Frustrated with mudslides along the Amtrak Cascades rail line

by guest blogger Vickie Sheehan

The last three months have been very frustrating, for you and us. We’re working hard to support, improve, and promote Amtrak Cascades as a viable transportation option. When the trains aren’t running, it impacts us all.

It is expected that we will have some mudslides along the Amtrak Cascades rail line between October and March, but this is ridiculous! Normally, we average anywhere from three to 10 mudslides over a six-month period, but in the last three months we’ve had nearly 20.

There were 16 mudslides that kept 90 trains from reaching their destination in Dec. 2010 alone. Seventy-eight of those trains were on the Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., leg. This happens to be our most mudslide-prone problem area.

What’s even worse is that any time there is a mudslide, regardless of how severe, an automatic 48-hour moratorium is imposed on passenger rail service. All passenger rail service comes to a halt, and as you can imagine, this is very inconvenient for passengers, Amtrak and us. Adding to the frustration is the fact that the moratorium doesn’t apply to freight rail service.

Obviously, this is done for safety reasons. Freight trains carry goods and passenger trains carry people. As you’d expect, people rate higher than a train carrying athletic shoes and televisions. Plus, it is important to ensure that the area where a mudslide occurred is stable before sending passenger trains through.

When a mudslide occurs and disrupts train service, Amtrak works very hard to make sure all affected passengers get where they need to go. All available bus companies are contacted and put in to service if available. In the case of the mudslides over this last weekend, buses were in very short supply and Amtrak was not able to get enough to cover all the affected passengers.

What are we doing about the mudslides, you ask? There are more than 60 areas along the 466-mile route for Amtrak Cascades that have been identified as at risk for mudslides. That’s a lot of area to cover. The majority of mudslides occur in the Everett area. There are also a decent number of mudslides in British Columbia that affect our trains.

This not only affects Amtrak Cascades, but also Sound Transit’s Sounder and the Amtrak Coast Starlight long-distance train and BNSF Railway freight trains. We are working with Sound Transit, Amtrak and BNSF to find a solution. The biggest challenge is funding. Before we can start any improvements, we have to complete an environmental assessment (EA) to determine potential key environmental impacts before beginning any construction. There is currently no funding for the EA – without it, we can’t begin construction to fix the problem.

We applied for federal funding for this issue twice in the last year, but have not yet received any awards. We will continue to try and secure funding and collaborate with Sound Transit and BNSF. For the mudslide areas in British Columbia, we are working with the Canadian government to explore options to fix those problem spots on the corridor which are on their side of the border.

In the meantime, we hope that the rain and mudslides subside so the trains can continue running unimpeded. Amtrak Cascades finished 2010 with extraordinary ridership totals (838,251 an all-time high) and we added free Wi-Fi at the end of January. Kudos to our partner Amtrak for doing their best to get people where they need to go in spite of the mudslide challenges.