Group works to derail RR mudslides

By Sara Bruestle | Apr 10, 2014

Edmonds is part of a group working to mitigate mudslides that interrupt train service between Everett and Seattle.

A record number of slides last season prompted the Washington State Department of Transportation, BNSF Railway, Sound Transit, Amtrak and other stakeholders, such as Edmonds, to form the Landslide Mitigation Work Group.

The group is developing short- and long-term plans to reduce the occurrence and impact of mudslides through Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Seattle over the next 10 to 20 years.

Edmonds Public Works Director Phil Williams, a member of the work group, said he hasn’t been participating in meetings but has been keeping abreast of efforts to address the annual problem.

The state Legislature OK’d a $16 million federal grant last year to shore up the most problematic slopes along the railroad tracks.

Williams said there were six slide areas they were focusing their attention on, three of which were worked on last year, with three more to be addressed this year.

“People are keenly interested in getting this problem solved,” he said.

Williams comes from a long line of railroad workers; his father worked for Burlington Northern for 40 years. Williams was a brakeman for a time.

He said local planners and others are troubled by constant interruptions of commuter rail service during the winter months.

“The continuity of train service is a concern,” Williams said. “The hope is that after this construction season commuter service will be a lot better.”

Of the six identified projects along the tracks, three of them are planned for in or near Mukilteo, Mayor Jennifer Gregerson said.

It is common for mudslides to interrupt train service and threaten homes that sit atop the bluffs overlooking the BNSF railroad tracks.

“There are slides, it’s true,” Gregerson said. “There is a couple mile stretch that is really challenging, and I feel for those people who live in those areas.”

The corridor that passes between Edmonds and Mukilteo has steep cliffs of up to 150 feet. With heavy rainfall, the tops of those slopes start to slip, impacting BNSF operations on the rails below.

That means when it starts to rain – and doesn’t let up – there can and will be slides.

There have been 13 blocking slides this rainy season, compared to 60 last season, said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesperson.

The most recent mudslide occurred last week just north of Edmonds. About 150 feet of mud, rocks and trees covered both lines of railroad tracks at about at 3:20 a.m. Tuesday, April 1. It was up to 15 feet deep in places.

It took two days to remove debris, but BNSF Railway suspended passenger service for 48 hours as a precaution. Freight service, however, resumed after the slide was cleared from one line.

“Last week’s was the largest in terms of volume that we have experienced in the last few years,” Melonas said. “It took much of one day for track cranes to remove the debris, clearing one line.”

So far, there have been 115 canceled trains and 21.5 days of interrupted service on the Sounder North line this rainy season, said Kimberly Reason, Sound Transit spokesperson.

A record 206 canceled trains and 27.5 days of interrupted service occurred during the 2012-2013 season, Reason said. In the season before that, there were only 41 cancellations and seven days of partial or no service.

“Last year was a top 5 ever recorded in terms of slide after slide after slide,” Melonas said. “Though they were all relatively light in volume. They were nuisance slides.”

He said the railroad has invested in slide prevention, clearing ditches and installing motion monitors along the tracks that run along the northern corridor, paid for with the $16 million in federal dollars and millions of BNSF’s own funds.

He said BNSF has installed barriers, improved drainage and removed 13,000 tons of debris.

Mukilteo’s Gregerson said homeowners can help prevent slides on their property by paying attention to drainage and making sure not to dump yard waste over the edge. Debris can lead to erosion, she said.

“We hear about it because of the railroad, but pretty much anyone who lives above a gulch or above the water should be paying attention to these same issues,” she said.

– Paul Archipley contributed to this article.


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