmas shopping downtown," but sadly they're on Sundays which sees very few people actually in the downtown core. Oh well!

  5. Robert, I think this is an understatement: "The North West is served by a couple of Cascades trains, which run between Portland and Seattle". The actual number of Cascades trains is 8 a day, or four roundtrips a day. If you include the two trains a day (one roundtrip a day) of the Coast Starlight, the overall service level between Seattle and Portland is 5 roundtrips a day. This is very respectable level of intercity rail service for the United States. Only California and Northeast have more trains on their routes. Neither Midwest nor any other part of the country has comparable service frequencies, so overall, Northwest is among the better states in this regard.

  6. While i agree, BART is the most efficient Subway system in California and the United States, the reason why the LA system is so pathetically bad is because nobody uses it. In Los Angeles, everyone has cars and lives in the suburbs, so its not really useful. Unlike the Bay Area and San Francisco where everyone has cars but enjoys getting rid of them.
    The United States is a car country, its not like Europe where people hardly have them and can't get them (my own experiences in Paris and London staying for some months) In America, the question isnt; Do you have a car? The question is; "How many cars do you have? Two? three" The Bay Area has been cutting down on this with Bart and Muni

    1. I'm afraid your impression of Europe is wrong, we do have cars, too, and too many of them. Certainly some people who live in big cities choose not to have one if there is reasonable public transport available, just as you say in San Francisco and I guess in New York City, too. So your conclusion that L.A.'s system is bad because noone uses it doesn't make sense: it is badly used because it doesn't go to many places (and in my personal opinion there aren't too many places I want to go to in L.A. anyway....)

    2. The thing is, our down town areas tend to be more densely zoned, that is more people live in apartments.

      Investing into and using transit makes more sense in such environment. Also, actually having a place to park the car in dense down town is more expensive so with these variables more households opt to have only a single car.

  7. BART has its issues and even 40 years ago only by commuting in the reverse direction (SF to Walnut Creek) was it reasonably palatable. That they've been able to expand it in a few directions (SFO, Pittsburg, Milpitas) is good news, but much more is needed and regional/commuter rail is likely to be up and running much sooner. Despite greater frequencies, its still inferior to Caltrain, Capitols etc for longer distance rider comfort and amenities (and yes having been commuting to outer Bay Area employment for 15 years - there are a lot of cross suburban commuters. Marin opted out of BARTD and got a fairly usable (for a low density area- with lots of recreational drivers) diesel commuter line, plus transfer to GGT ferry to SF. BART across the Richmond San Rafael Bridge was considered at one point - but the bridge bucked and swayed during the 1989 earthquake and that was not considered thereafter


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