Here’s How We Plan to Improve MAX Reliability

In the two months since I joined TriMet as the new chief operating officer, I’ve developed an initial focus: delivering more reliable service, and doing it safely.

We know that MAX on-time performance (OTP), our measure of reliability, isn’t what it should be. Right now about one in every five trips is delayed. I know how frustrating this can be, and the impact it can have on a busy schedule. There are places you need to be — work, school, your child’s daycare, the doctor’s office — and it’s our responsibility to help get you there on time.

People took about 38 million trips on MAX last year.

The bottom line is that we need to do better, and earn your trust.

Our teams are working hard to chart a new course. We’re planning to address many areas that affect our system’s OTP, with a goal of raising it over time to an average of 90 percent. (For reference, we averaged 75 percent OTP for MAX in November.)

Achieving this will require some long-term efforts and investments, but I think we can do a lot in the months ahead.

What causes delays?

MAX is a very complex system that operates about 22½ hours a day, with a fleet of 145 vehicles. We’ve looked closely at what causes delays and found that one-third of it revolves around issues like cars blocking the tracks or passengers in need of medical attention — events beyond our immediate control. Even a fallen tree can cause a significant disruption, as we saw in December when it took four hours to clear a tree from the tracks in Downtown Portland. (Even though I was on a bus, we were gridlocked in the traffic backup and I felt the frustration.)

MAX vehicles at Ruby Junction. MAX is a complex system, running 22½ hours a day.
MAX vehicles at Ruby Junction. MAX is a complex system operating 22½ hours a day.

The remaining two-thirds of delays fall within our control, involving trains, signals, switches or numerous other operating issues.

How we’ll improve

To start, we’re focusing on four key areas:

Physical improvements

Parts of the MAX system are 30 years old, and some of its elements need to be upgraded or replaced.

This year, we’re dedicating more than $11 million initially to replace track and switches at the Rose Quarter and along First Avenue in Downtown Portland. (This will also likely require future investments.) Another focus will be on the Steel Bridge, the 104-year-old span that carries four MAX lines over the Willamette. That, along with the adjoining Rose Quarter area, is the site of frequent switch and signal problems. We’re designing an upgrade to the tracks, signals and switches on the bridge, and construction is scheduled to begin in 2017. Given the complexity of the system on the bridge, we’ve hired outside expertise to help us improve reliability and maximize capacity.

Four MAX lines cross the 104-year-old Steel Bridge.
Four MAX lines cross the 104-year-old Steel Bridge.

That’s the good news. However, as you might have guessed, work at the Rose Quarter and along First Avenue is going to require a disruption to MAX service while parts are upgraded or replaced. We’re working on a plan to help keep your ride as smooth as possible during that time, and we’ll share more as we get closer.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue overhauling and upgrading MAX vehicles, making them more reliable for many years and millions of miles to come.

More support for frontline employees

Our ever-growing bus and MAX system means we have a lot of new operators. They’re all capable and professional but, like at any new job, it can take time to get comfortable with the rhythm and intricacies of driving a train on a busy and recently expanded system. That’s why we’re planning to expand our support, coaching and training for operators, helping them become more assured and confident. This should make everyone’s ride smoother and more reliable.

Changing the way we operate

We can also change the way we operate to improve OTP and give you a more reliable ride. We’re working on that now, and I’m excited to see what we come up with. Rest assured, we will never compromise safety.

Working with partners to limit delays

The incident with the fallen tree and the four-hour delay spurred us to meet with the City of Portland to look for ways to shorten delays. We’re also reaching out to our first-responder partners to get trains moving quicker after an incident.

That’s where we start. As this work goes on, I want to be open with you about how we’re doing, the progress we’ve made and what we’ve learned. As I mentioned, this is a complex system and improving it involves focus and resolve. We have a great team of talented and proud people who work very hard to serve you each and every day. We’ll be providing updates and putting together a web page where you can track our performance over time, and we expect to see the number of delays go down over time as our reliability improves.

Doug Kelsey

Doug Kelsey

As chief operating officer, I oversee our transportation, maintenance and information technology divisions. Outside of work, I enjoy spending time with family and being active outdoors, especially cycling. I'm a huge basketball fan, and I'm proud to be a co-founder of one of Canada's largest high school tournaments.

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