The Sound Transit Sounder Northline is closed again. Until at least Friday. Because of mudslides along the scenic tracks between Seattle and Everett - as has so often been the case this rainy season.
As has been noted, the Sounder Northline has already set a record for the number of cancelled trains this season - with 122 as of a Seattle Times piece that graced the cover of the local news section last week. That's because the mud just keeps sliding, showing no real sign of stopping, with BNSF Railway - the entity that owns the tracks - doing the cleanup work each time a mudslide goes down.
I feel an attachment to the Sounder. Though I ride it south, from Tacoma and back, I feel a sense of connection with Seattle's train-riding daily commuters. And through much of December, and a solid chunk of November, those train-riding commuters who live to the north were largely SOL.
So I called Sound Transit spokesperson Kimberly Reason and got some stats on how many times the Sounder Northline has been cancelled this season - and how many times it'd been cancelled through the years. Then I went on vacation last week. On Thursday, after still more Sounder cancellations, the Times published its piece - and I figured I'd missed my opportunity to write about the frustrating situation.
Then I saw the alert yesterday: the Sounder Northline had been shut down, yet again. It got me thinking about something Reason had mentioned, and something that was mentioned briefly in the Times' piece - a $16.1 million grant from the federal government secured by the state Department of Transportation that will be used to hopefully shore up the tracks between Seattle and Everett. I figured I'd spill some Internet ink on it, if for no other reason than to give out-of-luck Sounder Northline riders something to read on their smartphones while they endure painful bus rides north.
The Sound Transit Sounder Northline is designed to offer commuters traveling between Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Seattle easy, reliable service to and from work (and the occasional Seahawks game). According to Sound Transit figures provided to Seattle Weekly, over 300 trains and counting have been cancelled since the Sounder Northline began operation in 2003. But as the Times noted, of those 300-some cancellations, 122 have come this rainy season (with rainy seasons running October through March). And now, given the most recent cancellation notice, that number has obviously grown.
It's a substantial increase over years past. Here's a look at the history of Northline cancellations, as provided by Sound Transit:
2003/4 - 3
2004/5 - 0
2005/6 - 40
2006/7 - 16
2007/8 - 18
2008/9 - 0
2010/11 - 70
2011/12 - 41
To put things in perspective, the Sounder Northline operates four trains per day headed south (to Seattle) and four trains north (back to Edmonds, Mukilteo and Everett) - meaning a full day of lost service could impact a total of eight trains. Still, at more than 122 cancellations and counting, the 2012/13 rainy season easily marks the messiest in the commuter trains near decade of service.
Seeing as heavy rain - a constant threat here in Western Washington - is the culprit behind these consistent closures, is there anything that can be done to prevent the headache-inducing lapses in service? Or is this simply par for the course when it comes to the Sounder Northline, which Reason accurately points out runs along a very precipitous coastline?
"Whenever it rains, then the soil is saturated. And in large part because of the development in the area above the rail line - many trees have been taken out, trees that would otherwise their roots would help stabilize the soil -the soil gets wet, it gets soggy, and it slides from above," explains Reason of the BNSF tracks that carry the Sounder Northline. "When the slides occur, the debris rolls on to the track in many cases."
As Reason notes, when a mudslide blocks a passenger rail line, BNSF has a policy that automatically institutes a 48-hour moratorium on passenger rail service on the slide-stricken line - or a two-day disruption in service.
It can be frustrating for Sound Transit, but there's little the agency can do about it. Because BNSF owns the rail lines, it's the company's responsibility to maintain them and mitigate the impacts of mudslides and other weather-related issues.
To this end, BNSF and the State Department of Transportation was awarded the aforementioned $16.1 million grant - a monetary shot in the arm Sound Transit officials are hopeful will improve the situation for the Sounder Northline.
"[BNSF is] an important partner for us, and we would like to have any of the mitigation measures put in place as soon as possible. ... But since we don't own the rail line it's not as though we can take the lead on that," says Reason.
The $16.1 million comes to the state Department of Transportation via the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and is actually part of a much bigger federal financial blessing. In total, the Department of Transportation was awarded $800 million back in 2010, all intended to bolster the state's high-speed passenger rail system - with the bulk of earmarked for lines (predominantly used by Amtrak) between Seattle and Portland, according to Department of Transportation Rail Communications Manager Melanie Coon.
Coon says originally the state was awarded $590 million for high-speed passenger rail projects, but after Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida decided to return grant money they'd been awarded from Uncle Sam, Washington's DOT made a couple additional requests - part of which came to fruition in the form of $16.1 million for mudslide prevention between Seattle and Everett - the tracks used by the Sounder Northline.
Just because the money was awarded in 2010, don't assume that means any shovels have hit the dirt. Because the state is using federal money to pay BNSF to shore up tracks the company owns, there was a long agreement process, stretching more than a year according to Coon, to make sure things were on the up and up. Currently the project is in the "design" phase - meaning BNSF and the Department of Transportation are hashing out the specifics of what work will take place. Actual construction is scheduled to begin by 2014, with the project required to be wrapped up by 2017.
"It sounds really bureaucratic, but you're spending public money on private right-of-way," says Coon. "So we had to be very detailed in what we were going to do. We had to be accountable to the taxpayers with how this money was going to be spent."
"We are trying to do what we can to shore up the needs for the passenger rail piece of it," Coons continues of Washington's part in a federal effort to improve high-speed rail travel across the country by 2030. "These improvements really benefit passenger rail. We're not just throwing money at BNSF so they can run their trains faster."
According to Coon, there are five particular locations between Seattle and Everett that BNSF and the Department of Transportation have highlighted for improvement. BNSF Spokesperson Gus Melonas tells the Times some of the work is likely to be focused on improving drainage on the cliffs above the tracks between Everett and Mukilteo, where mudslides may have been caused by drainage problems coming from residences and businesses near the cliffs.
"We're working collaboratively with BNSF on this to essentially look at what fixes can be put in place in that area to do the most good," says Coon.
At this point, just having the tracks clear of mud for more than a week at a time would seem like significant improvement.