Seattle, state's rail growth faces mud on the tracks

With mudslide season approaching, officials are looking at what could be done to minimize disruptions. Does BNSF really have to halt passenger service for days after a slide?

An Amtrak train runs along Meadowdale beach between Edmonds and Everett, with a steep slope behind.

An Amtrak train runs along Meadowdale beach between Edmonds and Everett, with a steep slope behind. Brewbooks (J Brew)/Flickr

Amtrak passengers were transferred to buses after a 2010 slide near Edmonds disrupted train service between Seattle and Everett.

Amtrak passengers were transferred to buses after a 2010 slide near Edmonds disrupted train service between Seattle and Everett. Canadian Veggie (Christopher Porter)/Flickr

Amtrak travel continues to increase here, and passenger-rail advocates are pressing to add a third round-trip between Seattle and Vancouver. indeed, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s long-range plan calls for four such round-trips. But the increasingly familiar winter ritual of shunting passengers into hastily chartered substitute buses — or of sometimes even leaving passengers with no alternative transportation — will do nothing for the ridership growth that ultimately underpins the case for increasing service in the corridor.

For rail passengers, landslide season opened over Thanksgiving with a 48-hour closure of Amtrak Cascades services because of a slide near Everett after several days of heavy rain. Déjà vu all over again. 

After two years in a row of particularly severe troubles, officials will study the technical aspects of the problem, and they are looking for whatever solutions might be possible. But the forces of nature will not easily be restrained.

This December, a month opening with little rainfall, has not brought any new closures but the trend over the past two years has been a sharp increase in Amtrak disruptions because of landslides between Seattle and Vancouver. The test usually comes in the first quarter of the year, January through March, according to statistics from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

The primary area for the disruptions is the 34 miles of track that hugs the Puget Sound shoreline between Everett and Seattle, where Sound Transit's Sounder service also operates and faces the same disruptions as Amtrak. But the slopes are also prone to slippage at many other points, including, notably, White Rock, B.C.

According to WSDOT’s data, the number of days when services were disrupted in the year’s first quarter climbed from four in 2009 to 10 in 2010 and finally to 33 — every third day of the time period — in 2011. That’s an increase of 725 percent in two years. The data reflect incidents all along the corridor in Washington state, including points south of Seattle.

What’s going on here? The region may have just faced two rainy years in a row, but if 2012 somehow mimicked the tripling that occurred in 2011, Amtrak service might as well take a three months’ winter vacation.

Any time a slide hits the rails, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), which owns the tracks, shuts passenger service down, and keeps it shut down for 48 hours. It’s a company policy, not a federal rule, and it’s been in operation for about ten years, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas told Crosscut last March. BNSF generally allows its freight trains to resume travel as soon as crews remove the debris.

It’s a matter of safety for passengers, and of legal liability for the huge railroad, and slides are certainly not a casual matter. On Jan. 15, 1997, a huge mudflow knocked five cars of a BNSF freight train into Puget Sound near Woodway in Snohomish County, two hours after an Amtrak train and its passengers had passed through. Passenger service had been suspended from Dec. 27 to Jan. 12 because of landslides launched by heavy rains.

Downpours are certainly not new in the region; nor are landslides. The closures of last winter have precedents in 2006 as well as 1997, according to news accounts and climate data. WSDOT has no landslide statistics from before 2009, so extensive comparisons are not possible. An examination of WSDOT records and rainfall data from the University of Washington the past three winters shows a very strong correlation between rainfall (measured at Everett, near the primary landslide areas) and rail closures resulting from slides.

Of the 2011 first quarter’s 33 days of disruption, 29 came in January and March: February was a dry month. Close to half of January’s trains were idled because of landslides, although rainfall for the month barely exceeded the normal figure for the past 15 years. March’s cancellations were virtually equivalent to January’s, but the March rainfall was well above normal (6.1 inches vs. 3.6 inches historically).


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

McKay/Hall is the dynamic duo of journalism on this one. Well researched, not much hand waving - just fact based information. What a breath of fresh air on a difficult subject to cover.
We all want healthy salmon runs, fast passenger trains that help our environmental problems, healthy freight and business activities, and protection of private property rights. There's the rub. You can't have everyone happy in a narrow strip of land at the base of a cliff next to eel grass beds.
Google Earth (tm) shows a lot of the problems at the top of the bluffs where some homeowners have nothing but lawn up to the edge. Rainwater soaks in really fast, or gets dumped over the edge. I suspect most of them would do the right thing if some incentives were put in place to help armor the bluffs, change the vegetation but keep the spectacular views, and punish those few that just don't seem to 'get it'.

007

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

BNSF "owns" the tracks. That is an interesting concept. No airlines own the air. I would submit that the railroad corridor is owned by the needs of the many through eminant domain. Yes, the railroad gained part of that ownership through the need to move freight, but passenger rail still has part ownership in that corridor through the public need to move people. Why does the freight component set the rules for the passenger component?

How did the railroad get the land to begin with? Did they purchase it from the Native Americans, the federal gov, or the state gov? Probably it was a gift from the federal gov for the greater good of the people, which is why the greater good of the people is still the true owner of any railroad corridor that was a gift of the federal government.

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

In the US railroad right of ways are considered to be private property. And since Corporations are “people,” and money is “free speech,” and the 2010 Citizens United ruling removes any limits on corporate political spending, good luck in legislating any of it back.

But it sounds like the railroads are open to addressing the issues of erosion.

jmrolls

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe the railroads should start tolling at all state highway crossings. Since after all, its their property which they let the public cross according to whatever rules the railroads want to stipulate.

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 12:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Railroads already 'toll' at grade crossings, with the fare exacted equating to inconvenience and safety risks.
Likely, RR rights-of-way can be compared to the Internet and public airways, where powerful interests -those who can afford broadband- may come to dominate over the rights of the public in general.
Hauling people and freight have always competed, with freight seeming to win out more often, based upon sheer volume and profitability.
More equitable sharing of risks and rewards is necessary, with the example of the proposed Cherry Point Coal Terminal the most recent example.

jwatts

Posted Thu, Dec 15, 1:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for reading this and forgive me......
THE MOST Honorable Mayor Michael Patrick Mcginn has Fought for You seattlers...settlers & pioneer-types. "Seattlers" is your moniker. The honorable mayor must win because too many people with sense left absolutely oppose the dbt as obviously deemed a deadly mistake that pollutes worse & worsens accident hazards etc.

Hooonestly people, puh-leeze... Mayor Mike has earned the RIGHT to become your governor Has he not stopped that terrible idea? Think so? I don't think so, I know so! He is right. You are wrong. Your highway incompetents in charge and subordinates oversee too damn many overbuilt oft-rejected proposals that people hate, ONE AFTER THE OTHER. Too many high-impact, high-cost options chosen to study first. What's that all about? Too much exasperation and conflict by poor design. Yeah, good planning all right, sure, whatever... No way a giant bore tunnel makes sense.
OMG. Youmakameseak.. STOP--THE--DBT BS&LIES;!!!

THINK HERE: Waterfront Streetcar 2-track -plus- turnouts/short spurs at specific restoration projects that function as Interbay electrification where it's needed. How could your transpo planners miss that? Here's some notes for acceptable rail design work, foremost for the waterfront. At least TWO Rail tracks are preferable for eventual Interbay extension, of course. Waterfront SC Rail should be built-in from the start with some beds ready. Hello design team? Fergit about da rail did ye?RU DUM?

I'm PRO-C/c stacked 6-lane tunnel, half the concrete, recycles more, makes dam-like seawall, best sub-surface hydrological ebb and flow amelioration than as proposed by the cheap-and-dirty set. C/c is better to address future dormant below sea-level soil conditions -etc- capiche? This portlander transit design proposalings are censored in seattle & your state corridors filled with public representatives failing to inform the public on their secretive globalization plans, whoopdeedo & all that.

THE DBT IS infinitely objectionable as far too risky - Extreme Risk plus POOR driving Rearrangement, ie, tens of thousands more cars-a-day through Queen Anne & Lk Union, Pioneer Square & Alaskan Way, on Denny Way too and the Western/Elliott Lower Belltown. ALL BAD ENGINEERING. Somebody is BEING wronged. Get with it, please, and also have a pleasant joyous seasonal time admitting mistakes or making amends. Try that as a spiritual sacrifice or something.

Wells

Posted Fri, Dec 16, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

I know that skiers can be the trigger for avalanches, so it is not completely improbable that a passing train could trigger a mud slide. A freight train would have a greater risk since it is longer and produces more ground vibration than a lightweight Talgo passenger train.

Posted Fri, Dec 16, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

I'd bet that the 48-hour shutdown after a landslide has to do with getting the backed-up freight trains through the corridor before getting back on a regular schedule. BNSF loses money for every delayed freight train, but since the passenger services are paying a set fee to lease trackage rights they don't lose any money when passenger trains don't get through. It isn't arbitrary.

talisker

Posted Fri, Dec 16, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Most of the railroads were given their lands, which encompassed far more than just the narrow track rights of way, back in the 19th century as an incentive to build the lines and open up the country. The Northern Pacific land grant, which privatized millions of acres, was challenged in later years. The U.S. Supreme Court came close to overturning it in 1940, with a 5 to 4 decision that let it stand.

Interestingly, the line in question here, from Everett to Seattle, was built by the Great Northern, which was not a land grant railroad.

Reportedly, even back around 1890 when the line was built there were concerns about the stability of the route. But it was cheaper and more convenient than gaining and losing the 500 feet of elevation that an overland route from Everett to Seattle would have entailed. The Interurban RR did go that way though, and the route is largely still there, with powerlines on it.

Regarding the low priority the railroads give to Amtrak, that will likely not change until the railroads see profits to be made in hauling people, and move back into that business. As anyone who has traveled on Amtrak knows, train travel is delightful, even despite the fact that Amtrak trains spend a lot of time stopped dead, waiting for coal trains, grain trains, and everything else.

Trains are wonderfully efficient, using less fuel to move more stuff or people than just about any other form of transportation. As fuel becomes more and more expensive, the railroads will sooner or later see money to be made in hauling people. Hopefully then the U.S. will rejoin most of the rest of the civilized world and once again have a real passenger train system.

Posted Sun, Dec 18, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's a practical tip for Seattle folks who seek a transit ride to Vancouver, BC -- take the bus.

Costs less and gets there quicker than the train. Leaves more often than the train. Drops you off in multiple downtown Vancouver locations. Leaves Seattle from just off Aurora near the Space Needle: http://www.quickcoach.com.

Never yet stopped by landslides.

jniles

Posted Mon, Dec 19, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Delays in the transportation system are a problem. So, too, are narrowly constructed solutions that further disrupt natural processes in Puget Sound. If we care about giving our grand kids a healthy Sound, we're going to have to learn to appreciate natural occurrences like landslides, too.

As it turns out, these slides provide sediment to the system that supports many plants and animals, including migrating juvenile salmon and sea run cutthroat trout.

So by all means clear the tracks quickly. That's clearly an important thing to do. It would be even better if BNSF and the Department of Ecology could agree that side-loading slide material directly into the Sound best mirrors the natural cycle. (currently, environmental regulations require slide material to be hauled away.)

But please don't armor these bluffs. They've been feeding the Sound in their natural way for long before there were rail lines below them or homes above them.

Sounder

Posted Mon, Dec 19, 3:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Sounder is correct. They are recessional bluffs that feed the beaches. But the development at the top has redirected water and the railroad track has interfered with the wave action at the base. The track may be more significant. There is no free lunch!

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