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Agencies seek fixes to mudslides, train disruptions

Relentless interruptions to rail service have prompted several organizations to join forces in search of a solution.

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By Bill Sheets
Herald Writer
This winter is by far the worst ever for train trips between Everett and Seattle canceled because of mudslides. And it's only January, with months of rain still ahead.
Already, at least 162 Sounder rail trips have been canceled on the route, overwhelming the record set in the winter of 2010-11 when 72 trips were canceled. Service began in 2003.
It's a hassle not only for Sounder commuters, but also for Amtrak riders and freight trains.
Now, the organizations responsible for train travel on the corridor say they're joining forces to get at the root of the problem.
Officials from the state Department of Transportation's rail division, Sound Transit, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Amtrak plan to study what's causing the mudslides and look for long-term solutions. The rail organizations plan to review slope studies and historical slide data to try to figure out why more slides are occurring.
State and BNSF officials also say they're contacting city and county governments along the train route to zero in on neighborhoods that need better drainage control.
"This collaboration will help us shift the focus from short-term responses to repeat mudslide occurrences to a long-range solution for this vital transportation corridor," state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said in a written statement.
It's uncertain when something might come of the effort, said David Smelser, who oversees the Amtrak Cascades trains for the state Transportation Department.
"It depends on what the cause is," he said. "The goal is to get quickly into compiling the data we have and get investigative work under way."
In the short term, the state and BNSF have worked to reinforce the hillsides and improve drainage where possible.
The rail company owns the tracks and has spent millions of dollars on slide cleanup and additional maintenance, spokesman Gus Melonas said.
The company has spent more still on preventive measures such as improving seawalls and bridge footings, building new ditches and holding ponds, and contouring hillsides, he said.
The state spent $100,000 on similar projects last summer, and still the slides are occurring more frequently than ever.
The state has received another $16 million in federal funds for physical work on the hillsides, which could involve larger projects such as installing drains into hillsides, collecting water, piping it into a ditch and creating a new drainage system at the bottom of the hill, Smelser said.
The state and railroad are trying to nail down which projects can be done before next winter, he said. The larger ones, while potentially more effective, could take more time.
"If we get too large, we get into a long environmental process," Smelser said. "We'll identify a range of options and see how far we can stretch that money."
Eight Sounder trains operate on weekdays between Everett and Seattle, four each way. Six Amtrak trains run on the line every day, three each way.
The railroad imposes a 48-hour moratorium on passenger service as a safety precaution when tracks are blocked by a mudslide.
Amtrak had 34 trips canceled in December, said Vernae Graham, a spokeswoman for the railroad in Oakland, Calif. Figures for past years were not available Wednesday.
Both Amtrak and Sound Transit provide replacement bus service when the trains aren't running.
The railroad doesn't place its freight trains under the same restrictions, and BNSF is usually able to get them running within a few hours after a slide has been cleared, Melonas said.
Still, there's danger. On Dec. 17, a slide in Everett bowled over several cars in a freight train as it moved below the bluffs near the Port of Everett. Luckily, no one was injured.
There's also the expense of constantly dealing with the slides -- "several million," Melonas said, declining to give specific figures.
"This has been one of the more challenging years that we have faced," he said.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439;
Story tags » RailroadSound TransitSounder TrainRain

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