Fourteen daily passenger trains are at risk of being hit by a severe landslide
on any rain-soaked weekday along the Puget Sound shoreline just north of
New landslide on the tracks where a passenger train had not yet arrived on Thursday, January 21, 2016.
Lucky again, but when will
luck run out?
by John Niles
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF)
rail corridor between Seattle and Everett consists of single and double
track with high, unstable bluffs along one side of the track and the water
of Puget Sound on the other side.
There have been hundreds of landslides
on these shoreline tracks over decades of past history. Here is a viral
YouTube video of a
freight train being hit in December 2012.
As a former aviation safety
professional, transportation analyst, and concerned citizen of the region, I
have taken a position that these passenger trains are too dangerous for any
passenger to ride in the fall-winter-spring rains along the coast of
Here is Transportation Issues Daily coverage of my position.
And here is the
Washington State DOT “Landslide Mitigation Action Plan Final Report”
prepared mostly prior to the Oso event that documents the landslide prone
tracks with detailed maps, but underplays the hazard. Civil engineering
work is underway on some parts of the route to attempt stabilization, but it
is limited in its coverage of the hazardous sections, and may not prevent
slides reliably even where built.
A description of the WSDOT
action to mitigate landslides is here:
The parallels with the
Oso tragedy have been brought to the attention of the Joint SR 530 Landslide
Commission by several people. My submission for the Commission record is
here. Most of the language in that statement is repeated on this
BNSF is mostly freight, but is paid by
Amtrak, Washington State DOT, and Sound Transit to accept passenger trains,
under Congressional and Executive Federal pressure. BNSF makes most of its
money with freight, not passengers. However, the railroad is well
compensated by government and Amtrak to intermix the seven round-trip
passenger trains, which are shorter and run on published daily schedules,
unlike the much longer freight trains that roll at various changing hours of
the day and night.
The current hazard mitigation process
is to detect landslides with trip wires 24 hours per day connected to a BNSF
train control center in Fort Worth, Texas, and then halt all subsequent
passenger trains for 48 hours following a slide, called by BNSF a moratorium
for safety. If a passenger train is hit by a landslide, the passengers call
9-1-1. Most of the landslides are small, and are called mudslides locally.
But there have been some big ones.
page of The Seattle Times on April 7, 2013, with headline, photos,
and a story describing a landslide that derailed three cars of an Amtrak
passenger train that was in motion along the way from Everett to Seattle.
These are the same tracks used Monday to Friday by the Sound Transit commuter
train Sounder North. Headline reads, "‘It was like being thrown around like a
rag doll’" which is a quote from a passenger. This quote is followed by a
sub-headline, "PASSENGER TRAIN DERAILS IN CHRONIC MUDSLIDE ROUTE NORTH OF
SEATTLE." The story lead is:
Sounder and Amtrak
customers are riding buses again rather than rail lines north of Seattle because
of a mudslide that derailed a passenger train Sunday —the latest in what has
been an exceptionally bad season for mudslides in that area.
The bloodless analysis of
declining ridership on this particular train in the previously referenced
WSDOT Mitigation Report is striking: “While this decline in ridership and
revenues was observed in most of Amtrak’s national network during April
2013, customers may have chosen not to ride the trains due to concerns for
their safety after Amtrak’s long-distance Empire Builder train was partially
derailed by a landslide near Everett, specifically on April 7, 2013.”
In recent memory, landslides have put
freight trains into Puget Sound, as in January 1997, the Woodway slide,
shown in the next picture
The fourteen weekday passenger trains
are considered important status symbols for the region, but their function
is replaced easily with substitute buses on nearby Interstate 5 during the
intermittent 48 hour landslide moratoriums. Commuter train customers are
sometimes directed to simply use regularly scheduled buses.
prepared in year 2000 by the U.S. Geologic Survey "Showing Recent and
Historic Landslide Activity on Coastal Bluffs of Puget Sound Between Shilshole
Bay and Everett, Washington," that is, the bluffs above the BNSF railroad track
that carries passenger trains from Sound Transit, Amtrak, and Washington State
DOT. (External Link)
Includes this summary:
Landsliding on the
bluffs between Seattle and Everett, Wash., poses a significant but intermittent
hazard to private property and rail operations in the area. Recent landslides
damaged several residences on the bluffs. Landslides blocked one or both tracks
in about 100 places and came close to the tracks in about 30 more locations
and 1997. Although most landslides that temporarily blocked the tracks did not
collide with trains, one large slide derailed part of a train and caused
significant damage. Frequent commuter train traffic to be developed in the BNSF
right of way under a light-rail (sic) plan adopted by Sound Transit
(Sound Transit Resolution No. R2000-10) could increase exposure of passengers to
landslides. These small, relatively light commuter trains might be easily
derailed or damaged by impact of small- to medium-sized landslides. Additional
data that would enable the operators of the commuter rail system to anticipate
the onset of landslide activity might help them to avoid landslide-related
accidents. Careful analysis of landslide probability and processes along the
bluffs could aid in evaluating the need for other remedial measures.
(Photo shows a Sounder
North commuter train along the waterfront tracks north of the Seattle Ship Canal, not part
of the cited map, but found at http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1103/5100891809_30d2256cd1_z.jpg, unknown
photographer who was likely aboard a boat.) The trains used are not electric
"light rail," but
rather commuter rail with diesel locomotives either pushing or pulling the
train. There is no doubt that a large landslide could push such a train
off the tracks and into Puget Sound.
Return to the Public Interest Transportation Forum
January 21, 2016