TriMet: Communication, judgement errors led to MAX flooding

TriMet says it's ready for the next storm

PORTLAND, Ore. -- In a three-page report released Wednesday, TriMet said errors in communication and judgement during a rainstorm on Oct. 31 led to MAX operators moving trains into high water, causing at least one train to flood with passengers inside.

"Our focus was to keep service operating, but the conditions required us to take a different course of action," the agency said in a news release. "Our findings demonstrate the need to improve communications, protocols and procedures."

While TriMet shouldered much of the blame for the issues, the report also said operators should have used better judgement when deciding to proceed through high water. 

"The Train Order should not replace rail operators as the eyes and ears for the Controller," the report said. "The Train Order should not replace rail operators as the eyes and ears for the Controller."

 TriMet outlined both short- and long-term actions to mitigate a similar situation in the future. 

TriMet findings

TriMet and its drivers union clashed over who was at fault for sending a MAX train plowing through several feet of floodwaters.

Video provided to KGW clearly shows a train moving through the high water. The agency also provided video from within the train that shows passengers hopping up onto seats with grab rails as water gushed into the carriage.

Agency head Neil McFarlane issued this prepared statement:

While conditions were changing rapidly during Saturday's heavy rain storm, it is clear that  an error in judgment was made to advance that train through standing water of that depth.  We are conducting an internal investigation to determine if appropriate protocols were followed, and/or if the protocols need to be changed given this incident. We are also working with the Oregon Department of Transportation on this review, as ODOT is the oversight agency on behalf of the Federal Transit Administration.

The operator's manual states that trains should stop if rails are invisible under standing water. If the rails are visible, proceed at no more than 10 miles per hour.

KGW obtained a copy of a directive, sent out that Saturday that says "Due to heavy rain through out the entire alignment all trains need to reduce their speed to 10 MPH in areas where there is noticeable standing water." There is no reference to whether tracks are visible or not.

Amalgamated Transit Union 757 President Shirley Block told KGW that a manager told the MAX operator to drive through the high water. 

"Those trains could have got water in it, [riders] could have been electrocuted. They got really lucky, very lucky this time. And hopefully there won't be another time," Block said.

Block blamed McFarlane for not having anyone in the TriMet control room making a decision.

"Multiple operators were told to drive through," said Block. "And management should have been out there sending boots on the ground out there saying 'that's not a good idea.'" 

"Had I been on that train, I would have reached up pulled that red button and I'm out the door. There is no way I would have stayed on that train," Block said.

On Thursday, TriMet released audio of the radio communications with operators during the storm.

TriMet on Tuesday released a statement denying the allegations that management ordered the operators to proceed through the high water.

All:

We want to set the record straight regarding allegations by union leadership related to the MAX train proceeding through high water under the Morrison Bridge this past weekend.

Around 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 31, we alerted all trains traveling through the downtown area that if they see standing water to slow to 10 mph or less and to "use their best judgment" when proceeding. A few minutes later, we issued the formal Train Order to the entire fleet that tells operators to slow to 10 mph or less if they see standing water. This was issued an hour before the incident train traveled through the high water under the Morrison Bridge at 4:08 pm.

Shortly afterward, at approximately 4:15 p.m., an operator came upon the area and stopped before the water's edge, and called the Operations Command Center. We sent a supervisor to the area and reversed that train out of the area and no other trains were allowed to proceed through the flooded area.

While the investigation continues, we categorically deny that TriMet management ordered an operator to proceed through the flooded area. We take this incident seriously and we're continuing to gather information to provide the full picture of what happened that day. We do know that an error in judgment was made to advance that train.

We continue to work as quickly as possible to inspect and make any necessary repairs to those trains damaged by any water. We appreciate the patience of our riders as we continue to fully restore capacity with two-car trains.

Our fact finding continues, we will look to provide additional updates tomorrow.

Additionally, a few audio clips have been released on social media by an individual. These clips do not provide the full context of what occurred that day and miss critical facts. We will be releasing radio transmissions from Saturday afternoon as soon as they are available.

A rider, Huy Yang, said he shot this on-board video October 31.

"It's crazy, but trust me, the train is safer than driving yourself. Imagine that flooding happening inside your car. you probably would be dead. Inside the train at least you are a little safer," said Portlander Tresor Kukena, after watching the video. He often rides the train. 

Other riders voiced concerns about electrocution, after watching the video. A TriMet spokesperson says although there are electrical components on the train, they are insulated, and says the riders were not in any danger.

Deputy General Manager Robert Nelson told KGW, "No customer was in harms way. The design of the lightrail car is that it will essentially deactivate in these events, so there's no flowing of current. It's called a fail-safe. We feel very confident neither our customers nor employees were in harms way."

He said some train cars which suffered water damage are already back on the tracks. Others should be back in the next couple of weeks. 

An ODOT spokesperson says their investigation will take about a month. 

 


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