Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Fourteen daily passenger trains are at risk of being hit by a severe landslide on any rain-soaked weekday along the Puget Sound shoreline just north of Seattle.

New landslide on the tracks where a passenger train had not yet arrived on Thursday, January 21, 2016. 
Lucky again, but when will luck run out?

by John Niles

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail corridor between Seattle and Everett consists of single and double track with high, unstable bluffs along one side of the track and the water of Puget Sound on the other side.

There have been hundreds of landslides on these shoreline tracks over decades of past history.  Here is a viral YouTube video of a freight train being hit in December 2012.

As a former aviation safety professional, transportation analyst, and concerned citizen of the region, I have taken a position that these passenger trains are too dangerous for any passenger to ride in the fall-winter-spring rains along the coast of Washington.  Here is Transportation Issues Daily coverage of my position.

And here is the Washington State DOT “Landslide Mitigation Action Plan Final Report” prepared mostly prior to the Oso event that documents the landslide prone tracks with detailed maps, but underplays the hazard.  Civil engineering work is underway on some parts of the route to attempt stabilization, but it is limited in its coverage of the hazardous sections, and may not prevent slides reliably even where built.

A description of the WSDOT action to mitigate landslides is here:

The parallels with the Oso tragedy have been brought to the attention of the Joint SR 530 Landslide Commission by several people.  My submission for the Commission record is here.  Most of the language in that statement is repeated on this page.

BNSF is mostly freight, but is paid by Amtrak, Washington State DOT, and Sound Transit to accept passenger trains, under Congressional and Executive Federal pressure. BNSF makes most of its money with freight, not passengers.  However, the railroad is well compensated by government and Amtrak to intermix the seven round-trip passenger trains, which are shorter and run on published daily schedules, unlike the much longer freight trains that roll at various changing hours of the day and night.

The current hazard mitigation process is to detect landslides with trip wires 24 hours per day connected to a BNSF train control center in Fort Worth, Texas, and then halt all subsequent passenger trains for 48 hours following a slide, called by BNSF a moratorium for safety.  If a passenger train is hit by a landslide, the passengers call 9-1-1. Most of the landslides are small, and are called mudslides locally. But there have been some big ones.

Front page of The Seattle Times on April 7, 2013, with headline, photos, and a story describing a landslide that derailed three cars of an Amtrak passenger train that was in motion along the way from Everett to Seattle.  These are the same tracks used Monday to Friday by the Sound Transit commuter train Sounder North. Headline reads, "‘It was like being thrown around like a rag doll’" which is a quote from a passenger. This quote is followed by a sub-headline, "PASSENGER TRAIN DERAILS IN CHRONIC MUDSLIDE ROUTE NORTH OF SEATTLE."  The story lead is:

Sounder and Amtrak customers are riding buses again rather than rail lines north of Seattle because of a mudslide that derailed a passenger train Sunday —the latest in what has been an exceptionally bad season for mudslides in that area.

 The bloodless analysis of declining ridership on this particular train in the previously referenced WSDOT Mitigation Report is striking:  “While this decline in ridership and revenues was observed in most of Amtrak’s national network during April 2013, customers may have chosen not to ride the trains due to concerns for their safety after Amtrak’s long-distance Empire Builder train was partially derailed by a landslide near Everett, specifically on April 7, 2013.” 

In recent memory, landslides have put freight trains into Puget Sound, as in January 1997, the Woodway slide, shown in the next picture posted here.  

There have also been large landslides on similar nearby waterfront bluffs that didn't happen to have tracks at the base. 

The fourteen weekday passenger trains are considered important status symbols for the region, but their function is replaced easily with substitute buses on nearby Interstate 5 during the intermittent 48 hour landslide moratoriums. Commuter train customers are sometimes directed to simply use regularly scheduled buses.

Map prepared in year 2000 by the U.S. Geologic Survey "Showing Recent and Historic Landslide Activity on Coastal Bluffs of Puget Sound Between Shilshole Bay and Everett, Washington," that is, the bluffs above the BNSF railroad track that carries passenger trains from Sound Transit, Amtrak, and Washington State DOT.  (External Link) Includes this summary:

Landsliding on the bluffs between Seattle and Everett, Wash., poses a significant but intermittent hazard to private property and rail operations in the area. Recent landslides damaged several residences on the bluffs. Landslides blocked one or both tracks in about 100 places and came close to the tracks in about 30 more locations during 1996 and 1997. Although most landslides that temporarily blocked the tracks did not collide with trains, one large slide derailed part of a train and caused significant damage. Frequent commuter train traffic to be developed in the BNSF right of way under a light-rail (sic) plan adopted by Sound Transit (Sound Transit Resolution No. R2000-10) could increase exposure of passengers to landslides. These small, relatively light commuter trains might be easily derailed or damaged by impact of small- to medium-sized landslides. Additional data that would enable the operators of the commuter rail system to anticipate the onset of landslide activity might help them to avoid landslide-related accidents. Careful analysis of landslide probability and processes along the bluffs could aid in evaluating the need for other remedial measures.

(Photo shows a Sounder North commuter train along the waterfront tracks north of the Seattle Ship Canal, not part of the cited map, but found at, unknown photographer who was likely aboard a boat.) The trains used are not electric "light rail," but rather commuter rail with diesel locomotives either pushing or pulling the train.  There is no doubt that a large landslide could push such a train off the tracks and into Puget Sound. 

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Last modified: January 21, 2016

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