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Slippery slopes: Can we mudproof Northwest rail?

In the last few months, mudslides have derailed the region's train service and ridership. More than 350 runs have been cancelled or truncated. When will WSDOT fix the problem? And how?
Mudslides cause frequent disruptions for Amtrak trains using BNSF tracks like this one.

Mudslides cause frequent disruptions for Amtrak trains using BNSF tracks like this one. WSDOT

It's mudslide time again. The gooey stuff has been burying rail lines on an all too regular basis.

Every weekday, eight Sounder and six Amtrak trains run the Seattle-Everett gauntlet, the worst though hardly the only slide-prone section of the Vancouver, B.C.-to-Eugene, Oregon passenger rail corridor. Burlington Northern (BNSF) imposes a 48-hour moratorium on passenger traffic whenever the mud hits the tracks. As a result, 92 Amtrak Cascades trains between Seattle and Vancouver have been cancelled or truncated, as of December 31, compared to 26 during the same period last year. Sound Transit riders are singing the blues too, over a record 160 cancellations of the Everett-Seattle Sounder trains since October 1. That’s up substantially from an average of 34 cancellations in each of the entire four previous winters.

The unpopular suspensions of service are putting pressure on the state to find solutions. “If a ferry were down and affected things as much, there would be a tremendous uproar in Olympia and something would be happening,” said Loren Herringstad, president of the All Aboard Washington rail-passenger advocacy group.

Some relief is out there, at least in the form of dollars. Washington’s Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is sitting on $16.1 million in federal money that is earmarked to stabilize the region’s slippery slopes. The big questions are when will WSDOT start spending it? And on what?

Ron Pate, operations manager at WSDOT's Rail Office, blames this winter's mudslide spike on “an extreme amount of rain in a short time.” As of last week, Seattle had gotten 24.98 inches of rain since October 1—a 24 percent increase over the same period during the preceding four winters. With ever-increasing development around the region much of that rainfall is running off rather than soaking into the ground. The runoff undermines the bluffs above the tracks.

The state can’t control rainfall totals, but “fixing uncontrolled water runoff problems may provide some high benefit,” says Pate, adding that “in one case around Everett we found a broken water pipe that wiped out part of the slope.” Herrigstad believes that “property owners must be involved in the solution.“

Concerns that train traffic itself could undermine shaky slopes emerged in public comments on the proposed Gateway Pacific coal port near Bellingham. That facility will bring many more coal trains to the shoreline route, and some Northwest residents wondered whether vibrations from those heavy trains would exacerbate the slide problem. William Chemnick of Seattle urged the state to study new train track routes carefully “in order to minimize these significant environmental . . . problems.” Ron Pate says he’s seen no data indicating that more heavy trains would lead to more slides.

For freight traffic, one solution might be reopening the Eastside rail corridor, which follows a far less slide-prone route between Tukwila and Snohomish County. The Eastside line would afford a bypass when mud blocks the shoreline route. BNSF conveyed the line to the Port of Seattle in 2009. The route is now broken by a gap in Bellevue, however, and the city of Kirkland intends to replace its portion of track with a bike path.

An Eastside backup line is not on the radar screen at WSDOT, or BNSF. Neither Pate nor David Smelser, WSDOT's high-speed rail program manager, knew of any discussions aimed, for example, at including rehabilitation of an Eastside line in a transportation tax package. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said his company has “no plans” to seek a fix for the Eastside line. According to Smelser, WSDOT’s $16.1 million slide fund will focus entirely on the Ballard-to-Everett stretch, and will probably suffice to secure the four or five most slide-prone areas. WSDOT hopes to have those fixes done by the fall of 2014.

Until then, rail passengers can expect little in the way of remedies, unless Mother Nature decides to turn off the faucet.

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer and has been following Pacific Northwest transportation issues since the 1990s. He can be reached through editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jan 29, 7:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Why is WSDOT tasked with fixing a BNSF problem?

Why not spend the money on restoring the eastside line, which I always said was a valuable option for redundancy when stuff happens to the water route?

Just more feddle gub'mint nonsense, giving them money to fix an problem that will recur next week.

Geezer

Posted Tue, Jan 29, 7:38 a.m. Inappropriate

The rail system has been heavily supported by govmt since it's inception. For the most part especially in early days that is a good thing.

Does WSDOT pay for all rail upgrades and do they pay for all of it I wonder.

I think using existing right of way on the east side of Lake Washington makes a lot of sense. We are not hamstrung with a single route subject to mudslide and it would give an alternate mass transit for the east side. When we become smart enought to rebuild the east line we should electrify it

leitmotif

Posted Tue, Jan 29, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

What is article author C.B. Hall's assessment of the potential for a passenger train being derailed by a landslide along the shoreline tracks, as occurred with freight trains on January 15, 1997 and December 17, 2012? The second of these has been displayed worldwide on a viral YouTube video at http://youtu.be/UeT0m-hpD_4 .

Based on the fact that passenger trains passed over the locations of these two freight derailments just hours earlier, my assessment as a Navy-trained aviation safety specialist is that it would be prudent for AMTRAK and Sound Transit to shut down passenger train service between Seattle and Everett during the period of the rainy season, and use readily available buses to cover the gap.

The concept of a seasonal moratorium -- consistent with the Sound Transit and WSDOT cultural philosophy of "Safety First" -- was raised as a possibility by Sound Transit Board Chair Pat McCarthy on January 10 at a Board committee meeting visible on video at http://youtu.be/GoT9Q0jp5Hs .

jniles

Posted Wed, Jan 30, 2:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Wsdot's supposed motto of "Safety First" is a tongue-in-cheek lie. They build bridges that blow down, floating bridges that sink, bridge designs rejected by peers as structurally unsound (the CRC), the waterfront viaduct declared obsolete after a mere 30 years of use.
Wsdot is criminally incompetent, emphasis on criminal. Their only concern is creating a transportation monopoly of travel exclusively by automobile with a morbidly high death toll. And now they are planning to destroy the Seattle Waterfront with a bore tunnel and a weak seawall plan they know will result in catastrophe. Stupid trusting Seattlers don't see it coming. Wsdot has no concern for public safety, none.

Wells

Posted Thu, Jan 31, 3:08 p.m. Inappropriate

I've now documented why authorities should cancel all Amtrak and Sounder passenger service in the rainy season along the Everett to Seattle tracks in a warning reproduced in Transportation Issues Daily: http://www.transportationissuesdaily.com/analyst-its-too-dangerous-to-ride-amtrak-in-seattle-in-winter/

jniles

Posted Tue, Jan 29, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr Niles,
From your comments above, do we assume that you are a champion of the Eastside Rail corridor being preserved with the rails intact, to begin developing it NOW as a commuting option?

JimCusick

Posted Wed, Jan 30, 2:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Based on the analysis in the I-405 corridor EIS of some years ago, which compared rail to expansion of road-based transit and found the former inferior to the latter, I do not support the development of Eastside Rail in the former dinner train corridor as a travel option. I also do not support development of East Link light rail which was not found to be important to cross-Lake mobility in the I-405 analysis.

Further, the future efficiency and effectiveness prospects of road vehicle technology have brightened considerably in recent years because of expanding automation and wireless data communications.

jniles

Posted Wed, Jan 30, 2:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Automated vehicle technology is a fraud. Much like hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, it's meant to dazzle pitifully immature imaginations while delaying crucial investment in mass transit, especially rail, and in development that enhances walking/bicycling and enable local economic development. We are all wage-slaves to Big Business interests wielding butcher knives and pulling strings at Wsdot.

Wells

Posted Thu, Jan 31, 12:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Niles, you state:

"Based on the analysis in the I-405 corridor EIS of some years ago, which compared rail to expansion of road-based transit and found the former inferior to the latter, I do not support the development of Eastside Rail in the former dinner train corridor as a travel option."

You are aware that commuter rail in the former dinner train corridor was never compared to road-based transit, i.e. BRT.

Just as a reminder:
The reason Eastside Commuter Rail on the BNSF corridor is not in the 2002 I-405 Corridor Program’s Cost/Benefit analysis is for one reason.

The City of Renton, and the Kennydale Neighborhood Association submitted a letter to the I-405 Program’s Executive Committee asking that it go no further than what was a preliminary analysis.

Before their request, a Woodinville to Tukwila Sounder connection was showing 3100 riders per day. No cost figure was studied, since BNSF wasn’t talking about selling at the time.

The joint PSRC/Sound Transit analysis in August 2005 shows the cost of upgrading this rail corridor to commuter service is competitive, in both cost and ridership, to what was selected in the I-405 Corridor Program FEIS in 2002.

Since there was no comparative analysis ever performed, any decision is being made based on political considerations.

I can then assume that your support of road-based transit is one of a political nature, and not cost-effectiveness.

Thank you for enlightening me.

JimCusick

Posted Thu, Jan 31, 6:41 a.m. Inappropriate

The discussion on bringing any rail back to the eastside corridor became moot years ago when both WSDOT and Sound Transit decided it didn't help their independent causes to build massive projects.
WSDOT severed the corridor at Wilburton, and ST by plopping their 8th St. Stn in the middle of the right of way.
The only game left in town is the shoreline, which given the bluff to the east and the water to the west is about the crapiest excuse for a rail based transit corridor as you can have.
They made our bed, now WE have to lay in it.
Ron Sims and the Port bamboozled us into thinking this was somehow 'preserving the corridor' for future transit use. That didn't even pass the giggle test at the time.

007

Posted Thu, Jan 31, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate


There’s an appellate proceeding in Division One of the Court of Appeals now relating to whether or not the Port had the statutory authority to acquire the corridor of land from BNSF in 2009. This is the kind of lawsuit where the appellate courts of this state routinely act dishonestly, so the safe bet is the suit will be dismissed. However, if they decide to act honestly there are a number of reasons the transaction should be unwound (e.g., the Port gets its $81 million back and BNSF gets its land back).

This is one of those “friendly enemy” lawsuits. It started out with claims the lawyers Jurca/Bagshaw filed, in King County Superior Court. Those two filed the “friendly enemy” Sane Transit lawsuit as well (they do this for their local government friends). After BNSF and the governments obtained summary judgment rulings in their favor, Jurca/Bagshaw sought direct review by the justices. The supreme court elected not to play along this time, and declined to accept direct review. They instead sent it down to Div. One of the court of appeals.

You can find the first set of briefs (from the appellants, King County, the Port, and Redmond) at the courts’ website. Look for the Division One briefs link here:

http://www.courts.wa.gov/appellate_trial_courts/

You can find the briefs by searching using the case number (69157-1).

Here’s what the judges should do --

Based on the record the judges should hold that the Port had no authority to acquire any of that land from BNSF to do what the Port in fact ended up doing (selling portions of it to other municipalities for their separate purposes, and then retain what amounts to a wasting, useless asset that presents myriad liabilities to the Port as the owner). The case should be remanded with instructions to join all parties to which the Port transferred interests in that land, and the remedy of recission of the Port/BNSF transaction(s) should be afforded.

The right kind of claims would result in the judges invalidating the 2009 purchase by the Port. No statute authorizes ports to receive donated land for the purpose of selling portions of it to other municipalities for their separate purposes and then retaining what amounts to a wasting, useless asset that presents myriad liabilities to the Port as the owner.

Jurca and Bagshaw could have raised strong, meritorious claims based on what the enabling legislation for ports actually says:

1) No statute expressly authorizes ports to acquire and then immediately declare surplus and sell off land to other governments for their separate purposes. The undisputed facts show that is what the Port of Seattle did. The enabling legislation for ports expressly authorizes them to acquire other types of property interests, for other purposes, demonstrating legislative intent that those municipalities should not engage in transactions of the type the port entered into with BNSF and the several public entities.

2) RCW 53.08.290 does not authorize the port’s acquisition of the land from BNSF because that is not an activity relating to moving intermodal containers.

3) RCW 53.08.290 also does not authorize the port’s acquisition of the land from BNSF because that is not an activity with any nexus to any of the Port’s operations at its facilities or improvements.

Jurca/Bagshaw didn’t challenge the Port’s acquisition and subsequent partial dispositions of this corridor with strong arguments such as those. That’s because they’re acting in a complicit manner with the nominally-adverse parties to obtain case law that in effect sanctions BNSF’s massive tax write-off and Sound Transit’s ownership of one mile of that corridor.

crossrip

Posted Mon, Feb 4, 6:56 p.m. Inappropriate

The Executive Director of All Aboard Washington has gone on record that "It’s Perfectly Safe to Ride Amtrak North of Seattle in Winter" in Larry Ehl's Transportation Issues Daily newsletter online at http://www.transportationissuesdaily.com/advocate-its-perfectly-safe-to-ride-amtrak-north-of-seattle-in-winter/

I respond in a comment on the same page about the basic data that's missing from public discussion of the issue.

jniles

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