Frustrated with mudslides along the Amtrak Cascades rail line

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

by guest blogger Vickie Sheehan

The last three months have been very frustrating, for you and us. We’re working hard to support, improve, and promote Amtrak Cascades as a viable transportation option. When the trains aren’t running, it impacts us all.

It is expected that we will have some mudslides along the Amtrak Cascades rail line between October and March, but this is ridiculous! Normally, we average anywhere from three to 10 mudslides over a six-month period, but in the last three months we’ve had nearly 20.

There were 16 mudslides that kept 90 trains from reaching their destination in Dec. 2010 alone. Seventy-eight of those trains were on the Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., leg. This happens to be our most mudslide-prone problem area.

What’s even worse is that any time there is a mudslide, regardless of how severe, an automatic 48-hour moratorium is imposed on passenger rail service. All passenger rail service comes to a halt, and as you can imagine, this is very inconvenient for passengers, Amtrak and us. Adding to the frustration is the fact that the moratorium doesn’t apply to freight rail service.

Obviously, this is done for safety reasons. Freight trains carry goods and passenger trains carry people. As you’d expect, people rate higher than a train carrying athletic shoes and televisions. Plus, it is important to ensure that the area where a mudslide occurred is stable before sending passenger trains through.

When a mudslide occurs and disrupts train service, Amtrak works very hard to make sure all affected passengers get where they need to go. All available bus companies are contacted and put in to service if available. In the case of the mudslides over this last weekend, buses were in very short supply and Amtrak was not able to get enough to cover all the affected passengers.

What are we doing about the mudslides, you ask? There are more than 60 areas along the 466-mile route for Amtrak Cascades that have been identified as at risk for mudslides. That’s a lot of area to cover. The majority of mudslides occur in the Everett area. There are also a decent number of mudslides in British Columbia that affect our trains.

This not only affects Amtrak Cascades, but also Sound Transit’s Sounder and the Amtrak Coast Starlight long-distance train and BNSF Railway freight trains. We are working with Sound Transit, Amtrak and BNSF to find a solution. The biggest challenge is funding. Before we can start any improvements, we have to complete an environmental assessment (EA) to determine potential key environmental impacts before beginning any construction. There is currently no funding for the EA – without it, we can’t begin construction to fix the problem.

We applied for federal funding for this issue twice in the last year, but have not yet received any awards. We will continue to try and secure funding and collaborate with Sound Transit and BNSF. For the mudslide areas in British Columbia, we are working with the Canadian government to explore options to fix those problem spots on the corridor which are on their side of the border.

In the meantime, we hope that the rain and mudslides subside so the trains can continue running unimpeded. Amtrak Cascades finished 2010 with extraordinary ridership totals (838,251 an all-time high) and we added free Wi-Fi at the end of January. Kudos to our partner Amtrak for doing their best to get people where they need to go in spite of the mudslide challenges.


Trevor said...

What would be nice is if the train could at least run part of a route. If the mudslide is in White Rock, why not at least run the train to Bellingham?

Ed in Corvallis said...

Your article explains a major problem that seems to be getting worse as the winter progresses. I appreciate your openness and honesty. A couple of questions: 1. Do the freight line companies assist with the cleanup and prevention? 2. Who specifically should one contact to urge federal and state funding of prevention work? 3. Does it make sense to reduce the 48-hour wait period, maybe, for example, to 24 hours after a freight train uses it after the slide is cleared? If so, to whom should such comments be directed?

Anonymous said...

Fixing the continuing mudslide issues is a matter of priority. No one would allow I-5 to be subject to frequent 48-hour closures, or let it have 60 areas prone to mudslides.

How much does it cost for bus rental and for the cleanup? Who pays?

We need to let our elected officials know that this issue can no longer be ignored.

Arlene said...

At the risk of sounding "politically incorrect," I must say that the repair construction roadblock (pun intended) created by the environmental impact requirements are counter-constructive. It's time that we use simple common sense solutions to the problems we face.

Martin in Vancouver BC said...

I've ended up booking the Vancouver-Seattle bus rather than the train several times this season due to mudslides, and given that the bus is usually cheaper than the train (often by ~$20), it would be great if Amtrak riders who booked the train and ended up on a bus got discounted travel vouchers to offset the difference and aggravation, rather than paying train fare for a bus. Technically not your bailiwick, though.

I like the idea of running part of the route, though the logistics could get a little complex with baggage and all. However, for those of us on the VAN-SEA trains, customs is a lot faster by train by bus, usually (especially if there's heavy bus traffic, as there sometimes is especially if it's the morning VAC-SEA train that gets cancelled). It would seem that if the Everett area is particularly slide-prone, for those of us on the VAN-SEA runs, making connections to/from a bus in Everett or Edmonds would be cheaper and faster for all concerned than having to run a bus all the way down the corridor--especially if you're doing it as a commuter and don't have baggage, bicycles, etc.

Edwin said...

Lets form a "yuppie bucket brigade " next time theres a mudslide due to clearing trees and bushes to improve their million dollar view from their homes. :)

Anonymous said...

bucket brigade time

Jim Loring said...

I rode from Seattle to Portland on the bus this morning. It was fine - on time and a comfortable trip.

I hope they get the damage from the mudslide repaired soon as the train is more fun.

Dale in Spanaway said...

It's an unfortunate fact of life around Puget sound that we live on a huge pile of mud, sand and round stones left by the retreating glaciers. Slides have been a nuisance ever since the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railways built the main lines directly on the edge of the sound. That said, the solutions to the problem (eg. terracing,shot-creting and slide walls) are expensive, long lead time projects that are probably already being investigated by BNSF. In the interim, I agree with both Trevor and Ed that, if feasable, the Cascades trains be run as far as possible, and the annulment time after the slide be reduced to 24 hrs. The lighter Talgo sets cause much less ground vibration then a typical 10,000 ton freight train, and a 20mph slow order in the slide area should provide adequate safety. Meanwhile, I am writing to Sen. Murray and Rep. Dicks with my 2-cents worth.

Pat Kight said...

I've been a regular (1-2x monthly) Cascades rider between Albany and Tukwila for years, and I've become pretty mellow about the winter travel. So far, Amtrak has never failed to get me where I'm going, one way or another; if that's by bus, so be it. I'll continue to use my membership in the North American Rail Passengers Association to lobby my Congressmen for more infrastructure funding for Amtrak in the Northwest, though.

Anonymous said...

Two things - I couldn't find a service disruption notice describing the problem and expected timeframe for resolution on the Amtrak site and when any part of a route is out, train status is unavailable for the part of the route that is running (Eugene -Portland). No one can stop landslides, but providing the most information possible when they occur does something.

Duane said...

It doesn't seem to make much sense to proceed with improvements for highspeed rail if there isn't a permanent fix for the mudslide problem first. So, why can't the Federal dollars recently awarded for the NW highspeed rail corridor improvements be used to fix the problem?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if any of the federal $ for facilitating "high" speed rail could be directed to preventing if not greatly lessening the likelihood of mudslides, particularly in sections where commuter rail runs as well. I'm thinking of the segment between Mukilteo and Edmonds, WA, which have been closed with riders diverted to buses I've lost count of the # of times the past couple or 3 months.

Anonymous said...

Quote from Trevor: "What would be nice is if the train could at least run part of a route. If the mudslide is in White Rock, why not at least run the train to Bellingham?"

My sentiments EXACTLY. I was so annoyed that because of a slide in White Rock, the whole line had to shut down. I am tired of Vancouver being pushed as almost the only destination on that route. Before the second train went to Vancouver, there didn't seem to be a problem with the train terminating at Bellingham. If there is a mudslide at, say, Vancouver, Washington, then run the train as far as possible along the line and bus continuing passengers from there, not from Seattle. In the first example, pax to Vancouver BC could have been bused from Bellingham.

ReadRails said...

With a report that climate change is leading to heavier rains this issue is going to get worse and so are the potentially disastrous consequences. Could not there be funding from FEMA and from Canadian authorities for an investigation into slope stability with identification, triage and prioritized remediation of conditions?

Also where the causes appear to be illegal and unwise actions such as tree-cutting, overdevelopment and poor water/sewer location to require landowners and local governments to pay to firm up the slopes. Tree cutting appears to have been the culprit the case of one slide in Surrey, B.C.

Landowners, and the cities and towns have a responsibility to ensure that their actions and activities do not harm those of their neighbors: in this case BNSF and its Amtrak and Sounder tenants and their customers.

mattropolis said...

Can you use some of the money that Florida rejected to deal with these mudslides?

ReadRails said...

Could the losses--in ridership and revenue--to Amtrak and to Sound Transit and the costs and losses to BNSF including to its freight customers by not receiving shipments on time be quantified and segmented e.g. in Canada and in the U.S? Could estimates be made of the costs and losses in the event that a slide results in a derailment?

Would this information then help make the case for funding to stabilize the slopes?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for finally addressing this problem. I suspect poor logging practices in the area (ie. slash cutting) is partly to blame, don't hold your breath for federal funding. This has been a large factor in my turning to QuickShuttle as reliable transpo to Seattle. Amtrak should also be worried about how much traffic will drop if Obama gets his $5/passenger fee to cross border.

Mark said...

After the track is cleared ... passenger rail can run on the tracks ... they just can't have passengers onboard while passing the slide during the 48 hr period. Therefore, just bus people around the slide area, but don't close down the whole route. The Sounder does it all the time.

Anonymous said...

The logic to allow freight trains but stop passenger trains for 48 hours is flawed. Freight trains are operated by human crews and often carry HazMat cargo. BNSF may be looking for government dollars to fix the mudslide problem they would otherwise have to fund privately.

Mark in Corvallis said...

When a slide closes a highway, the highway reopens as soon as the slide is cleared and a geologist declares that the slope is stable (or at least unlikely to slide again immediately). Most slides are cleared in a matter of hours and the road reopened. Why not apply this same logic to the railroads instead of an arbitrary 48-hour rule?

Anonymous said...

Just canceled a trip on the cascades due to a mudslide changing the route to bus service. I am not traveling until tomorrow but know with the 48-hr. rule it will still be buses. I am frustrated. I was looking forward to the ride with family.

I've heard rumors of/seen a few particular issues.

1. Many of the slides happen between Edmonds and Everett.
2. Rumor has it that many of these are caused by drainage from neighborhoods that were not built to code for drainage, why couldn't BN or Amtrak or WSDOT require a developer to pay for these fixes?
3. Running buses instead of trains saves Amtrak thousands of dollars a day. So, on a purely cost-benefit analysis, why would they lobby BN to amend the 48-hr rule? They save money when there are mudslides.

Don't think I dislike Amtrak, I'm a huge supporter or all things rail. I just understand their business perspective of saving money.

Also, we'll be happy to take some of FL's rail $ for mudslide prevention. Until we can get a reliable corridor, it won't matter if we have more trains or runs, it will still be buses.

Unknown said...

Is this related to the Amtrak Cascades power or F59PHI's facing north and the NPCU's facing south?


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