By Daniel Perez-Crouse
The infamous train blockages in SE near Division St. are the bane of anyone caught on 8th, 12th and especially 11th Aves.
There was even a website dedicated to monitoring this at isatrainblocking11th.com. However, the owners state on the now dormant site that they are “no longer in our office space overlooking 11th and Division and need to find a new spot for our traffic detection setup.”
This issue is well known and has received occasional coverage (notably KGW in 2019). Not only has there been little improvement, things have gotten worse, based on the testimonies of community members and it doesn’t seem like things will change anytime soon.
William Burgel sheds light on the technicalities of why this is happening. He has an extensive history with and knowledge of the train industry, has promoted solutions to the city around this issue and collaborated with the Central Eastside Industrial Council.
He notes that one of the root issues (among many) causing delays is the outbound trains leaving Brooklyn Yard. Brooklyn Yard is 4,000 feet long and the inbound trains are around 7,000 feet long. Because of this, they have to divide these cars into two tracks, creating a “double-over” strategy to deal with the length issue.
Once they’ve gone through the necessary steps of working the trains and applying new locomotives, this becomes an 8,000 feet train.
“This process occurred between 2018 and 2021,” Burgel said. “They would double over, get an air test, and that delayed the highway by around 45 minutes to an hour.”
From there, Burgel details a more recent issue exacerbating delays. In 2021, Union Pacific implemented a Precision Scheduled Railroad strategy, which aims to achieve low operating rations and consolidate railroad networks.
“This precision scheduled railroading means these trains have to leave at a set time. It’s generally at 10 or 11 in the morning on the outbound train and in their effort to streamline, those trains are now twice as long.”
This means the design standard for these trains are now 15,000 feet, creating “triple overs.”
“On a good day with a good crew, you’re talking that the crossings are blocked between SE 12th Ave. and SE Washington St. around two hours per day and up to five hours,” Burgel said
In addition to the citizen traffic delays, Chris Eynkamp, Chair of the Hosford-Abernethy Neighborhood District (HAND), says there’s worry about how it affects public transportation in that area.
It could potentially impede TriMet’s upcoming Frequent Express bus upgrades on SE Division St. and it already has an effect on a bus line going down 12th Ave. where it has to detour when the tracks are occupied and stops are missed amidst that detour.
Jone Van Rees, an online environmental justice activist for Greenpeace and volunteer with the Land Use Transport Committee at the Brooklyn Action Corps, outlines environmental concerns that these delays cause when cars are stuck for long periods of time.
“They aren’t going to stop idling, especially in the summertime, “ Van Rees says, “because of the air conditioning, and all the resulting pollutants from that is my concern.”
The big issue, as Burgel sees it, is that if you get trapped going southbound on 11th Ave., there’s almost no way to get out. He warns of dangerous possibilities like someone having a medical emergency in that situation.
As for immediate support, Burgel believes strongly in the implementation of an “escape route” that would cut through a nearby business, Mason Supply Company. He estimates the costs wouldn’t be too expensive and it should be straightforward to create (relatively speaking).
Eynkamp supports this general notion, but believes it might not be feasible given the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) would likely have other requirements for a lane of traffic; like needing to have sidewalks, which there might not be room for in that instance.
However, he believes some type of signage or signaling to warn and divert driver’s from getting caught would be easy to implement.
In Burgel’s experience with bringing his proposed solutions and feedback to the city, he feels the city recognizes it, but does not consider it a priority.
Eynkamp has gotten a “strong sense” that PBOT has become “less and less” responsive over time to issues concerning the city’s community in general. He stresses that this isn’t because they “don’t care” but that the “agency culture seems to be one of less community engagement.”
He believes this is in part because neighborhoods that are immediately impacted by this issue are comparatively more well-off, inner-city areas that are not high-priority, as opposed to the east section of the city, which he notes is a worthy and necessary cause.
However, he says, “It’s not necessary to diminish services in one area in order to make other areas more equitable.”
In a response to The Southeast Examiner, Union Pacific Railroad acknowledged these continued frustrations replying:
“We have had discussions with city transportation leadership to discuss potential ways to improve the situation and are committed to continuing those conversations. Our goal is to keep trains moving efficiently and safely.”
Eynkamp notes that one of the best systemic solutions would be a bridge, saying Division Pl. at 7th and 8th Aves. would accommodate that fairly well, but it would be an expensive project.
“You gotta plan that out years and years in advance. That solution, if it ever happens, is still many, many years away.”
Union Pacific said, “Drivers and pedestrians can report occupied crossings on UP tracks by calling our 24/7 Response Management Communications Center at 888.877.7267. They can also call the phone number posted near railroad crossings.”