How to Deal with the Train in Portland's Central Eastside

This was originally published as a blog for Conveyor.

I was four blocks from work, at 8:55 this morning – desperate to get to Water Avenue Coffee before going in – when I heard the blast of the train horn. I made an abrupt left turn, bee lining for the tracks, but as soon as I clicked my bike up two gears, the gates came down in front of me and the massive train engine lumbered into sight.

It was a slow one – and they’re usually long.

After standing there a few minutes with the rest of the morning commuters, stuck looking at our phones together as the train lurched by, an unexpected horn blare came from the other direction – a second train. “Sunuva..” the guy next to me said. We waited for 11 minutes. My dream of making it to work by nine was crushed.

Conveyor sits in the heart of Portland’s “Central Eastside Industrial District” (CEID), as it’s called, in the Eastbank Commerce Center on Water Avenue. The neighborhood is bisected by a Class I Rail Line – the highest designation – and as such is governed by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) – not subject to Portland’s authority. Class I railroad companies that ply the route are not required to publish any schedule information nor give any notification to local governments.

“It’s just kind of one of the issues you have to deal with if you’re working in the central Eastside,” Portland Freight Planning Coordinator Bob Hillier says. “Outside of putting some kind of trench down there, there’s not much we can do.”

Such a trench is outside the scope of the current budget for the neighborhood, Hillier says. So for now, we do what people in this neighborhood have done for 100 years: deal with it.

How to Deal With the Train

Rise Above
There’s a way out and it’s right above your nose: the Hawthorne and Morrison Bridges both cross above the track and both have staircases or entrances on either side. It’s possible on bike to walk up the stairs and get across to the other side in under five minutes. And if you don’t beat the train? Hey, at least you didn’t stand idly by! 

*note that the Morrison Bridge is not safe to ride or walk. Take the Hawthorne Bridge.

Consider Your Route
If you’ve been burned one too many times, stay away from the fire. Whether on bike, foot or car, figure out an alternate route that uses the bridges or the Esplanade to avoids level train crossings.

Wait it Out
According to our informal analysis, most trains only take about five minutes to pass. Waiting might be the fastest option.

Make The Most of Your Delay
Maybe you’re missing the beginning of an important meeting, but fretting won’t do you any good. Try to make the most of these precious minutes of forced work break by counting the cars, rating the graffiti, chanting a mantra or writing a blog about waiting for the train.

Learn to Love The Train
We work and live in the CEID because we love it, and part of the neighborhood’s charm is that loud, disruptive, mile-long string of metal. Learn to love the train, and you’ll stay in love with the Central Eastside.

Above All, Be Safe!
The Central Eastside is a jumble of short blocks, pedestrians walking on streets with no sidewalks, workers loading and unloading double-parked trucks and cyclists zipping in and out of cars looking for parking spaces. This is not the neighborhood to gun it or go around the gates to beat the train. Even if a train is at a dead-stop, it could lurch forward any second and you do not want to be playing Tarzan when that happens. Seriously.

Or, as Hillier elegantly puts it, “when the arms go down, don’t cross.”