Sound Transit CEO re Mudslides: Safety Is Our Most Important Issue

Sound Transit Sounder Commuter train. Image – Andrew Kim,

The rainy season has caused mudslides cancelling about 150 commuter or Amtrak trains since October 1 in the Seattle area.

One transportation analyst believes the rail line is too dangerous in winter and should be avoided or even shut down ( see “Analyst: It’s Too Dangerous to Ride Amtrak in Seattle in Winter“). A longtime passenger rail expert believes the safety procedures in place make the rail line perfectly safe to use (see “Advocate: It’s Perfectly Safe to Ride Amtrak North of Seattle in Winter“).

Joni Earl is the CEO of Sound Transit, which owns and operates the commuter rail service using the BNSF-owned tracks, is confident in the safety of the service.  Earl discussed the mudslide situation in a KUOW radio interview last week. She and host Ross Reynolds first discuss (at 1:15) what how travelers are accommodated when a slide occurs (they are diverted to buses), and then talk mudslide/safety issues (at 2:15 to 6:15).

Earl notes that safety is ST’s “most important issue,” that riders trust Sound Transit’s judgment, and that “there is a lot of work underway” to resolve the issue. She notes that BNSF has the maintenance responsibility for clearing the tracks, as the owner of the tracks.

But the root of the problem, in our opinion, is that no one party is responsible for the source of the mudslides. That is, the mudslides begin on hillside property that is not owned by BNSF or WSDOT. Most of that property is privately owned, within a city or county jurisdiction. That, in our opinion, is what has delayed more extensive remedial action over the years.  Plus, mudslides have been a relatively infrequent occurrence until recent years. Earl notes that “there’s not a single solution in front of us, and that’s why it’s been a 100-year challenge to figure this out.”

But it’s not like nothing has been done.  BNSF and WSDOT have completed a number of smaller projects over recent years to reduce or prevent mudslides. Learn more from this October 2011 story from WSDOT.

Fortunately, the Washington State DOT (which owns and operates some passenger rail service) has about $16m set aside to work to address the mudslide issues. There is also a new multi-agency effort to address the issue. (learn more here).