Drier weather, projects have eased railway slide problems

EVERETT — Keep your fingers crossed and knock on wood, but so far, Sounder and Amtrak train riders are getting a break this fall from trip cancellations caused by mudslides.

There have been no cancellations this autumn on the line that hugs the shoreline between Everett and Seattle, which saw record numbers of disruptions in recent years.

Last winter season, through March, 170 Sounder trips were canceled because of hillsides sliding onto tracks during rainy periods. The previous high was 72, set two years earlier, in 2010-11. Service began in 2003.

The slides typically happen during periods of heavy rain. Rainfall at Paine Field this fall so far has been well below average, according to the National Weather Service. Rainfall in the same period last year, by contrast, was well above average, said Josh Smith, a meteorologist for the weather service in Seattle.

Only 1.5 inches of rain fell in October, compared to the average of 3.21 and last year’s 5.69, Smith said. In November, 2.37 inches fell at Paine Field compared to the average of 5.22 and last year’s 7.06.

This month, only a half-inch of rain has fallen so far at Paine Field. The average for December is 4.25 inches, and last year saw a very wet 7.72, Smith said.

On Dec. 17 last year, several cars of a freight train were knocked over by a slide in Everett. No one was injured.

In addition to the Sounder disruptions, Amtrak had 50 cancellations last winter on its Cascades route between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., according to figures supplied by the agency.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the tracks, requires passenger trains to wait 48 hours following closures by mudslides.

Based on the weather forecast, the good fortune might not hold, but a scenario similar to last year also appears unlikely.

The national Climate Prediction Center forecasts average precipitation and temperatures for the Northwest over the next three months.

When the rains do come, two new hillside reinforcement projects are in place in two trouble spots along the tracks.

At the Mukilteo-Everett city line, crews have finished installing a steel-and-concrete catchment wall 10 feet high and 700 feet long, said Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF in Seattle.

At the south end of Mukilteo, near the Pacific Queen shipwreck, hundreds of granite rocks have been brought in to form a barrier, Melonas said. The rocks hold back the soil but allow water to drain through, he said.

Work also is planned in four more spots in Everett and Mukilteo. Those projects are still being designed and all the work is scheduled to be done by early 2016, officials have said.

The state last year received $16 million from the federal government for mudslide prevention. That money will cover one more project, set to be completed next summer, and the design for three other projects, said David Smelser, rail capital program manager for the state Department of Transportation.

Future work could include terracing on hillsides and installation of drainage pipes, holding ponds and retaining walls, depending on the conditions at each location.

In the past five years, BNSF has spent more than $10 million in slide response, maintenance and small hillside projects between Olympia and the Canadian border, Melonas said.

Officials in Mukilteo and Everett also are planning ways to reduce the amount of water that runs down hillsides from homeowners’ yards above the tracks.

In some areas, Mukilteo is considering connecting residential rooftop downspouts with the city drainage system, public works manager Rob McGaughey said.

Lines could run underground from houses to a larger pipe along the top of the bluff and into the city system.

Another possibility is to extend lines down the hillsides with diffuser lines at the bottom.

“We’ve got to manage the system there,” McGaughey said.

There’s no firm cost estimate yet for those types of projects, he said, but “they’re in the neighborhood of tens of thousands of dollars and not millions to do that.”

The city also is planning an outreach program to educate residents about reducing the effect of runoff from their homes.

Many people throw yard waste over the edge of the bluff, McGaughey said, which contributes to the problem by holding and concentrating water in the locations where it lands.

The city of Everett is planning a similar education program, public works director Dave Davis said.

A landslide education open house is scheduled for Wednesday at Mukilteo City Hall. Another is tentatively planned for spring in Everett.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

Landslide meeting

A public open house regarding landslides on bluffs along Puget Sound is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Mukilteo City Hall, 11930 Cyrus Way.

Those who attend can learn warning signs for potential landslides and prevention tips such as use of plants, drainage management and construction methods.

The event is hosted by the state Department of Transportation and the cities of Mukilteo and Everett.

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