Analyst: It’s Too Dangerous to Ride Amtrak in Seattle in Winter

About 150 commuter or Amtrak trains have been cancelled since October 1 in Seattle due to mudslides. Image – Associated Press.

A transportation analyst urges people to avoid using passenger/commuter rail north of Seattle during the winter due to dangerous conditions.

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).”

John Niles has been digging into the issue. Niles (bio) is the President of Global Telematics and a specialist in research, design, planning, and implementation of improvement strategies for transportation. He’s been affiliated with the Mineta Transportation Institute, the Center for the New West, and the Transportation Research Board.

Niles concludes that using Amtrak or commuter rail in the winter is too dangerous.  Here is a statement he sent to family and friends earlier this week. It’s republished unedited.

I’ve been a passenger on the scenic and affordable Amtrak Cascades to or from Vancouver, BC a dozen times since it began service.  But based on a review of mudslide history and available information on present government safety protocols, I will no longer ride on this train during the rainy season in the central Puget Sound region.

I also urge my friends and loved ones to avoid riding on the train between Seattle and Canada until the present seasonal rain subsides, as well as not taking the Sounder North Everett-Seattle commuter trains in the present season.  Here’s why:
Last Thursday evening, Washington State DOT announced a new effort aimed at keeping Sounder North commuter trains, and Amtrak passenger trains to/from Vancouver, BC and Spokane, from being swept by a landslide into Puget Sound from the shoreline track north of Seattle — (My description!  WSDOT would likely characterize the problem as mudslides that cause 48 hour moratoriums on passenger trains using the tracks, which is not the worst case.)

I regard the WSDOT action as insufficient compared to the problem being addressed.

The mudslides are related to rainfall.  When it rains, the probability of a slide goes up. There is research from the U.S. Geological Survey disseminated online showing this relationship: http://landslides.usgs.gov/monitoring/seattle/ .

The central Puget Sound region is now in the annual rainy season.  Passenger trains moving through a zone of unstable slopes during the rainy season are at risk of getting hit, and the passenger trains between Everett and Seattle should be stopped for the few months remaining until it stops raining regularly.

Here’s the WSDOT announcement from last week: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/News/2013/01/24_rail_mudslide_solutions.htm .

Here are the online maps in the Coastal Zone Atlas from the Washington State Government describing where the shoreline bluffs are unstable continuously: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/sea/femaweb/snohomish.htm .

If you think a disastrous landslide hitting a train on the shoreline BNSF railroad tracks is only a remote possibility, you are right, but it has happened in recent memory to a freight train on the shoreline track north of Seattle. On January 15, 1997 a big slide came a few hours after a passenger train passed through on the same track.  Here’s a 2011 story that was broadcast on KING 5 TV about the result of the Woodway slide in 1997 that took out the freight train: http://www.krem.com/community/slideshows/118476024.html .

Click the following link to see a picture from the Washington State Dept. of Ecology page about the same 1997 landslide:  http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/sea/landslides/show/woodway.html .

And (again, ICYMI) here’s the YouTube video of the very recent December 17, 2012 mudslide derailing a freight train, a video now seen by millions around the world because of broadcast media finding and using it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeT0m-hpD_4   Passenger trains ran just hours before this slide, as was the case in 1997.

Beyond committing to continuation of various preventive actions that already are not working to prevent landslides, the lack of action-oriented language in the new WSDOT announcement is striking: “This collaboration will help us shift the focus from short-term responses to repeat mudslide occurrences to a long-range solution for this vital transportation corridor … For Amtrak Cascades to remain a viable transportation option and achieve future growth, we must look at the root causes of these mudslides and start a larger discussion among our partners about addressing them.”

“Start a larger discussion?”  Talk, talk, while it’s still raining every week?  Shift focus from short-term focus to long-range before the dry season begins?

Another problem — so far as passenger rail transportation goes in this “vital transportation corridor,” it’s just not vital.  While risky and dangerous to put passengers on trains under unstable bluffs in the rain, it’s not about maintaining vital service.

The lack of vitalness is revealed by the ease with which during December and early January authorities simply replaced passenger train travel with substitute extra buses on I-5. The replacement service costs less to run than operating the train service, and it offers nearly equivalent travel times.  In the case of Sounder North commuter train passengers, sometimes they are merely directed to board regularly scheduled Sound Transit Regional Express and Community Transit buses that are already operating on a regular schedule in the same transportation corridor.

Back to the active landslide corridor and what to do:  A “Safety First” position would be this: When it’s the rainy season along the tracks under the government-documented unstable bluffs that line the shores of Puget Sound, passenger trains are not allowed to run.

More news:  The rainy-season-stop-the-trains option was raised by some Sound Transit Board members on January 10, at a meeting of the Capital Committee of the Board, as available to be seen now on this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoT9Q0jp5Hs

I’m hoping that after one more track-blocking landslide this winter in a non-moratorium everybody-believed-tracks-were-safe period that the Safety First stop-the-trains option will be ordered by top management at either WSDOT or Sound Transit or AMTRAK or Federal Railroad Administration or BNSF.  Any one of these agencies has the authority to do the right thing.

Speaking as a Navy-trained aviation safety specialist, I hope this action comes out soon from the “larger discussion” announced by WSDOT.

Landslide-savvy geologists who can interpret past efforts at forecasting landslide probabilities should be brought into the new WSDOT-initiated internal conversations,  http://landslides.usgs.gov/monitoring/seattle/rtd/plot.php, as well as safety analysts with broad operational analysis capabilities.