WSDOT takes mudslides head on to improve Amtrak Cascades service

Amtrak Cascades as it travels along the Edmonds waterfront

The Tacoma mudslide severed the wire fence put in place
to detect mudslides and other debris potentially
blocking the tracks. When debris came in
contact with the fence, it set off an alarm
at BNSF's dispatch center, alerting crews of the problem.
by guest blogger Melanie Coon

Anyone who follows the news knows that mudslides in western Washington are a pretty common occurrence, especially in the rainy fall and winter months. When a slide affects the rail lines, it creates major disruptions for passenger rail service.

Nearly 130 Amtrak Cascades passenger trains were delayed or canceled in 2010 because of mudslides and hillside washouts, and so far in 2011 that number has almost doubled. For passengers, these disruptions are a major inconvenience – after all, who wants to make connections by bus when you’ve paid to ride the train?  And for us, it makes our goal of improving Cascades service reliability and on-time performance even more challenging.

The good news is that we’re working with our rail partners to meet Mother Nature head on, taking major steps to reduce the potential for these disruptions and reduce the amount of time passenger trains sit idle after a mudslide. Action can’t come soon enough, since Amtrak Cascades service was shut down for two days earlier this week, due to a mudslide near Titlow Park in Tacoma.

Mudslides, and the fact that the route is congested with scores of daily freight trains, has prompted  us to propose rerouting passenger trains away from BNSF Railway’s main line to an existing rail line through south Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont. The Point Defiance Bypass project will greatly reduce disruptions and help the Cascades stay on time and on schedule.  We are currently studying the impacts of rerouting the service and hope to have approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to move forward by 2013 with trains running on the bypass by 2017.

The bypass is one of 20 projects in our Cascades High Speed Rail program aimed at increasing the frequency and reliability of Amtrak Cascades service between Vancouver B.C. and Portland, OR.

Recurring mudslides in several places along the rail corridor prompted FRA and WSDOT to dedicate $16.1 million in federal high speed rail funding to identify unstable slopes along tracks throughout western Washington.  WSDOT and BNSF will work together surveying problem areas and determining appropriate fixes to reduce mudslide delays. Work is expected to begin next year.

In the meantime, we’re working with BNSF to explore new ideas for getting passenger trains up and running more quickly after a mudslide while continue to insure the public’s safety. BNSF’s current policy restricts passenger trains for 48 hours after any mudslide that affects the tracks. We are working very hard to support, improve, and promote Amtrak Cascades as a viable transportation option.  These changes will help us take passenger rail service to the next level for our next generation of riders.