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?

Crosscut archive image.

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

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?

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).

University of Washington geologist David Montgomery, who studies landslides, told Crosscut that there are three main factors in slides like those along the Seattle-Vancouver corridor: 1) state of the land; and whether there are trees, vegetation and root systems to hold the soil; 2) intensity or duration of rainfall; and 3) saturation; a good long soak weakens the soil for the next downpour.

All of those elements were involved in the winter of 1996-97, one of the worst in recent years. Rex Baum, who researched the 1997 landslide for the U.S. Geological Survey, recalled that the slide that pushed the rail cars into the Sound came a couple of weeks after the heaviest rainfall. He noted that the area has geologic conditions that lead to this sort of sliding: clay-type soils along the toe of a bluff, with fine sandy soil as a cover. When the soil becomes saturated and more rain hits, the sandy soil slides off the clay (to over-simplify a complex matter). Baum told us that these conditions haven't changed a great deal over time, and are not likely to change in the future.

Because the slide area is so large, structural fixes are not practical, leaving matters largely on the shoulders of property owners and local agencies. Education of landowners can make a difference, he added. The 1996-97 landslide season prompted a comprehensive study of Seattle-area sliding, sponsored by the City and USGS. "Contributing causes of landsliding may be myriad, but water is involved in nearly all of the cases," consulting geotechnical engineers Shannon & Wilson found. "Consistent with other studies in the City and the region, 84 percent of the reported landslides may have had some factor of human influence associated with them." Rainfall, saturated soils, and human activity are the major factors in sliding, with intervention possible only in the latter case; and then somewhat difficult.

In the two worst landslide periods in 2011 a deluge was swiftly followed by landslides. But accumulated rainfall is also important; although November and December are historically the months of heaviest rainfall over the past two decades (averaging 5.43 inches and 5.04 inches respectively), the worst landslides take place in the ensuing three months, when rainfall averages nearly 30 percent less. Rain falling on saturated soil causes more damage, although the volume of rainfall may be less.

Climate scientists predict wetter winters in the region because of global warming and periodic ocean-influenced weather patterns. State climatologist Nick Bond notes on his website that “odds exceed 50% for chances of above normal precipitation for the entire state” for the 2011-2012 season, with even higher odds in Western Washington — thanks to a La Niña weather pattern.

In the longer term, the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington foresees relatively modest but important changes in rainfall because of global warming: “Projected changes in annual precipitation, averaged over all models, are small (+1 to +2%), but some models project an enhanced seasonal cycle with changes toward wetter autumns and winters and drier summers.” Wetter winters pose obvious problems for coastal landslide areas.

In the narrowly constricted rail corridor between Seattle and Vancouver, increasing and competing uses, as well as — according to these scientists — wetter weather are thus on collision tracks. Rail operators and public agencies have limited capability to address the challenge.

Amtrak travel continues to increase, and passenger-rail advocates are pressing to add a third round-trip between Seattle and Vancouver; indeed, WSDOT’s long-range plan calls for four such round-trips. The winter ritual of shunting Amtrak passengers into hastily chartered substitute buses — and 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.

Increased rail freight traffic is already beginning, with more on the horizon. In particular, Asian customers are generating demand for bulk commodities such as coal, potash and grain, and rail is the conveyance of choice to Pacific ports. BNSF will not comment on the volume of the coal traffic, but a camera installed by CommunityWise Bellingham, a citizens’ group formed in response to the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal focused on shipping coal to China, found an average of about four coal trains a day (two full and two empty return trips) last summer running between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. where the cargo is transferred into ships. Anecdotal evidence indicates present traffic may be somewhat higher, and CWB plans to re-activate its camera.

If the giant Gateway Pacific Terminal is built at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, the corridor could see as many as 18 more daily coal-train movements, according to BNSF, quoted on the Gateway Pacific web site. Tesoro’s refinery at Anacortes is expected to add to the traffic in 2012, bringing crude oil from North Dakota’s giant Bakken fields to the Anacortes facility; the volume is likely to represent two unit trains per day, one arriving and one returning.

Coal and oil trains rank among the heaviest carried by the railroads. BNSF won’t divulge details, but a review of U.S. Customs data indicates that the coal trains began running regularly about January 2010, when exports of coal through the Seattle customs district, for shipment from British Columbia to China, show a sharp increase. The spike coincides roughly with the increase in mudslides along the Seattle-Vancouver route. While those irked by the slides assert that the heavier trains may have exacerbated the slide problems, no scientific data links the trains to upward trend in the muddy inundations. Among others, officials at WSDOT’s Rail and Marine Office, which manages the state-sponsored passenger service, declined to get on board with the heavy-train hypothesis.

“We talked with DNR [the Department of Natural Resources] about this,” said Ron Pate, the office’s operations director. We believe that [hydrology] is the issue. If you can redirect the rainwater that saturates the slope, you could eliminate a lot of the slides.”

“Every morning I have a delay report on my desk,” added John Sibold, who took over as the office’s acting director in August. “We are getting much more aggressive as the owner, in a sense, since we own the [passenger] service. We’re working in partnership [with BNSF and Amtrak] to minimize those [slide-related] delays.”

“For us to be competitive, we have to run the trains on time,” Sibold said.

The problems associated with landslides were serious enough to command a section of a recent study by Seattle’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development on rail service in the Seattle-Vancouver corridor. The study placed much of the blame on land use. “The slides are inextricably related to the pattern of land use, at least in this primary problem area. Clearing of timber and construction of homes on the bluffs overlooking the shoreline that the tracks follow has [sic] destabilized soils, leaving the slopes prone to movement,” the researchers reported. Most of the construction and landscaping on the bluff have been in place for several years, however, and may have no bearing on the burgeoning of slide activity in 2010 and 2011.

Land-use regulations have become more rigid than they were when many homes were built on bluffs overlooking the Sound (and the railroad), but removal of trees and vegetation is often not policed to prevent slope destabilization. New regulations on land disturbance, enacted in 2010, require permits for clearing in critical areas, Snohomish County Permitting Manager Tom Rowe told Crosscut, and geo-tech engineering is often required for county permits. “Neighbors are also more likely to complain” when land is disturbed, he adds, making it more difficult for unauthorized cutting of vegetation that helps to hold slopes. Construction has declined over the last few years, and building techniques have become more sensitive to environmental concerns.

Chuck Mott, a Mukilteo businessman who has lived in the Puget Sound region since the 1960s and has worked with and for railroads for decades, confirmed from personal experience that “there’s been more shutdowns and slides than there used to be.” He mentioned privately run trains of the 1960s that traversed the Seattle-Everett slide zone.

“As soon as they got the freights running again, the passenger trains would start running again, too,” he told Crosscut. “As the trains’ operators, the railroads had a clear incentive to get passenger traffic moving promptly.”

Terming the 48-hour protocol “an arbitrary rule that penalizes the service,” he asked rhetorically, “If they can allow the freight trains to go through with their personnel and millions and millions of dollars of merchandise, why wouldn’t it be safe for passengers as well?”

And could our society’s growing aversion to risk play a role? Some photos of the slides depict piles of mud that are more nearly molehills than mountains. Pick your villain, but while the background hum of debate over who’s to blame continues, WSDOT is working on fixes, recognizing that the alternative of moving all or part of the rail system off the vulnerable Puget Sound waterfront is too expensive and politically fraught to occupy immediate attention.

The state transportation department recently received a $16.1 million federal high-speed rail grant that should help stop the mud-induced havoc. David Smelser, who manages the high-speed rail program for the Rail and Marine Office, told Crosscut that the money will cover preliminary engineering and a federally mandated environmental process, but will not suffice to fix all the slide areas, or even all the big ones. He referred to maps in use that indicate occurrence of slides at hundreds of locations along the corridor over the last 15 years.

The goal is thus identifying “the heavy hitters, and ... a reasonable fix and a cost for those,” he said. The next agenda item will be “to pinpoint and implement the cost-effective fixes where the federal money will provide most benefit to reduce passenger-rail disruptions. We want some impact from this as soon as we can ... some effect within the next two years.” Given the budget, the emphasis will likely be on low-cost repairs.

While the slow battle against the quick mud unfolds, BNSF and Amtrak are considering installation of sensors to alert train engineers to movement in unstable banks; the instruments would warn against the type of devastating landslide that Amtrak narrowly averted in 1997.

Then there’s the 48-hour rule, which state managers and passenger-rail advocates alike have been pushing BNSF to relax — and which brings the issue home to the average traveler. WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond shared the concerns with BNSF CEO Matt Rose in a recent telephone meeting.

In an interview, Hammond characterized the BNSF chief’s attitude toward remedying the problem as “willing.” No specific solutions were discussed, she said, but “we have a door open to another possibility.” She and Rose discussed “unleashing his operations folks to work with our people. We’re going to work on this to see if there’s some alternative to the full 48 hours every time a pile of dirt hits the track. Is there a remedy if there’s not that much mud?”

“There’s got to be a better way to do this,” she said. “We need our ridership.”

Ultimately, any long-term fix to benefit both passenger and freight traffic will depend on federal funding with some help from the state; local jurisdictions have neither funds nor jurisdiction to construct landslide barriers or upgrade rail infrastructure. They can, however, increase enforcement of land-use standards to halt improper construction and clearance of vegetation; some of that, too, will require funding.

Reining in the kneejerk 48-hour reaction could be a first step in a temporary fix, as could the WSDOT landslide studies. But forces of nature — climate change and rainfall — are not in the hands of local planners. Nor is the almost-inevitable increase in rail traffic between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. So, the landslide problem will add up to a continuing challenge for Amtrak, WSDOT, BNSF — and thousands of travelers.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.