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Temporary fix but no solution in sight for Sounder’s mudslide disruptions

The state and BNSF hope a $16 million federal grant will help ease mudslides along the train tracks between Everett and Seattle. (WSDOT image)

With Sound Transit and Amtrak forced to cancel service again between Seattle and Everett because of mudslides, state officials say they’re doing all they can to slow the frequent slides.

Despite millions of dollars, they admit there’s only so much they can do.

The latest slide comes just two weeks after mudslides covered the tracks in a number of places, halting passenger service for the entire Thanksgiving week.

The problem is both the steep hillsides and the stormwater runoff pouring down from the areas above, says Ron Pate, Cascades Operations Manager with the Washington Department of Transportation.

The Federal Railroad Administration has kicked in $16 million for the Washington State Department of Transportation and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, owner of the tracks, to help brace the slopes.

“It’s not going to fix the whole slide problem, but what we’re going to target is more fence catchments of slides to prevent it from ending up on the tracks,” Pate says.

The money will also be used to improve storm water containment to help catch and divert some of the runoff pouring from the hillsides above.

“We think that by controlling that storm water and having better drainage facilities that should improve it significantly.”

The state and BNSF spent the summer clearing culverts and drains, removing brush and debris, building new ditches and reshaping some of the hillsides, Pate says.

But even with all those measures, they’ll never be able to completely prevent slides and closures because the hillsides are too steep and at times, there’s simply too much water.

“I wouldn’t say that we can prevent them 100 percent all the time. Just like anywhere in the United States where you have topography like this, you have slides.”

That’s little comfort to frustrated passengers and both Amtrak and Sound Transit, which are forced to bus riders around the slides whenever the tracks are closed.

“It’s frustrating for us too when we have to go into these backup plans,” says Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray. “We do the best we can and we appreciate our riders patience as we get through these winter months here.”

Sound Transit has had to cancel more than 200 trips because of slides since service started in 2003, Gray says. The agency operates eight Sounder trains weekdays on the line, four each way. Amtrak runs six trains everyday, three each way, according to The Everett Herald.

Pate says while preliminary engineering work is now underway, it will be the summer of 2014 at the earliest before actual work on the hillsides can begin. That means more closures are likely whenever there is heavy rain over the next few years.

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