When does mud become a public issue? When it slides off a hillside and flows over the tracks used by Amtrak trains in Western Washington.
Whenever mud blocks the tracks (or, sometimes, just approaches them uncomfortably), the BNSF Railway, which owns the route, automatically excludes all passenger traffic from that line — not just while the tracks are cleared but for 48 hours after the work is done. By contrast, the huge freight operator generally lets its own freight trains start moving again as soon as workers have removed the debris. Not everyone likes that arrangement, a matter of BNSF internal policy.
Some 20 times since Dec. 1, the mud has wreaked havoc for operators and passengers alike along the I-5 corridor, forcing the cancellation of more than 130 departures of Amtrak Cascades trains and 36 trips by Sound Transit's Sounder commuter trains. Slides also have disrupted Amtrak's long-distance Coast Starlight train.
While the mishaps occur at various places between Oregon and Vancouver, B.C., they are concentrated along the route that hugs Puget Sound between Seattle and Everett. A photograph circulated by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Rail and Marine Office, which sponsors Amtrak's Cascades service, depicts a mudslide whose removal appeared to be a matter of a shovel, a bow saw, and an hour or so of good aerobic exercise.
Complicating the matter is Amtrak's practice of canceling an entire train when it could travel a truncated route without encountering the slide in question. For example, if a blockage occurs in a slide-prone area just north of the Canadian border, the evening train to Vancouver never leaves Seattle. In theory, it could instead run from Seattle to Bellingham — as it once did routinely, before the route was extended to Vancouver in 2009 — but in practice it can't, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham.
Graham said in an e-mail that sending a train up to Bellingham and back isn't as simple as running a bus there and back, even if the train once terminated in that city. “We have to have a place to park the train [overnight]. We have to have staff and equipment to service the train (clean, fill the water, fill the food, remove waste, etc.).” Those services are not currently contracted and available in Bellingham, she noted.
Amtrak tries to replace canceled trains with hastily chartered buses but does not always succeed. Last June, several members of All Aboard Washington (AAWA), the state's passenger-rail advocacy organization, got hung up in Seattle en route to a meeting of the group in Mount Vernon, when a slide annulled the Seattle-Vancouver morning train and Amtrak failed to provide alternate transportation. The incident led to sour feelings among activists who normally support Amtrak.
“We're certainly looking towards solutions, both operational and in terms of physical changes that will allow for a permanent fix of the areas prone to slides,” said AAWA executive director Lloyd Flem.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said the 48-hour rule has been in force for some 10 years, and similar protocols applied before that. “Where you have operations along the water, as in the Pacific Northwest, you're constantly looking for [hillside] slippage,” he said.
Passenger trains have plied the track between Portland and Vancouver since the 1870s. Chuck Mott, a Mukilteo businessman who has lived in the Puget Sound region for most of the last 50 years, and has worked with and for railroads for decades, said he's convinced there have been more shutdowns and slides than there used to be.
"I never recall that the Empire Builder and the Western Star and the Internationals were stopped very often because of mud,” he said, naming privately run trains that traversed the Seattle-Everett slide area in the 1960s. “As soon as they got the freights running again, the passenger trains would start running again, too.” As the trains' operators, he said, the railroads had a clear incentive to get passenger traffic moving soon.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!