The headline is not hyperbole. I was one of them. This is my story.
To start with, a bit of background on me. I have disabilities that necessitate me using a mobility device (a walker) when I leave the house for a period of time. I had eligibility through TriMet Lift that essentially gave me access to their services whenever I needed a trip. But because of severe limitations on access to those services, I could almost never use them, as trips that I took were either covered by medical insurance or just could not be scheduled around their limits. So a lot of times, I will either have to push myself to use normal transit service or use rideshare.
Last night all of that fell apart. In a storm that, as a kid in Pennsylvania, would have had a 50/50 chance of cancelling school, no rideshare organizations had riders available. So I braved going out on transit, with a belief that tracks would be clear enough to get me to the airport, where I was meeting someone who was flying in, and we’d have shelter while figuring out how to get to their final destination (they were one of the lucky ones who managed to get a ride directly from the airport, and are safe).
At 162nd, where I got on about 10pm, I should have known there was going to be trouble and just gone back home. We were told that train services were shutting down, and the train was only going as far as Gateway, where shuttles would still be able to get me to the airport. But with no idea of when the shuttles were coming, we all ‘stayed on the train for warmth’.
The train didn’t make it to 102nd Ave until 3am, a full five hours later. Once the train left 162nd, I was committed to the quest since I had no way to return home. We were stopped at 122nd long enough that getting food and a drink from the 24 hour convenience store was no issue
Once we arrived at 102nd, passengers were told we needed to disembark. The train in front of ours had broken down, and they were going to use our train to help move that one to the yard. A shuttle bus came to go eastbound, which would at least have gotten me back to 162nd, but before I could even get past the tracks on the west side of the station, the shuttle took off. Calls to TriMet customer service went unanswered since it was ‘after hours’ (not the first time that’s happened) so I ended up calling 911. The dispatcher I spoke to said there was a Portland Police sergeant on the scene of the disabled train, and they were to get in touch with me.
About 15 minutes later I did get a call from him, with the oh-so-useful information to ‘come back and get back on the train’. He seemed to barely care that I was having mobility issues, and with no sidewalks or MAX platforms and the road having minimal plowing, Every inch I traveled was a battle. Eventually I did get back to the train, where cacophony reigned. One door was beeping as the bridge plate for getting in and out of the train was stuck on the snow. Another door was stuck two inches open, trying to close itself but unable to. A third door was wide open to the elements, and the car was running on battery power with no heaters.
At 4:45 am, after finding out the emergency call boxes on the train were down (guessing because the train was on battery power, that seems like a serious flaw) I called 911 again. There were four of us on that car, and I recognized the risks of exposure. This seemed to trigger a response from staff on site, who came back and encouraged everyone to go into the other car, which still had heat.
Disabilities strike again! The other car on the train was a Type 1 car. As a bit of background on Type 1 train cars, thanks to Wikipedia, they were introduced in 1984 in Portland, making them older than most transit riders. They have a raised platform that requires riders to go up three steep steps, and as such, are completely inaccessible to anyone with a mobility device. Type 1 cars are always paired with another, ADA accessible car, but I’ve always maintained that the system was unsustainable, and last night is further proof of that.
TriMet announced in 2018 plans to finally fully phase out the Type 1 trains, with new Type 6 trains. The initial timeline for production, before the coronavirus pandemic, had the first trains arriving later this year and the last of the first batch arriving by the end of 2022.
With me stuck on a Type 2 car that was rapidly losing power and heat, TriMet staff were able to close most of the doors, leaving one only open a few inches and turn off the buzzers. They also arranged to check on me periodically to make sure I was okay and got the emergency call buttons working again. That all lasted until about an hour later when the batteries finally went out, turning everything off in the train. I wasn’t dressed or equipped for being out in long term winter weather, but I knew enough survival to keep myself safe, if not entirely comfortable in the meantime.
I spent the time monitoring social media and talking with others on the outside world about what was happening, and at 5:40am, after TriMet announced service cancellations, Genevieve Reaume of KATU reached out about interviewing for the 7:30am news story about the closures. The intervening time was mostly spent with me walking laps in the train to keep warm and not too stiff from the cold, blaring music from my phone and using the Pink Walker’s light rig to make a party train. Things I’d never do otherwise, but having a dead train car to myself for a few hours was a (hopefully) once in a lifetime experience.
Shortly before the interview TriMet finally managed to get a shuttle bus to us, after being stuck at 102nd for 4 1/2 hours and 9 1/2 hours after I’d first gotten on the train. We were left under a vague impression that the shuttle was taking us downtown where a supervisor would be able to help coordinate us getting to final destinations. I did a phone interview while on the shuttle (and if I can get a link to the segment, I’ll post it here), and then sat back and waited. At a minimum, 19 people were on the bus, including 4-5 likely houseless people. Some people got off the bus as we went downtown, and when we got to Providence Park we got hit with a nasty surprise.
“This is the last stop. Everyone off!”
We were met with a supervisor, but not one who planned to help us. Some passengers cried foul that they were now further from their destinations than when the shuttle picked them up, while I made a pointed statement that after what I’d been through, I could no longer navigate to get home. The supervisor tried to claim “all the transit is shut down. There’s no bus service.” as if we didn’t know that already, and were still holdovers from the night before. Radio records from Twitter users @rosecitytransit and @AlYourPalster had dispatchers thinking we “were just in Gresham!” when our previous 4 hour detention was 3-7 miles from Gresham (if you look at the border or downtown), the supervisor complaining about having to be ‘politically correct’ because I was filming him (video available here) and that the experience ‘aged him 10 years’
Finally we pushed for our rights and got a route that took some passengers to Jantzen Beach, others to shelters and me back home. But even before we started on the last part of the trek, dispatchers set the expectation that police would be called on anyone who didn’t get off after that.
At the end of the night, I did make it home. I was one of the fortunate ones to still have power. So I was warm, had a hot drink, and warm cats to curl up next to me as I slept. But as I think now, and I’m sure I’m forgetting even more, a few things stick out to me about this:
- Portland really has an issue with accessibility. I had been out earlier in the day, and that combined with this showed me parking lots and sidewalks unshoveled all day. Curb cuts were invisible, and pushing a specialized light weight walker through even half of this snow would be impossible for a lot with physical disabilities.
- TriMet dropped the ball badly. The frontline employees that I dealt with last night seemed competent and were doing the best they could with the tools they were allowed. Supervisors, not so much. And I’m sure the competency and empathy decreases the further up the executive ladder you go. While I wasn’t here, 2008 has been universally considered much worse of a storm, and they never had to shut down the whole system.
- But TriMet isn’t all to blame. One TriMet supervisor explained that PBOT’s inability to plow or prepare for the storm was hamstringing their efforts. From my firsthand encounter of road conditions on major east side roads like Glisan and Burnside confirm that. And as local lawyer and personal hero Alan Kessler pointed out, PBOT was able to plow million dollar home area Germantown Road to the asphalt, lower income areas with a lot more people with reduced transit availability got delayed and inadequate ‘scraping’, not even plowing. It definitely makes it look like there’s systemic issues in how our government takes care of people.
- No one involved in managing this situation handled things like they should have. We’ve been through worse and done better.
- I cannot wait for the Type 1 trains to go away for good! Thirty-six year old train cars with no disability accessibility is insane. People don’t want to use the stairs so normally Type 1 cars are empty and the other car has double the people. With half the handicapped seating. And heaven forbid if a door breaks. That’s happened too many times to me, and before Covid was one of the biggest detractors for me using transit (thank you social anxiety)
This storm was no joke. I don’t know where things are going for me with this, but I really hope people start waking up in these board rooms and start addressing things properly.