How Type 2 MAX Cars Pioneered More Accessible Light Rail in America

Feb 10, 2022

Making History book cover

Every MAX train contains a major innovation in light rail that was pioneered right here in Oregon. And you probably walk over it without even realizing it. 

We’re talking about the low-floor light rail vehicle, where the floor of the train car is level with the station platform, allowing you to walk or roll right onto a train. 

Many might take this innovation for granted, but before our “Type 2” MAX trains went into service in 1997, climbing a small set of stairs was the only way to board a light rail train car in North America. This was a major obstacle for many people, as we share below.

You can experience this obstacle today with our original “Type 1” MAX trains, which are still in service (and always paired with a newer low-floor MAX car, so that every train has at least one accessible car). 

To tell the story of how we introduced North America’s first stairless “low-floor” light rail vehicles, we turn to an excerpt from Making History: 50 Years of TriMet and Transit in the Portland Region.


Before Low-Floor Light Rail Cars

The choice to order low-floor light rail vehicles in the 1990s is perhaps TriMet’s greatest contribution to accessible transit, not only in Portland but all over North America. When the agency purchased its first 26 “Type 1” MAX vehicles for the Banfield line in the early 1980s, the only light rail cars on the market required passengers to climb three steep steps to reach seats. Access for people using wheelchairs was provided via wayside lifts on each station platform. Operating these devices was time-consuming, unreliable and required the wheelchair user to occupy a lift “box,” in effect a small, three-sided elevator, an experience many users felt was stigmatizing and inconvenient.

The original light rail vehicles had high floors and required a wayside lift. I named the original lift used for light rail “the dumpster” because, when using it, you were literally encased on all four sides in this big metal structure.

Jan Campbell

Committee on Accessible Transit (CAT) Chair

Creating the “Type 2” MAX Car

A decade later In the early 1990s, with ADA implementation in full swing, the time came to order cars for the extension of MAX west to Hillsboro. ADA considerations along with urging from the Committee on Accessible Transportation drove the decision to revisit the viability of low-floor light rail cars. These vehicles were in use in Europe and allowed wheelchair users to roll on board on a short, easily extended ramp. 

The European cars were lighter in weight compared to American transit vehicles and did not meet stringent American crash-worthiness requirements. Lead TriMet staff were cautious in pioneering the design of a North American car, but TriMet accepted the challenge and sent several engineers and accessibility consultant Bob Pike, a wheelchair user, to Europe to investigate. 

Optimistic conclusions resulted in an order for 39 (ultimately 46) new low-floor light rail vehicles engineered by Siemens Duewag to meet U.S. standards. Engineers were able to lower the floor by relocating most of the car’s electrical components to the roof. 

Low-floor MAX vehicles entered service in August 1997 when Westside MAX opened to Goose Hollow. All of TriMet’s subsequent light rail vehicles would continue to feature low-floor technology. The cars proved to have broader benefits, including speedier boarding for all passengers, especially those with bicycles and strollers, and fewer trip-and-fall injuries.

Read more on the history of transit in Portland in Making History, available for free here [PDF].

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