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Ruby keeps MAX sparkling

The Gresham maintenance yard keeps trains running -


OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - A LRV technician at TriMet's Ruby Junction Yard works below a first-generation MAX car, identifiable by its 100-series number. When we step on a MAX train, most of us are thinking about getting to work on time or what to cook for dinner. Nobody wonders how the train windows get washed or contemplates what goes on if the doors won’t close.

That magic happens at Ruby Junction, a sprawling 23-acre facility in Gresham. Nearly 200 workers repair, clean and do upkeep for the MAX trains at the maintenance yard named after an old Gresham trolley stop. The 24-hour facility has expanded steadily over the past several decades as the MAX system has grown and gained riders.

“Each new line that is added makes things more complicated. Operators have to be more on the ball and the equipment and track has to be in top condition,” said Don Allison, a 29-year veteran of TriMet, who is now the manager of rail operations.

MAX started 30 years ago with 26 train cars. Another 52 cars were added in 1998, 27 in 2004, 22 in 2009 and another 18 train cars were added to the system in 2015. Ruby, located near Northwest Burnside Road and Northwest Birdsdale Avenue, can accommodate about 80 cars at a time for repairs or a good scrubbing.

There have been lots of changes in the both the trains and the system since MAX started rolling in 1986. “The first generation of trains is 30 years old. We started in 2002 refurbishing all of them here and there are still a few left to do,” Allison said.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - A truck from a MAX car - each car has three - sits inside the Ruby Junction Yard in Gresham, TriMet's largest maintenance facility. It takes three workers about six months, or 3,500 labor hours to refurbish a first-generation train, and TriMet expects to get another 20 years of life out of these train cars. The trains are stripped and new coating is applied to the outside. The old-fashioned crank destination signs are replaced with digital. The heating and cooling systems are replaced and many other upgrades are made. It’s a good deal. A new train car costs about $4 million and the renovation runs about $200,000.

Ruby Junction is made up of four main buildings, each with different functions, totaling more than 149,000 square feet. The biggest building, called Ruby Main, is 112,000 square feet in three stories and has myriad shops, repair stations and 13 maintenance bays. Outside at Ruby Junction yard are tracks capable of storing 87 light rail cars.

Small shops around the inside perimeter of the building are where repairs and rebuilding take place with smaller components that can be removed from the cars and easily carted over to the shops. These might include the door control panels above the train doors or the complicated couplers that connect the cars, which also contain sophisticated communications equipment.

There are facilities to maintain and fix “trucks,” which are big units on the bottom of the trains that sport four steel wheels. There are three trucks under every MAX car.

The trains can be driven into Ruby Main over several service trenches (or bays) to allow mechanics to go below the cars to work. Plus, Ruby Junction has one giant lift capable of raising one of the 96,000 pound cars high in the air for special work. There also is a series of catwalks above the trains, so technicians can work on the cars from above.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - TriMet LRV technician Robert Gray works on the electrical system of a MAX car at the Ruby Junction Yard in Gresham, TriMet's largest maintenance facility in the three counties the agency serves.The catwalks were installed in recent years because of changes to the trains. Some of the equipment and apparatusus that were originally below the trains are now on top because there is not enough room under the newer, low-slung cars that open level to the platforms.

In the first years of the system, passengers had to step up into the trains. If a traveler in a wheelchair needed to get on the train, the driver had to stop in a specific spot on the platform, leave the train and assist with a wheelchair lift, Allison recalled. Now passengers in wheelchairs or folks with strollers can wheel right onto the train cars that are flush to the platform.

Ruby doesn’t accommodate all the MAX maintenance. There is a similar, but smaller, facility in Beaverton called Elmonica. Some of the train tasks are divided by speciality. For example, Ruby keeps care of all the “trucks” and Elmonica does all the air-conditioning work.

Ruby Junction also is home base for workers who go out and work on the signals, tracks and power stations along the 60 miles of train tracks.

“That’s called the maintenance of way section,” Allison said.

Ruby Junction also has a test track, which allows the trains to go up to 35 miles per hour so the workers can make sure their repairs are effective at closer-to-normal operating speeds, Allison said. “That really helped out.”

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - TriMet LRV technican Chris Crecelius works inside the Ruby Junction Yard in Gresham along with roughly 400 other employees, making it the agency's largest maintenance facility. There are 192 folks who drive the trains around town — TriMet calls them operators — and 117 of those work out of Ruby Station.

The facility also once housed the communications and control center that monitors all trains at all times. That control room has since moved into Portland, but the old command center at Ruby is being retrofitted this summer as a backup in case the main control center is not able to function.

MAX trains are the setting for a lot of life. Homeless people find refuge on the trains. A couple who met and fell in love commuting on MAX got married on a train. What is left behind on the trains? “The weirdest thing I’m aware of that we found on a train is, after a bachelor party, there was, ummm, a blow-up doll left on the train,” Allison said.

Even with the unusual debris, trials of winter weather and other issues, Allison, a former train operator himself, said he has loved working at TriMet.

“It is a great feeling, when you pull up to a crowded platform and people are happy you are there to get them to their destination safely and quickly,” he said. Few of those happy people ever think about all the work at Ruby that goes into making that trip possible.