Mudslides don’t mean a holiday for Sound Transit staff

The record for number of Sounder commuter rail trips canceled by mudslides in a winter season has already been shattered by more than double, and it’s still only January.

And that leaves the question: What do staff who run the train do when the train’s not running?

Service has run only one day since Dec. 17 between Everett and Seattle because of mudslides. As of Wednesday, 146 trips had been canceled, spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said, compared with the previous record of 72, set two years ago in the winter of 2010-11.

Sound Transit says its workers assigned to the trains are kept plenty busy when the line is shut down.

Organizing replacement bus service and working with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway staff on slide locations and prospects for resuming service are some of the duties of Sounder employees, Reason said.

The Sounder trains are driven by employees on loan from BNSF, she said. Sound Transit pays the railroad for the operators’ services on a per-mile basis, and since they’re not driving the trains while service is down, they don’t get paid by Sound Transit during those times, Reason said.

It costs roughly $2,700 per day to run all the trains round trip, she said. Figures for per-mile wages for train operators were not immediately available Wednesday.

Though it saves the agency some money while the trains aren’t running, the savings are offset somewhat by having to run more buses for train commuters. The amount varies depending on how much of the train line is shut down and how many buses are available, Reason said.

Four full-time operations workers handle other logistics associated with running Sounder trains. Those four are in charge of the trains in the south end, between Seattle and Tacoma, as well as the north.

“When service on Sounder is disrupted, it creates more work,” Reason said. “We have to go into mudslide disruption mode.”

That’s happened quite a bit lately.

Trains ran the morning of Dec. 17 before two slides occurred. One of them knocked over several cars of a freight train as it moved below the bluffs near the Port of Everett.

A rule by BNSF, which owns the tracks, prohibits passenger trains from operating on the line for 48 hours after a mudslide. In the recent stretch, there’s often been more than one slide per day, each time extending the moratorium on train service.

A string of mudslides has kept the trains parked ever since, except for Monday Reason said.

BNSF crews are the ones that clean up the tracks after slides and make sure they’re safe for travel.

Supplemental bus service is provided by the agencies with which Sound Transit contracts to run the buses on a day-to-day basis. In Snohomish County, it’s Community Transit. Sometimes, Sound Transit contracts with private companies if more buses are needed.

When Sounder service stops, in addition to arranging for buses, operations crews get the word out about bus service, participate in street teams to direct commuters to buses and coordinate overnight storage for trains, Reason said.

Ridership has been a problem for the Sounder north line.

The Sounder North line averages about 1,100 boardings per weekday, less than half of what was projected when the service began. Sounder service between Seattle and Tacoma averages between 8,500 and 10,000 boardings per day, according to Sound Transit.

A citizen oversight panel suggested in a recent report that Sound Transit consider cutting back the service if the numbers don’t improve.

One of the factors blamed for the lack of riders is tight parking at the stations in Edmonds and Mukilteo. In early December, commuters gained access to 53 new spaces in Edmonds leased by Sound Transit from Salish Crossing LLC, a development group that bought the Waterfront Antique Mall property next to the train station. The group plans to create 50 more spaces by spring.

Commuters were able to use the new parking for only two weeks before the mudslides halted service.

Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling, who also serves on the Sound Transit board, helped arrange the extra parking.

“Of course I’m frustrated,” he said about the service disruptions.

The Sound Transit board hasn’t had a discussion on the slide disruptions, he said. Earling said he planned to bring up the subject at a capital committee meeting on Thursday.

The north Sounder trains began running in 2003, four times weekday mornings from Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds southbound to Seattle and four times from Seattle northbound back to Everett in the evenings. Special runs are made for Seahawks and some Mariners games.

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

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