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.
He expressed amazement at this winter's figure of 20 service interruptions, and pointed to environmental factors. Since the 1960s, he said, “there've been a lot of homes there built on the bluffs” atop the slippery slopes between Everett and Seattle. “A lot of trees have been cut, and it's probably created a lot more problems than there used to be.”
For Melonas, the railroad's position is simple: “We aren't going to put the public in harm's way.”
But if a slide area is safe enough for a freight train to roll through, with two human lives in the locomotive cab, one would think it safe for the Cascades trains to traverse the segment as well. Why not?
Melonas pointed out that the first freight train sent through a newly cleared slide area “walks” through to minimize the risk of destabilization, and that freight operations proceed only “with close monitoring” and “much slower operation.” He said sending passenger trains through at much-reduced speeds would be disruptive to schedules. “It wouldn't be to anyone's benefit.”
The railroad's geotechnical experts, he continued, “want to ensure that the slopes have solidified,” and have thus settled on the 48-hour standard.
Here the discussion turns to liability, and a level of risk aversion that may not have existed in the era Mott recalled. The uncertainties of a worst-case scenario — a landslide of lawsuits to go along with the mud and rocks — translate into vast insurance costs for many passenger rail operators, and headaches for those who own the tracks, too. Asked if his railroad's policy is based on the fact that a disaster involving 200 passengers could involve a far greater flood of litigation than one involving two BNSF employees, Melonas would not speculate “on what could happen with that.”
“That's a danger for the state, too,” said Andrew Wood, deputy director for operations at the Rail and Marine Office. “We're responsible for the service, and it would be nonsensical to add the cost of claims to the costs of the service itself. And there would be nothing more certain of driving people away from the service“ than a catastrophic accident.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari declined to speculate as to how liability might be assigned — whether to Amtrak, BNSF, or the state — if, for example, a mudslide pushed an Amtrak train into Puget Sound.
BNSF, the state, Amtrak, and passenger spokespeople like Flem depict one another as partners, but the mud issue is wearing on some nerves. The Rail and Marine Office recently went public with its frustrations, sending out a blog commentary in which spokeswoman Vickie Sheehan noted that “the fact that the moratorium doesn’t apply to freight rail service” raises the frustration level.
Sheehan steered clear of direct criticism of BNSF, one of the world's largest transportation companies. She pointed to the need for public funding to fix the problem by stabilizing the culprit slopes. That, she wrote, will first require an environmental impact statement — and there is no money now for that or for the fix itself.
Wood noted WSDOT's plans to stabilize the slide areas and said the state applied in 2010 for federal high-speed rail (HSR) funding for work at no fewer than 40 locations on the Cascades route. The feds decided not to award that funding. BNSF, however, has been doing some work at its own expense on slide-retention walls, Wood said.
The state was finally assured late last month that it will get $590 million in federal high-speed rail money for upgrades unrelated to mudslides. AAWA's Flem hopes some of that money might be used to address the slide problem. Wood said the grant terms would not allow for such use, but he said “we will be trying” to resolve the mud problem with a portion of yet another federal grant. That $161 million award, however, is still sitting in the other Washington, and will not be paid out until the requisite red tape is complete.
The mud, meanwhile, is generating pressing concerns. Sheehan reported that, even although annual ridership on the Cascades trains has been climbing, there was a year-over-year decrease in Seattle-Vancouver ridership between January 2010, when there were three slides on the route, and this January, when there were five. For the Rail and Marine Office, the ridership dip is a call to action.
“We are talking with them,” Sheehan said, adding that one option could be to reduce service interruptions to 24 hours where the track is not next to water — for example between Seattle and Portland.
Given the thorny realities of public finance, and of public use of privately owned infrastructure, a comprehensive solution promises to be a long time in coming.