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

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?

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.


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