Advocate: It’s Perfectly Safe to Ride Amtrak North of Seattle in Winter

Mudslides have cancelled over 150 passenger trains since December 2012. Image – View from Sound Transit commuter train north of Seattle. Image – sensquid2, Flickr.

It is perfectly safe to use passenger/commuter rail north of Seattle during the winter, despite semi-frequent mudslides stopping rail traffic.

Lloyd Flem, Executive Director of All Aboard Washington (learn more), begs to differ with John Niles, a transportation analyst who believes people should avoid the rail during the rainy season. See “Analyst: It’s Too Dangerous to Ride Amtrak in Seattle in Winter.”

If you’re familiar with the situation, skip below to Flem’s response.  Otherwise, here’s the background:

For a handful of miles north of Seattle the main rail line used by freight and Amtrak/commuter rail runs next to slopes which are prone to mudslides during the winter. Once a slide is cleared, freight trains may resume service but passenger trains must wait at least 48 hours before resuming service.  That’s a hard and fast rule regardless of the severity of the slide and how quickly it is cleared.  Many people assume that’s a USDOT rule, but it’s actually a BNSF rule (it’s their rail line) and probably a liability issue. The result is that many passenger and commuter trains are cancelled throughout the winter.

This year has been particularly bad, as C.B. Hall describes:

“92 Amtrak Cascades trains between Seattle and Vancouver have been cancelled or truncated, as of December 31 [2012], compared to 26 during the same period last year. Sound Transit riders are singing the blues too, over a record 160 cancellations of the Everett-Seattle Sounder trains since October 1. That’s up substantially from an average of 34 cancellations in each of the entire four previous winters (Slippery Slopes: Can we mudproof Northwest rail?, Crosscut).”

Lloyd Flem statement:

The  many mudslides which have frequently halted Sounder and Amtrak services (though not freight rail) on the BNSF line between Seattle and Everett this winter have prompted  Seattle-based transportation analyst John Niles  to opine that the answer is to permanently cancel all passenger rail service north of Seattle during our wet season.  Mr. Niles uses the vehicle of  “a statement to family and friends” as his latest means of pushing a consistent anti-passenger rail ideology.

Niles is the editor of the E-zine “Public Interest Transportation Forum” (PITF) , the contributors to which constitute a Who’s Who of the regional  anti-passenger-rail establishment  and whose efforts appear to have as  their theme, opposition to rail in favor of highway vehicles.  Mr. Niles’ “cancel all winter passenger trains” approach also matches his oppose-passenger-trains response to a letter  I co-authored to a major regional daily a year or two ago countering an article by two state senators who sought to take the total of Federal “Stimulus” money  our state received for improvement of passenger train service and use it to build more highway lanes in their districts. The many following written comments from readers on the senators’ article and our counter were overwhelmingly pro-rail, with Mr. Niles almost alone supporting the senators’ ideas, while he did acknowledge the arbitrary movement of Federal transportation funds for different purposes could not occur.

To be fair, Mr. Niles anti-rail efforts are more thoughtful and scholarly than that of such extreme rail-bashing ideologues as Wendell Cox, Ronald Utt, and Randall O’Toole. Nonetheless I differ with the premises and remedies in his “statement to family and friends”:

Indeed, we have wet late falls and winters in the Maritime Northwest. But seasonal precipitation maxima have doubtless occurred for millennia, certainly for the 120 years since Jim Hill brought the Great Northern to Puget Sound. Yet the frequency of mudslides covering portions of the BNSF tracks north of Seattle has been trending strongly upward in recent years, with this season being dramatically the worst. Obviously, some factors other than just “wet winters” are present to make this problem progressively more disruptive! WSDOT, BNSF, Amtrak, and Sound Transit are now together seeking objective engineering-based answers to the mudslide causes, which certainly go beyond wet winters. When such causes are determined, proper mitigation to the problem will occur.  I strongly support the careful work of these four rail-providing entities.

While mudslides are still quite possible prior to cause mitigation, Mr. Niles certainly may advise his family and friends to avoid traveling by train north of Seattle during the wet  season.  I absolutely do NOT so advise my family and friends.  He is correct that a disastrous landslide is a remote possibility. Given BNSF’s very conservative “48-hour cancellation of all passenger trains” rule, following any and all mudslides. the possibility is even more remote. If given a choice, I will urge my family and friends to ride any and all of our passenger trains, including those north of Seattle, rather than resort to far more dangerous private highway vehicles, in which the probability of injury or death is about twenty times greater, per million passenger miles, than are our trains. While buses, which Niles and his PITF colleagues prefer to trains, are safer than cars, vans, SUVs and trucks, many train riders, when their trains are unavailable, will drive rather than taking the bus.  Any policy, including cancelling trains, which puts more people on our highways, increases the statistical possibility of disaster and heartache.

Mr. Niles concludes that trains are not “vital” anyway, which I believe reflects the long-range intent of those who simply oppose the US , unlike the rest of the industrialized world, adding public passenger rail to the “only highway or fly” personal transportation pattern that has been foisted upon North Americans for the past half century. This form of “American Exceptionalism” is to our country’s detriment.