(VIDEO): A view from the tracks: Maintenance crews walk miles each day to keep trains moving

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Track Maintainers inspect tracks and fix issues throughout the 60-mile light rail system without disrupting MAX service

Chris Anderson laces up his steel-toed boots every morning knowing he’s going to put them to good use. As a track maintainer for TriMet’s Maintenance of Way department, Anderson and his partner Darin Flesvig walk miles—whether in the heat, rain or snow—to make sure the tracks are meeting high standards.

You may never see track maintainers as you zip along inside the train, but they’re out there, walking every inch of TriMet’s 60 miles of MAX tracks. They’re inspecting rail, clearing debris and providing necessary repairs that improve the rider experience and make light rail a trusty transit option during all times of the year. With around 120,000 people per day relying on light rail, it’s essential to keep the tracks in good working order. Trouble with the trackway, from loose bolts to bent rail, can lead to disruptions.

“It’s about… keeping people safe,” Anderson says of the work track maintainers do. “As we’re in the business of transportation, it’s a Federal Railroad Administration requirement that we get out here and inspect the tracks every other week and just try to make it safe.” As winter approaches, track maintainers are paying special attention to issues related to the weather. Freezing temperatures, piled-up leaves and even high winds can pose problems to the tracks. Track maintainers fix problems when they can without disrupting your MAX service. That makes MAX more reliable, by keeping trains running on time.

Watching out for winter weather

When they’re walking active tracks, tracks where trains are running, the two-person crew looks for all sorts of issues, including broken pieces of rail, sinkholes or rail ties that have sunken into the ground. Fluctuating temperatures have the power to bend, break and shift components of the trackway in surprising ways. During the summer, this can happen when extreme heat “kinks” the rail, buckling it sideways.

During the fall and winter, different issues arise as temperatures cool. Extreme cold causes tracks to contract. This can create a split called a “pull apart.” Track maintainers look for these problems and fix them by drilling holes into the rail and placing what’s known as a joint bar, which acts as a Band-Aid that seals the crack.

Freezing temperatures are problematic for switches, as well. These are the machines and sections of track where trains move from one set of rails to another. In extreme cases, switches can freeze completely and seize up. If this happens, a full line can grind to a halt.  TriMet uses around 100 temperature-sensitive heaters that are connected to switches susceptible to freezing. When the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the heaters fire up. Right now, track maintainers, along with rail supervisors, are removing leaves and other debris, which could smolder as a result of being close to a heat source.

Leaves can lead to other issues when they collect in ditches and culverts, or on the track itself. If they aren’t cleared out regularly, heavy rainwater has no place to flow. Water can build up and wash over the tracks, causing flooding and leading to delays. TriMet’s track maintainers and field supervisors clear slippery leaves and debris every day, sometimes hourly, to improve train traction and prevent flooding.

Preventing long-term problems

Track maintainers inspect miles of trackway at a time. The maintenance teams can’t be everyplace at once, however. That’s why there are also sensors inside the rail, connected to the signal system. If the rail splits or cracks, the electrical circuit breaks, giving the track maintainers a heads up that there’s a repair needed.

If there’s a sinkhole, break or other minor issue with a section of track, trains can roll through by slowing down until the issue is fixed. Track maintainers put up color-coded signs, what they call flags, on the side of the trackway where operators can see them. Yellow flags indicate where the trains need to start slowing down while green flags mean trains can increase their speed again. Rail control puts in place what we call a “slow order,” a special instruction governing train movement, which is announced by radio to operators. Depending on the conditions of the track, trains may need to slow down to 5-10 mph. 

A construction crew replaces a switch machine at night during a MAX improvements project.

While track maintainers can perform many repairs on the spot, they cannot do some work when trains are moving through the work zone. Larger projects take place during the graveyard shift, when trains aren’t running, or another time when rail operations have ceased, like during our Lloyd MAX Improvements project in August 2019. This work typically involves replacing large sections of rail or replacing a damaged crosstie.

Safety First

The crews follow strict protocols. At the MAX stations at both ends of the work zone, they set up call boards, small metal signs on the track. The signs tell operators to call rail control to learn about the work taking place in the right of way. MAX operators then know to decrease their speed going through these stretches. The crews also carry a constantly buzzing radio, equipped with GPS, which provides a means of communication and an extra layer of protection.

“It can be pretty stressful for the operators to always be looking out for us,” Anderson says, “so this is a way of letting them know where we are.”

Track maintainers walk in the direction of oncoming train traffic, with one member of the team on lookout. When a train approaches, they move to one side of the track and wave the train through. Once it passes, they’re back out on the tracks. They’re on the lookout for anything they can do—big and small—to keep trains rolling reliably and safely. This is one of many ways TriMet is working to keep transit safe, smooth and dependable as the seasons change.