Portland, Oregon: where MAX takes you everywhere.
Portland’s light rail, operated by the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District, was opened in 1986 with approximately 15 miles of rail from Downtown Portland to Gresham. Over the years, the light rail has expanded to about 55 miles, with the newest operating line, the Green Line, out to Clackamas. The newest line under contruction is the Orange Line, which will add about 10 more miles to the current system once the line is completed to Milwaukie. There are 4 lines, Red, Blue, Yellow, and Green, and starting in a few years, the Orange Line will be the fifth line in the system. The Blue Line is the longest line in the system, 33 miles in length and comprising of the former Eastside MAX (Portland to Gresham) and the Westside MAX (Portland to Hillsboro) alignments.
Portland has four types of light rail cars, with a fifth on order and awaiting delivery. The cars that opened the system are the Type 1s, the Bombardier-built high-floor, low-entry light rail vehicles in the 100-series. These are similar to the Siemens SD160 cars in Denver and San Diego. The Type 2 and 3 cars, Siemens-built SD600s and SD660s, are Portland’s first low-floor LRVs, built to accommodate wheelchairs and bicycles. The Type 4s are futuristic-looking Siemens S70 “Avanto” low-floor cars similar to Houston Metro’s 100-series cars. (*Note: San Diego uses the same class of cars but has a different nose.) The Type 5s are similar to Type 4s, but they will have updates and a nose more akin to the San Diego 3000- and 4000-series cars. They all run on 750V DC in some places and 825V DC found in the rest of the system. The Type 2s were retrofitted with bicycle mounts near certain doors of the car for passengers to vertically mount their bikes, and the Type 3s were configured this way when new. The Type 4 and future Type 5 cars have bicycle racks inside the car for passengers to horizontally mount their bikes, as in Houston. This is a great feature to have since many MAX riders coming from the far reaches of the Blue Line at either end can ride their bikes into town and continue from there. Some areas have little to no bus service to reach the city, and some areas are too far or too dangerous to travel solely by bike.
The four lines run on two different alignments in downtown Portland, one being the Morrison/Yamhill one-way pairs and the other being the 5th/6th Avenue pairs, constructed as the Portland Transit Mall. Both alignments intersect at Pioneer Square/Pioneer Courthouse/City Hall. The Blue and Red Lines use Morrison/Yamhill Streets, while the Green and Yellow Lines use 5th/6th Avenues. The Blue and Red Lines pass through downtown with service towards Beaverton and Hillsboro on Morrison Street and service towards Gresham and the Airport on Yamhill Street. The Yellow and Green Lines both run south on 5th Avenue and terminate at Portland State University, with connections to the Portland Streetcar. The Yellow Line runs up 6th Avenue and towards the Expo Center, while the Green Line runs up 6th Avenue towards Clackamas. All four lines converge past Union Station on the Yellow/Green and Chinatown on the Blue/Red, then travel across the Steel Bridge, a very unique double-deck lift-span bridge that carries light rail and road traffic on the upper level and freight and Amtrak trains on the lower level. The four lines split off just before the Rose Quarter and continue on their merry way to the north and east of Portland.
There is one tunnel station, Washington Park on the Red/Blue lines, located in the three-mile-long Robertson Tunnel, on the Westside portion of the system, and at 260 feet, it is one of the world’s deepest train stations. Deep under the Tualatin Mountains and Washington Park, the line makes its way towards Sunset Transit Center where it runs along U.S. 26, stops at the transit center, then makes a 180-degree left turn in a tunnel under the highway and makes a 90-degree right turn onto Oregon Route 217 towards Beaverton. There is also one of the weirdest interchanges in the system, at Gateway-NE 99th Transit Center, where the Red/Blue/Green lines come off of I-84 and make a 90-degree right turn at the transit center, before Red Line trains diverge and make a 180-degree right turn and head for the Airport. The Green and Blue Lines diverge about 400 feet south of the Red Line diverging point.
The Portland Transit Mall is uniquely designed to allow Tri-Met buses and MAX trains to share the right-side of the street to serve its customers with safe and orderly service. Every fourth block on 5th and 6th Avenues is a MAX stop, while the other two blocks are used for Tri-Met and C-TRAN (Vancouver, Washington’s transit system) commuter buses, split up into four zones (A/B/C/D on 5th Avenue, W/X/Y/Z on 6th Avenue) to separate different services. The bus lanes and MAX tracks switch positions based on where the bus and MAX stops are. Every fourth block, for example, has the tracks at the curb, while the other three blocks have the bus lane at the curb. Each service zig-zags up and down 6th Avenue for the entire length of 5th and 6th Avenues between Union Station and Portland State University. Light rail was added to the Portland Transit Mall in 2009 following a two-year closure of the Mall, which had for almost 30 years prior been a bus-only transit mall with some blocks having a one-way general traffic lane. With reconstruction, the one-way lanes run the entire length of the Transit Mall.
The only criticism of the MAX system is the slow speeds from Rose Quarter to the Lloyd Center, being that there is a good amount of street running in this section. Street running Downtown is to be expected as Tri-Met has deferred the option to send some of its lines into a Transit Tunnel. That was the going option when the Yellow Line was created, originally running along the Blue/Red Lines on Morrison/Yamhill Streets before being diverted to the Transit Mall. There was a lot of concern with running longer trains on city streets where the blocks aren’t long enough to fully berth more than two cars, especially when adding a fourth line would make transit and traffic unbearable. At the same time, running a tunnel would have been prohibitively expensive and cause construction-related traffic nightmares. Thus, the decision was made to add light rail service to the Portland Mall and reconfigure it to maximize light rail and bus boarding. That is not to say the issue about traffic and delays has disappeared, since the Blue and Green Lines have capacity issues that would warrant either extra-long trains or decreased headways, which aren’t feasible due to the length of city blocks and all 4 lines converging at the Steel Bridge. Let’s see what happens when the Orange Line goes online in a few years.
Some of my favorite places to ride in the MAX system:
- The Red Line from Parkrose/Sumner TC to PDX Airport: Nice ride along the airport tarmac and/or runway, watching planes takeoff and land
- The Blue/Red Lines from Beaverton TC to Providence Park: Washington Park, Sunset TC, coming out of the Robertson Tunnel and going down the hill to Goose Hollow, then running by the baseball field before splitting off to Morrison/Yamhill Streets
- The Blue Line from Gateway TC to Gresham: Running down the middle of Burnside Avenue where there is no traffic lights or intersections for at least a half mile between stations, staggered platforms, unmanned pedestrian crossings every 3-4 blocks (trains must slow to 20MPH when someone is seen crossing the tracks)
- The Portland Transit Mall: Buses and trains down main streets criss-crossing each other as they roll down the hill on 6th and up the hill on 5th.
Some of my favorite places to spectate in the MAX system:
- Pioneer Square: the heart of MAX operations.
- Steel Bridge: the point where all 4 MAX lines converge into downtown Portland, buses on the bridge alongside the trains, the best views of the city along the Willamette River
- Portland State University: where the MAX trains meet the Streetcars, where college kids jump right on the trains, platforms on-campus
- Northeast Holladay Street: island platforms at NE 7th and Lloyd Center are separate-direction platforms similar to Houston MetroRail, Portland Streetcar connections at Convention Center and Lloyd Center.
Overall a great system to ride, and with $5 Day Pass fares, relatively inexpensive, with many places to go including the historic Union Station, Portland State University, The OHSU medical system, the Lloyd Center (Portland’s largest mall), and the Rose Quarter (home to the Rose Garden Arena, or Moda Center, for the Portland Trailblazers NBA team). With service every 7-10 minutes throughout the day, there’s no shortage of action on the rail side, and you don’t have to wait very long to get anywhere in the Greater Portland area. It has something for everyone, including spectacular views of the city from the Steel Bridge, the Rose Quarter, Gateway TC, Beaverton TC, Washington Park, Goose Hollow, and Union Station. You can shop at the Lloyd Center for big name stores such as Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, or shop at some of the local stores at Clackamas, Beaverton, Gresham, and Cascades stations. Explore local eats anywhere near Old Town/Chinatown, Pioneer Square, Goose Hollow, or PSU stations. Whatever your tastes, Portland’s got it…and MAX can take you there.