The trains aren’t running on time.

References to the timeliness of trains are a classic proxy for good governance. The operational vulnerabilities that have come with TriMet’s three-decade strategy to increasingly rely on rail are more than metaphorical.

MAX, an already frustratingly slow mode of transportation on a good day, must run even slower when it’s hot outside. WES can’t run at all in high heat.

That seems like a serious public policy risk: forking out massive capital expenditure on rail systems to become increasingly dependent on a mode of transportation that can’t take the heat of summer. Does TriMet just shrug this off as their riders bake in the sun waiting for a train?

In the policy question of rubber wheels vs. steel wheels, the Portland area has been choosing to accept frequent systemic disruption. Buses occasionally break down, but this follows a random distribution that affects few. If one bus fails, others that follow can pass it. Rail, however, often presents a binary condition of either working or succumbing to complete systemic failure.

It’s not just the weather; when just one problem emerges at any point along the tracks, from a switch going out to a train hitting a pedestrian, most of TriMet’s riders in the entire three-county Portland metropolitan area will be late that day. What’s crazy is society pays more to have this kind of unreliability.


Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change.