No lasting fix likely for slides along railroad

EVERETT — Some measures to prevent mudslides along railroad tracks between Everett and Seattle have been taken and more are in the works, but they won’t be enough to fix the drainage problems on the corridor, according to state officials.

Travelers on Sounder commuter and Amtrak passenger trains along the route have been plagued by delays from mudslides for years. Most recently, mudslides resulted in closing the line to passenger service the entire Thanksgiving week, said Gus Melonas, a spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the tracks.

The hillsides along the tracks between Everett and Seattle are the worst slide area for trains in Western Washington, said David Smelser, a high-speed rail program manager for the state Department of Transportation.

The problem, he said, isn’t just the slopes — it’s the runoff from developed areas above the slopes along the route.

“The key is stormwater runoff, and, frankly, BNSF and (the Transportation Department) are not going to fix that,” he said.

Sounder, which has experienced low ridership because of parking and other issues as well as mudslides, has had more than 200 trips canceled because of slides since it began running in 2003, according to Sound Transit figures. The railroad requires a 48-hour moratorium on passenger service when tracks are blocked by a mudslide. 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 state has $16 million in hand from the federal government specifically for mudslide prevention on rail corridors, and most or all of it will go to work between Everett and Seattle, state officials said.

The money could pay for projects such as building small catchment walls, basins and deepening ditches, Smelser said. The state is working with BNSF railroad to pinpoint the most vulnerable areas and on engineering and design.

The earliest that work could begin is the summer of 2014, he said — two winters from now.

Some work was done this past summer along the route. The state spent about $100,000 of its money, not from the federal pot, Smelser said. The railroad spent several million, Melonas said.

The state cleared drains and culverts, trimmed trees and brush and removed debris. Railroad projects included building new ditches, improving seawalls, culverts and bridge footings and contouring hillsides.

There were more than 20 slides altogether between Everett and Seattle during Thanksgiving week, he said. The largest were two in Everett and one in Mukilteo. The Mukilteo slide shut down passenger trains Nov. 19 and the closure was extended by two days, to Friday, because of more slides and more work that needed to be done, Melonas said. Another slide on Friday night shut down the line for the weekend to Amtrak riders, he said.

The summertime projects didn’t prevent last week’s mudslides but likely kept them from being worse, Melonas said.

While this work can lessen the effect of the slides, in the long run it’s small potatoes, Smelser said.

He said state transportation officials are talking with local government officials about how to address storm water runoff, but there’s little or no money for fixes.

Larger hillside projects provide some relief, but they’re expensive and are not a permanent solution, Smelser said. These involve installing drains into hillsides, collecting water, piping it into a ditch and creating a new drainage system at the bottom of the hill, he said. Trees also are removed and large rocks put in place.

The railroad recently spent between $50 million and $70 million on such a project in north Seattle — covering just a few acres, according to Smelser. The state does not have that kind of money for the work, he said.

“It’s kind of a finger in the dike,” Smelser said. “It really gets back to storm water.”

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

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