Mudslides near Mukilteo rock Sounder North services

By Sara Bruestle | Dec 12, 2012

Sounder train service between Everett and Seattle has been suspended four times since Thanksgiving due to mudslides.

The most recent mudslide occurred last week just south of Mukilteo. About five feet of rock and dirt partially covered the railroad tracks at about 10:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 4.

Debris from the Dec. 4 slide was removed by midday, but BNSF Railway suspended passenger service for 48 hours as a precaution. Freight service, however, resumed after the slide was cleared.

Sound Transit also canceled special Black Friday train service through Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Seattle because of slides.

“We’ve gotten a series of slides in the corridor, over 20 situations where mud and rock came down between Seattle and Everett,” said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesperson.

It is common for mudslides to interrupt passenger train service on Sounder Everett-Seattle.

The corridor that passes through Mukilteo has steep cliffs of up to 150 feet. With heavy rainfall, the tops of those slopes start to slip, impacting BNSF operations on the rails below.

Which means that when it starts to rain here – and doesn’t let up – there can and will be slides, said Kimberly Reason, Sound Transit spokesperson.

“October through March is the rainy season, so the forces of nature are underway,” she said.

So far, there have been 30 canceled trains and 6.5 days of interrupted service this rainy season, according to Sound Transit. Last season there were 41 cancellations and seven days of partial or no service. In the season before that, 70 cancels and nine interrupted days.

With 70 canceled trains, Melonas said the 2010-2011 season was one of the most problematic for BNSF in decades. This season seems more “normal,” more manageable, he said.

“Up until Thanksgiving, it has been a mild year for us,” he said. “And we’re hoping the weather situation improves.”

When mudslides do occur, railway crews begin working right away to clear the mud and stabilize the slopes where they can.

Crews also stockpile rocks and other materials along the corridor so that it can be readily used to stabilize sluffed slopes impacting the railway.

BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks, has invested in ditch and drainage work and slope contouring to help with the rain flow, as well as installing more rock stabilization and bridges throughout the northern corridor.

“As a result of our preparedness, response and action, we have been able to keep trains running through the storm on Thanksgiving and in a majority of situations,” Melonas said.

Geotechnical engineers continue to study the cliffs to come up with other ways to deal with the weather, he said.

Even as mud and rocks slide, the popularity of the Sounder North line continues to rise. A recent study found that ridership has increased 33 percent over last year. The line now averages 1,304 weekday boardings.

“Sounder North line commuters are very loyal commuters,” Reason said. “Certainly it’s disruptive when they have to take a bus – they would rather take the train – but they understand Mother Nature is going to do what she does.”

It is BNSF policy to suspend all passenger service for 48 hours following a mudslide.

To help passengers, Sound Transit adds special bus service whenever Sounder is suspended.

In the event of another slide, check in at www.soundtransit.org for Sound Transit alerts and information on bus schedules.

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