Mudslides Shut Down Amtrak And Sounder Trains

Nov 20, 2012

A mudslide buries the BNSF railroad tracks running alongside Puget Sound, near Everett.
A mudslide buries the BNSF railroad tracks running alongside Puget Sound, near Everett.
Credit Gus Melonas / BNSF

People who ride the train between Everett and Seattle got a familiar taste of winter this week. Due to mudslides, Amtrak and Sound Transit canceled service on that route until at least Wednesday.

BNSF Railways reported nearly a dozen mudslides near Everett Monday afternoon, triggering its policy to automatically shut down passenger trains for 48 hours after a slide. So, Amtrak and Sound Transit are using buses to move riders around the slide north and as far north as Vancouver, BC.

The Washington State Department of Transportation oversees Amtrak service. WSDOT spokeswoman Laura Kingman says the two-day wait time is a safety precaution.

“Passenger safety is our number one priority,” Kingman says.  “So if there is a mudslide then we know that there is enough soil saturation in the area that the soil underneath the tracks could potentially be unstable.”

Freight trains typically start running soon after the tracks are cleared but passenger trains are required to wait longer. Kingman says BNSF, WSDOT, Sound Transit and Amtrak recently discussed shortening the wait time but they decided to keep the policy in place. She says BNSF clarified its policy guidelines, saying  the 48-hour moratorium takes effect after major slides but not when the tracks are merely obstructed by small debris.

According to Kingman, mudslides disrupted 162 of the 4,015 train trips in Washington in 2011. So far in 2012, 28 trips were impacted by slides before Monday’s cancelations.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas has worked in the Northwest nearly 40 years. He says last year was one of the worst he’s seen for mudslides. Since then, he says the railway invested $100 million to improve the tracks in Washington and stabilize the adjacent slopes.

“There’ve been areas where we’ve basically resloped the condition of some of the hills,” Melonas says.  “We’ve ditched, we’ve enhanced the area for better water drainage and we’re constantly studying ways to make the operations smoother.”

Melonas also says they’ve moved in extra crews and equipment to the Puget Sound area, as the mudslide season gets under way.