Back in June, I had the opportunity to tour Portland Streetcar’s maintenance facilities. It was a very rare opportunity, and definitely not one a typical rainy Portland day would stop me from going to. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of Portland Streetcar to bring you a smooth, safe ride, here’s a little look.
Portland Streetcar currently has two yards, a North Yard and South Yard. The South Yard is the original yard and is also home to some of the operations office. Its bays are used for some more basic maintenance, where precision isn’t as critical. On the other hand, the North Yard is much more modern and automated. Work requiring a high level of precision is performed there.
Ever been on a streetcar that went THUNK THUNK THUNK? That’s the sound of a flat. Yes, even with metal wheels a flat is a possibility. When streetcar operations first started, wheels used to have to be removed from the train and shipped to one of TriMet’s rail yards to fix a flat. Now, they just need to be brought over to the North Yard.
While it may seem like there isn’t much to a streetcar, the view is very different once you get above or below one of the trains. Each train has several hundred, if not thousand parts to maintain. Both yards have multiple bays for working on trains, with the South Yard having the higher capacity.
If you’ve ever wondered how a train steers, this grey fin is it. This is called a TWC antenna, or Track To Wayside Communication. Each of the routes on streetcar is associated with a special code that is broadcasted either manually or automatically to the track below. Think of it like trying to turn left at a traffic signal: the road at the intersection has a small antenna it in that detects when a source of metal is over it, be it a bike or car.
While the wheels of a train are fairly large, only a very small amount actually touches the track. Our tour guide stated about only an inch of the wheel is actually on the track.
One term that was used in the media a lot following the Amtrak 188 disaster was ATS, or Automatic Train Stop. Another term was PTC, or Positive Train Control. Both are technologies designed to regulate the movement of trains. While PTC is more often used to make sure a train doesn’t go above the speed limit (yes, trains have them too), ATS is designed to do exactly what its name implies: stop the train. It will do so very, very quickly. In a nutshell, ATS uses two electromagnets, one in the track and one on the train. On a red signal, the magnet in the track will be active. If a train passes over, the two magnets will attract, causing the emergency brake on the train to activate immediately. Trust me, you want to be holding on really well when this happens.
If you’ve ever been on the train and heard a loud BANG, followed by a rough stop, this is what causes it. This is called a track brake; It’s a large electromagnet that will attach directly to the rail to stop the train. They get a fair amount of usage on SW Harrison Street during slippery rail season. The train operator can manually toggle them on and off if the train needs some help stopping. In the case of an emergency stop however, these latch onto the track and stay on until the train is reset.
Each set of wheels also has a sand chute, which is the grey fin above. It’s another source of a somewhat jarring noise, but don’t worry, in most cases, it’s one you want to hear. Sand is used to give the wheels better traction along the rails. It can be manually deployed by the operator or automatically whenever the train detects a wheel slip. Sand helps keep the train going – and going on the rails rather than off them.
Both yards were home to plenty of spare parts to make sure cars are back out in service as quickly as possible. However, when a part isn’t available, our guide said a part may sometimes be borrowed from Seattle while waiting on a replacement to be shipped from overseas. Seattle’s original fleet is the same as Portland’s.
The top of the train is home to most of the electrical components, in the form of a series of boxes. With the train being powered by an overhead wire, it just makes sense to put it above the train. Each of the three sections of the train has its own HVAC system so while you may be on a train that has a section that is warmer than the rest, it is quite rare to be on a train with no HVAC at all.
The folded part at the very front of the car is the pantograph. Usually you’ll see it extended and touching the overhead wire as it’s how the car gets its power. While the Streetcar fleet does have regenerative braking, it’s designed to always operate with a connection to the overhead wire, unlike the fleets some other cities use, Seattle being one of them, which are battery-electric hybrids.
While the later Streetcar fleet may be more computerized than the original fleet from 2001, there are still plenty of buttons, switches, lights, and displays for operators to keep a close eye on – while also keeping an eye on the road and passengers. Driving a train isn’t as easy as just pushing a button or lever, especially when it can take a full city block – or more – to stop safely.
Considering the last time I got to see a rail yard up close was 2014 while I was in Melbourne (and it was actually a retired tram depot), this was an amazing experience, and I’m very thankful to Portland Streetcar for the invitation and opportunity to attend the tour. This is only a small look at what goes on behind the scenes – every day. There is far more to it I didn’t see.