Crews work to ensure trains will keep rolling when rains hit

EVERETT — Work has started to shore up the worst of the slipping, sliding coastal bluffs above the railroad tracks between Everett and Mukilteo.

Mudslides pose a seasonal nuisance — and danger — for Sounder commuters, Amtrak passengers and freight trains. The state Department of Transportation, BNSF Railway and other partners completed work last year at two trouble spots. Crews on Aug. 15 resumed their efforts and are scheduled to finish four related projects by the end of the year.

“The two that were completed last year, there were no (new) landslides at all in those areas,” said Janet Matkin, WSDOT’s rail communications manager. “We’re hopeful that that’s true for the for remaining ones that we’re doing this year.”

Measures include building walls to hold back debris, installing fences with landslide-detection sensors and improving drainage. The work is part of a $16.1 million effort focused on the Everett-to-Seattle rail corridor, where hundreds of landslides have occurred over the past decade. It follows a plan that state agencies and BNSF drew up with help from local governments.

One of last year’s project was along Everett’s shoreline and the other near the south end of Mukilteo’s Harbour Pointe neighborhood. Together, they cost about $4.4 million, Matkin said. Three of the upcoming projects are in the Mukilteo area, the other in Everett.

BNSF and its predecessors have been coping with landslides on this corridor ever since tracks were laid in 1893.

In times past, BNSF focused more on stabilizing slopes in north Seattle and Shoreline, railroad spokesman Gus Melonas said.

“The last decade, we’ve seen the most activity from Edmonds to Mukilteo to Everett,” he said. “That’s the area we’re focusing on now. But we’ll continue to focus on the entire corridor from Vancouver, Washington, to Vancouver, BC.”

During the past three years, two trains have been hit by debris while passing through Everett. An additional worry has cropped up over with the recent surge in tanker cars carrying highly volatile crude oil.

Up to 15 trains travel through Snohomish County every week with 1 million gallons or more of crude from the Bakken oil fields, according to BNSF’s most recent estimate. Firefighters said they lack the equipment to extinguish the kind of fire that could result, and would focus instead on keeping the blaze contained and evacuating the area.

One of the new construction projects aims to stabilize the hillside near the south end of the Port of Everett property below Rucker Hill. It’s the same spot where a mudslide knocked several freight cars off their tracks in December 2012, Melonas said. No injuries resulted from that slide or another one that hit an Amtrak train carrying passengers near Howarth Park in April 2013.

For decades, the railroad has followed a strict protocol regarding mudslides, Melonas said. The railroad halts all passenger trains for 48 hours to clean debris from the tracks and ensure the area is stable. Freight trains, which travel at slower speeds, resume sooner.

“Since the early days of operations, if we feel that it’s necessary we will shut the line down,” he said.

Commuting on Sounder trains between Everett and Seattle can be hit or miss when rain makes the ground unstable. Mudslides forced Sound Transit to cancel 135 trips there from November and this past March, agency spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said. The Sounder makes eight trips on weekdays: four from Everett to Seattle in the morning, and four back in the evening.

Slides also forced the cancellation of eight Amtrak trains this past winter. They disrupted another 43 Amtrak trains, meaning passengers had to get on a bus to travel around the blockage. That’s far lower than the winter of 2011, when slides forced the cancellation of 84 Amtrak trains.

As part the ongoing slope-stabilization work, Sound Transit is installing four rain gauges and two monitoring stations along the route, Reason said. Installation began in July and is scheduled to finish up this month. Monitoring stations can measure precipitation and soil saturation to help track the wet conditions most often associated with trigger slides.

The new gauges add to one already in place near Everett Station.

Don’t expect work to stop once the four slope-stabilization projects are complete this year.

State lawmakers have earmarked roughly $2 million per year over the next 16 years to address landslide problems along train tracks in Western Washington, said the WSDOT’s Matkin.

BNSF’s Melonas said the work that’s underway “is the not the first and will not be the last.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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