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Mudslides Disrupt Train Service, Again

John Ryan
03/15/2011

Train service north and south of Seattle has been disrupted again by mudslides. Each time a mudslide hits the tracks, passenger trains are prohibited from using the tracks for 48 hours. That requirement has knocked Amtrak and Sound Transit trains out of service more than 20 times this winter. KUOW's John Ryan reports.

TRANSCRIPT

Passengers on the Amtrak Cascades south of Portland got some bad news Monday morning.

Conductor: "Portland, Oregon, in a few moments — "

The train would not be continuing north to Washington state.

Conductor: "Now, unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, due to nasty mudslides between Portland and Seattle, you'll be taking a bus. That little seat check that I gave you this morning, please be sure to take it."

It's become a familiar drill for rail passengers in western Washington this winter. Even before this weekend's mudslides, the rail line had already been hit by more than double the usual number of slides.

Then a late winter storm dumped up to two inches on much of western Washington. Gus Melonas is a spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway:

Melonas: "Everything just started sloughing from the top and falling down. This resulted in mud, rock debris, you name it, we've had 21 incidents since yesterday afternoon."

Melonas says most of those mudslide incidents hit near Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds. They stopped passenger and freight service north of Seattle. Slides outside of Vancouver have interrupted Amtrak service south of Seattle.

Melonas: "This is the most problematic year that we've experienced since 1996, so it's been a challenge. Fortunately, we've been able in the large majority of situations to continue with freight operations."

But passenger service has been a different story. Burlington Northern owns the tracks. It requires passenger trains to stay off the tracks for two full days after a slide. That gives the railway's engineers and specialists time to make sure the tracks are safe for passengers.

Andrew Wood oversees Amtrak operations for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT):

Wood: "We have some locations that are right adjacent to the waterside. If a derailment happens there and a train was swept into sea, we would be facing a catastrophe, never mind just a train derailment."

Wood says the Amtrak passenger trains are also much lighter than freight trains.

Wood: "One of the differences between the Talgo trains that we operate is they're aluminium–bodied. It's much easier to be able to derail one of those than it would be to derail a very heavy freight train running along with 100 freight cars."

But the moratorium also puts a 48–hour monkey wrench in Sound Transit and Amtrak service. Andrew Wood with WSDOT says there may be other locations where passenger safety could be assured in less than two full days. State transportation officials are in discussions with Burlington Northern to get passenger trains up and running sooner.

The rail line's in a great location for passengers who enjoy waterfront views. But as trains pass beneath bluffs along Puget Sound and other steep slopes, they cross more than 60 landslide–prone locations. Landslide experts say protecting the full line between Vancouver, BC, and Eugene, Oregon, would be difficult and expensive. Dave Montgomery is a geomorphologist at the University of Washington:

Montgomery: "The awkward reality is the tracks are in a place where there's a lot of potentially unstable slopes that are poised to impact the line should they fail."

Montgomery exaggerates just a bit when he describes how expensive mudslide–proofing the Amtrak Cascades line would be:

Montgomery: "For the cost of actually doing comprehensive protection, you could probably put high–speed rail throughout the United States [laughs]."

There's no official estimate of how much landslide prevention measures might cost. Amtrak, Sound Transit and Burlington Northern are holding discussions on what to do about the landslide problem and how to pay for it.

The federal government has granted WSDOT more than $500 million to develop high–speed rail. But WSDOT's requests for help with its mudslide problem have been denied.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

The Sounder commuter rail between Seattle and Tacoma is operating normally Tuesday. Sound Transit is running buses for its commuter rail passengers between Seattle and Everett.

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