This week has been a miserable one for trains in the Seattle area.  After two Monday mudslides, one near Nisqually and one near Everett, on Tuesday not a single Amtrak train arrived or departed King Street Station. Another mudslide yesterday has put North Sounder and Amtrak off until at least Friday. Mudslide prevention projects are still on the way thanks to stimulus dollars, but at this point these efforts seem meager compared to the enormity of the problem. At least 30 mudslides have occurred just since Thanksgiving.

From YouTube user John Hill, here’s up close video of Monday afternoon’s mudslide and 7-car derailment just south of Everett. The slide begins at the 1’00” mark. The 48-hour passenger moratorium may be frustrating — and moving to a case-by-case assessment would be superior to an arbitrary time period —  but let’s not forget that mudslides are serious business. Video like this shows just how dangerous they can be.

111 Replies to “Mudslides Up Close”

  1. And the sprawl which may be the cause some of these slides is serious business as well. Thanks, Zach.

    1. There is a correlation between upland development and slope stabilization above the tracks. Invasive weeds like ivy have also made things worse. Too bad some of those land developers don’t help pay some of the cost of the slope stabilization. In many locations the striping of the upland forest to open up water/mountain views are a major cause of a change in hydrology that makes mudslides more prevelent.

      1. In many cases land along the line landowners have removed trees, other ground cover to get better views of puget sound. I also understand theres half of a swimming pool built on BNSF property that a land owner has encroached on.

    2. “And the sprawl which may be the cause some of these slides is serious business as well.”

      You mean the sprawl which tax-subsidized Sounder trains encourage?

    3. sorry, but no, thats not the cause in this location

      let me meet you halfway, increasing density may be the cause crime rate increases

      1. It’s more Eyman’s fault than it is Sounder’s. I-695’s kneecapping of transit expansion fueled freeway-based sprawl more than Sounder North’s pitiful ridership.

  2. It would seem at some point after years and years all the mud would have slid down, as the cliffs are eroded further away from the shore.

    Or are they continually rebuilding them with landfill every time a mudslide happens?

    1. First, the way the slides break off from the hillsides tends to leave vertical or nearly-vertical surfaces at the head of a side, thus paving the way for another slide.

      Second, the area in the video looks like an old beach cliff that now has manmade fill at the base of it. That fill has been there for maybe 125 years. Before then, wave action kept washing away the bases of slides, keeping the whole slope steep and slide-prone as a whole. 125 years is a blink of an eye on the geologic scale. It would take many millennia of sliding for that slope to end up gradual enough that it was no longer slide-prone.

      Third, you might have noticed there’s a railroad at the base of that bluff :-). So whenever a slide comes down, it’s not allowed to sit there and build up the base of the hill: the railroad comes and cleans it up, because they want to unbury the track and keep running trains.

      1. I think the nature of the geology of these hillsides is that they sluff material always creating near vertical planes. So, long before the railroad arrived the bluffs were vertical, and further west.

        They can be stabilized, with a varying combination of dewatering, pinning, retaining, slope flattening, etc.

        Or, lifting the tracks up and letting the slides run underneath replicating the natural processes that originally took place. I wonder which is cheaper?

      2. ” I wonder which is cheaper?”

        Cheaper is having BNSF let Sound Transit pay for all track improvements with taxpayer money

        choo choo!

      3. Fortunately, BigDonLives, we didn’t do that. (We just overpaid for permanent use easements; BNSF still does all the maintenance.)

      4. Well I guess I am starting to see it now.

        So really, no matter how far back the edge of the cliff moves, the mud “slides down” and gets to the tracks eventually.

        I was thinking erosion would solve the problem, but if you think of the mud as liquid dirt, it’s like having a wall of water always ready to “flood” the tracks.

        No easy answer short of building an entire “retaining wall” miles long similar to a dam for real water.

  3. I know mudslides are difficult to deal with, but after many years of mudslides closing Hwy 166 north of Port Orchard they have finally (knock on wood) been able to stabilize the problem areas. They’ve used a combination of rock and injected material to stabilize the hills and have added drains so the water doesn’t collect in the problem areas.

    Though of course that’s one stretch of highway and who knows how many problem areas there are on the tracks stretching from Seattle to Bellingham.

    1. “who knows how many problem areas there are on the tracks stretching from Seattle to Bellingham.”

      BNSF probably has a pretty good idea by now.


        Four slide zones between Vancouver, WA and Kelso (fixable)
        Four slide zones between Kelso and Centralia (fixable)
        Ten slide zones between Olympia and Tacoma (some will probably be bypassed by the Pt. Defiance Bypass, others likely fixable)

        THIRTY-FIVE slide zones between Seattle and Everett, and on top of that the rail line there is going to be drowned by the rising sea level.

        An inland route is needed. How often does the Burke-Gilman Trail get covered by mudslides?

  4. My (now-deceased) grandparents lived on Beach Drive in West Seattle, and later in the Alki neighborhood. I can’t count the number of times there were mudslides from the bluffs in their neighborhood (usually made worse in areas that allowed development above that took out hillside trees). One nearly took out their house (on the road just across from the water) but did most of its damage to the house next door. Mudslides are serious business.

    If this is going to be the only passenger train route north of Seattle, whether for Sounder or Amtrak, it simply has to be raised above the slide area or moved inland.

    1. Raising the tracks above the slide area won’t stop something like that tree from taking out the metal or concrete holding up the tracks and causing the whole thing to collapse. That’s a lot of kinetic energy by the time the tree reaches the bottom.

      1. Sorry, I don’t have a PE licence. It’s just an educated guess. But thanks for the ad hom response. Do you have a PE licence?

      2. The slide energy can be diverted around the track supports with robust engineering and design. Slide debris, like trees, traveling down with the soils can be caught by fencing if it is taller than the space under the tracks.

        If the tracks are being lifted, no reason they get put down right up against the hillside – build them just off-shore of the existing tracks gaining some space between the toe of the slope and the tracks.

      3. build them just off-shore of the existing tracks

        Yeah, maybe a hundred years ago. Try getting that one past the Shoreline Management Act today! Uh, we want to build a miles long trestle over which we’re going to run coal, oil, pesticides, etc. pulled by diesel locomotives. OK? No problem Warren, we’ll just write it up as an artificial reef. You’re good to go.

      4. This is already an largely an artificial shoreline, built with fill in an era before environmental review. You could probably make changes to it relatively easily, and might even be able to make ecological improvements to what’s there now.

        I’m not sure which would be more affordable, though. Building an expensive reinforced trestle on the existing shoreline that can withstand mudslide damage, or building the offshore pier to withstand storms.

    2. No room to lay new tracks inland. That should have been done 120 years ago. There was little development then and in 20/20 hindsight would have been much better had they done so. There is no land left to build any more tracks, let alone a double track mainline, between Everett and Seattle.

      1. Do it anyway. Railroads still have the power of eminent domain and can just buy out and knock down the houses if the rail line is considered necessary by the Surface Transportation Board.

        BNSF is very likely to have to do this for freight traffic sooner or later in any case. It’s very shortsighted of them to have sold the East Side corridor.

        The alternative is to cease rail traffic from Vancouver to Seattle entirely, which I suggest would be bad.

        There is too much wrong with the Everett-Seattle route to fix it, and it’s just going to get worse due to sea level rise. It makes no sense to build a causeway through the ocean for train service.

      2. It’s very shortsighted of them to have sold the East Side corridor.

        Quoted for truth. With the coal trains coming I bet they are wishing they still had a bypass option. But, you know, it improved their finances for that quarter, so I’m sure no one is upset about it.

        Railbanking status means it’s still possible for them to reactivate the eastside line, but they would have to spend some serious money on it, and it’s worse terrain than the coast line.

      3. The Interurban right-of-way is mostly intact from about Dayton and 85th well into Snoho County – now used by Seattle City Light for its high tension lines.

  5. Couldn’t they just put a concrete wall? The wall could be dug in pretty deep in to the soil for stability.

    1. The bluffs need a mix of retaining methods. A singular wall is immensely expensive for the ~30-mile length of the problem.

    1. The line has also been there for a very long time. When it was built, longevity wasn’t really a concern.

    2. Heh.

      It was built there because it was cheap. Seattle was desperate to be the terminus of a main-line railroad (the Northern Pacific had snubbed Seattle in favor of Tacoma) and successfully lobbied the state to give Great Northern the beach between Everett (which GN was toying with the idea of making their terminus) and Seattle to convince the GN to make Seattle their terminus.

  6. How about if they move the line to the SR 99 right of way? Seems like it would serve a lot more people and should be the high speed rail alignment that goes through the seattle metro area.

    1. Or the Link / I-5 right of way, where we’re already building new railway. Of course, we’d need a connection between Interbay and the Maple Leaf Link tunnel portal near Northgate…

    2. This does nothing for freight mobility. Not to mention, that’s prohibitively expensive just for commuter and intercity passenger rail service.

    3. Not necessarily – I don’t see why freight trains couldn’t use the new tracks, though priority would of course be given to passenger rail. Of course, it would be expensive… but I’d like to see just how expensive v. time saved from not being subject to mudslides.

      1. BNSF wouldn’t permit a rerouted line to be built with a grade exceeding 1.0% (the ruling grade on the Vancouver-Tacoma-Seattle line that carries the heaviest trains on BNSF’s PNW network). Here’s your first homework assignment for routing a mixed freight/passenger line along I-5 or SR 99: Find a 1.0% ramp from the Snohomish River at Everett up to the top of the ridge, then back down to water level at Seattle. (Hint: Ground elevation around the I-5/I-405 interchange is about EL=390′. The grade to climb from essentially sea level to this point would exceed seven miles. Good luck!)

      2. Fact-checking myself: Actual ruling grade of Napavine Hill is 0.9%, making the “ramp” approximately 8 miles long. Coincidentally, this is the about same length as Cascade Tunnel. Cost of building a double-track tunnel under the ridge >>>>> constructing “mud-sheds” along the entire Everett-Ballard segment to divert debris flows over the track directly into the sound. (“Mud-sheds” are pure fantasy invented solely for the purpose of comparison.)

      3. DWHonan: The low grade inland route from Everett to Seattle is called the Eastside Rail Line and the Burke-Gilman Trail.

      4. I’m pretty sure the line between Woodinville and Snohomish would not be ‘low grade’ as we are discussing here.

      5. Paul’s correct: Woodinville Sub ruling grades are 1.8% northbound (Woodinville to Maltby, 5 miles) and 1.7% southbound (Snohomish to Maltby, 5 miles). Also, good luck getting Woodinville, Bothell et al. to approve use of the corridor for a heavy-haul freight mainline.

      6. good luck getting Woodinville, Bothell et al. to approve

        Actually they don’t have to approve. They can fight all they want but if a RR operator successfully petitions the Feds (I think it’s National Surface Transportation Board or Commission) to reestablish freight service the local communities are powerless to stop it. Auburn fought the re-opening of Stampede Pass like hell and it got them nowhere. It’s actually Kirkland followed by Redmond that pitched the biggest tizzy fit over freight service on the tracks. But even if some huge disaster closed the existing mainline for months/years on end BNSF would likely just make heavier use of the mountain passes and Canadian.

      7. Freight speed is slower than passenger speed. Additionally, the purpose of Link is to run every ten minutes or more. It would be difficult for freight trains to fit between those without slowing down Link. What would trains with large containers do when they reach the subway? And can Link’s elevated segments even fit a freight train, much less carry its weight?

      8. Good point, Bernie; I was thinking more along the lines of the communities would putting up a massive fight over the upgrades and new connections needed to bring such a project to fruition.

        Mike Orr: I interpreted Emmanuel’s original question as dealing with moving the BNSF line to the 99 corridor, not having shared use with Link. Shared use would be fundamentally untenable due to Link’s smaller rail size, more restrictive geometry and, as you observe, structures that aren’t designed to accommodate a freight train live load.

      9. It is true, unfortunately, that for their coal traffic plans BNSF would probably shrug its shoulders about losing the Everett-Seattle section. The segment from Everett to Seattle is simply not necessary for the BNSF coal route, which runs between ports north of Everett and the Northern Transcon (Empire Builder route). Coal doesn’t run north-south by rail.

        It is an interesting question what freight DOES run from Seattle to Everett; I have no idea how to find out, but if anyone figures it out let me know.

      10. Currently, the coal trains are routed along the Columbia, and then go north from Vancouver(WA), so yes, they use that track between Seattle and Everett.

      11. To answer the question you posed, a lot of intermodal traffic goes north out of Seattle to Everett and then east.

  7. Ugh. The northern alignment drives me mad. Upgrading this is super expensive to prevent slides. Don’t get me wrong, I support the investment, but there simply aren’t enough $$$ to plug a hole in this mess.

  8. The sr 99 alignment would be PERFECT for high speed rail. Maybe tear out the road from seattle to Everett, put high speed tracks( no stations), and rebuilt the old highway.

      1. HSR is a different animal than freight rail; short stretches of steeper grades are feasible given the power-to-weight ratio of those trains (I recall riding Eurostar across France a decade or so ago and being surprised at the roller-coaster profile of sections of the line). I don’t have any data on passenger trains, but BNSF typically assigns 1.0 to 2.0 horsepower per ton for most of its trains.

    1. Tear out the road? There are settled neighborhoods next to it. It’s one of the few districts for big-box businesses in the city. Shoreline has made it its front yard.

      HSR will have to go on I-5 somehow.

  9. If passengers on Sounder trains ever get injured in a mudslide it will certainly be Sound Transit’s fault for continuing Sounder trains with full knowledge that mudslides could derail one of their trains at pretty much any time, particularly in fall and winter.

    What is the point of Sounder north? Sound Transit is just bound and determined to waste taxpayer dollars?

    1. I’m pretty sure “what is the point?” was rather thoroughly discussed in posts around the time the COP report was issued a couple months ago.

  10. If you are concerned about the idea of 18 mile-long coal trains a day using these same tracks and potentially derailing or backing up downtown traffic and transit for long periods of time please share your thoughts and concerns with the environmental review board, which is currently evaluating the proposed coal train project at

    All comments must be submitted by January 21, 2013 to be considered. It only takes a minute to comment and your suggestion or concern could make a huge difference in the lives of Washingtonians for the next 50 years. Ask everyone you can to comment about the proposed coal trains before January 21, 2013 as well.

    For more information on why this project is dangerous for public health and the environment you can visit

    Speak now (by January 21, 2013) or forever hold your breath.

    1. I’m not sure why anyone would be concerned. Honestly I don’t think most people would even notice. We only have a handful of grade crossings around here, and I’d suspect that most people living here rarely if ever use them.

    2. Or just substitute the, soon to happen, four oil trains per day to the refineries at Anacortes and Cherry Point. Maybe they can just install the oil booms all along the line now, for when one gets shoved into the Sound.

      1. Tank cars are currently being replaced with double-hulled tank cars (a bit like what was done with tankers in previous decades). So the likelihood of spills is really dependent on whether the new double-hulled tank cars or the old single-hulled tank cars are used….

    1. This is the most important comment, by far, that Norman has posted on this blog.

      Add it to the video, and it is quite clear that shutting down Sounder North NOW, and not restarting it for a long, long time, is an urgent public safety issue.

      Oh, and allowing oil cars on that track is also nuts.

      1. By presenting that argument, do you also advocate shutting down I-90 and US 2 over the Cascades during winter to eliminate any possibility of an avalanche taking out cars? Should the province of Alberta close down Highway 3 because Turtle Mountain (location of the Frank Slide) is still standing? Risk is inherent in any form of transportation we engage in, and we need to find ways to manage the risk, not run around flailing our arms in the air screaming that the sky is falling.

      2. People who drive put their lives in the Creator’s hands just by getting on the freeway, and it has little to do with natural disasters. Some of us who stick to transit do so, in part, because we don’t care to take such daily risks. It’s the same reason I don’t bike.

        You may notice from the video that that slide didn’t happen at some random moment. It occured as a train was passing. Maybe the vibrations helped loosen the soil (but that’s just a lay guess). I doubt anyone is going to make a case there was no correlation between the two events.

        I don’t advocate keeping open dangerous highways (and that includes the viaduct and SR 520). That’s what some disingenuous politicians do. They tell us replacing those highways is a “public safety issue”, while keeping them open.

        Is I-90 at risk of having its users wiped out by a natural disaster? If that is the case, I’d like to know.

        Thanks for the question.

      3. There are plenty of dangerous stretches of highway at risk for slides, but not many that we encourage people to use for their daily commute. Driver error causes most of our commuter freeway deaths, not the natural environment.

    2. So it looks like we should ban all uphill development and forest clearing activities, selling it as a public safety improvement?

      1. Well, given that we’ve turned nearly all our forests in this state into ugly monoculture tree farms or towns, the question is moot. But deforestation certainly comes with a large carbon footprint. I doubt there are many fans of deforestation on this blog anyway.

        More on-topic, I do think development activities above the Sounder rail line should be tighly regulated due to the proven risk of negative externalities. If the sky, er mud, is falling, then I think it is okay for people to start pointing at the mud, and getting out of the way.

      2. Maybe at some point in the past, it would have been the cheapest way to improve the situation. That ship has sailed, we’ve had lawns up to the cliffside for decades now. Assuming for a moment that it wasn’t a political impossibility (all hail dictator Chris), you could reclaim and reforest all the land, but the logistics and expense of doing it all would be enormous. Can you imagine what just relocation costs would be in this region, even before you get into actually restoring the land? A retaining wall megaproject for the whole line would have to be cheaper.

  11. You know I had an idea, if they built snowsheds to protect from avalanches why cant they build mudsheds to protect from mudslides? Maybe if you put something large enough at the base of the hill it will eventually fill in and stabilize itself.

    1. It’s not a *bad* idea *per se*, and could be used for some of the inland slide zones, but given that this route along the beach is also going to be subjected to sea level rise (so the water is going to come up over the tracks in the next storm) this isn’t a great investment

      1. Why not raise the tracks? There’s plenty of fill material around. Instead of clearing away the mudslides, rebuild on top of them. :)

        Well, obviously that won’t work because the slide debris wouldn’t be suitable subgrade and they would need to assure that there was adequate drainage.

  12. Just told my state legislators and the new Senate Transportation Committee chairman and Jenni Hogan:

    Just watch the YouTube at starting at 1:04.

    Just watch please. Especially you, State Senator King and chairman of the State Senate Transportation Committee please.

    Now tell me please why are we taxpayers subsidizing at over $50 per rider a double decker passenger train that could end up very easily on Jenni Hogan’s KIRO 7 traffic reports very acutely much?!?

    Just shut Sounder North down and spend the money on McCleary compliance. NOW please.


    1. I doubt the state could just appropriate the Sound Transit funding that operates Sounder North (even if they did shut it down) much less spend it on non-transit budget items. The taxpayers in the ST district are the ones paying for Sounder North, not the state.

      What the state does pay for is Amtrak Cascades, and WSDOT is already making investments to slide-proof the corridor.

      1. True but the state government gives money to Sound Transit does it not?

        Perhaps a condition of future funding is the closure of Sounder North. Time to send a message that our money is limited, that the McCleary decision is going to wreak havoc on DSHS, WSDOT, State Parks and the like to pay for education so we need to cut somewhere.

      2. The State does not “give” money to ST. In fact it’s pretty much the opposite. ST has to pay a hefty price to lease WSDOT ROW.

      3. The state “allows” ST to go to the voters to raise a certain maximum amount of sales tax or other specified taxes. The state’s ostensible reason for this is to coordinate the tax rates between lower levels of government so that, e.g., Seattle doesn’t set an astronomical rate that prevents King County from raising basic revenue.

      4. In an ideal world, the state would fund a basic level of transit — or even a comprehensive level of transit — for the same reason that state highways exist. The state sees highways as a basic necessity, so why doesn’t it treat transit the same way? Other countries do.

  13. You know if the ESR had been repaired and upgraded instead of being Severed, and shattered, All of the pasenger rail could be detoured arround this geologically unstable area (and Seattle could hae pushed the 18 Mile long coal trains into someone elses back yard)

    1. Indeed. The Eastside Rail Line is the obvious solution to this problem. For passenger trains to Seattle… well, that’s what the “Burke-Gilman Trail” route was for.

      1. Yes. The eastside rail line from Renton through Bellevue, Kirkland, Woodinville and Snohomish used to go all the way to Sumas. The Burlington Northern used to divert long freights via that line when slides or derailments disrupted the regular route. As Nathanael alluded to, the Great Northern used to re-route passenger trains and freights on the “Burke-Gilman” line. I used to see long freights through Kirkland in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. It is unfortunate in a number of ways that those routes are no longer viable for rail.

      2. But the Burke-Gilman is very well used and even becomes congested at rush hour. That’s thousands of people served more every day than an Amtrak train, and it has allowed the UW to grow into a large university and anchor an urban center. How would hundreds of students and hospital staff cross the street if freight trains are running through there? So on the one hand we can have a regionally significant bike trail that’s used all day, by some people every day, vs Amtrak trains a few times a day that people ride a few times a year at most, and if it’s only a contingency route, the Amtrak trains would be there only occasionally anyway.

        The Eastside rail corridor is a different beast. It may or may not have made a good backup route or main route for Amtrak. But the route is single-track and had a lot of deferred maintenance.

      3. Mike Orr,

        Amtrak trains a few times a year. The trail also would have value as a rail commuter route today. Especially if it is so great as a pedestrian/bike route today, perhaps? Water under the bridge, now, of course. I am not criticizing its use as a trail. Just pointing out that the Great Northern used it as back-up, even though it was Northern Pacific track.

        The eastside route, however, would be the ideal one to have kept. Unfortunately, it withered after the Burlington Northern merger in 1970. Also, water under the bridge. Its days as a rail route are history.

      4. I support reserving the Eastside corridor for both commuter rail and trail. But the Burke-Gilman trail is a unique central asset. Where would the bicyclists and peds go if the trail were removed? Onto hillier streets with cars and intersections. And how could you fit both rail and trail on the B-G right of way? And what commuter line could run there? Bothell to Ballard? Is that sufficient demand for commuter rail? The byciclists use arbitrary segments of the trail where a commuter train wouldn’t have stations.

      5. Yeah, water under the bridge. (Although the popularity of the Burke-Gilman trail raises the question: could you put more people on that if it were a rapid transit rail line?)

        Anyway, it’s beginning to look to me like the best hope for trains to Vancouver, BC is:
        (1) to rebuild the Eastside Rail Line
        (2) to build a Bellevue station connecting with Link
        (3) to skip Seattle entirely

        With the Burke-Gilman off limits, the coastal route doomed, and any other route north from Seattle spectacularly expensive and disruptive (new bridge across the Ship Canal… housing… a zillion overpasses and underpasses on I-5….), this seems like the best bet to me.

  14. Ramp,

    Your post would have more authority if you knew which railroad owned the BGT. It was not the Great Northern, which owned the Sound-side line with all the mudslides. It was the Northern Pacific.

    The Renton-Sumas line was the NP’s connection to the CP and (through the BC Hydro) the CN. The branch to Seattle from Woodinville (including the BGT) was the their way of avoiding a big double-back loop on its passenger trains to Bellingham.

  15. Does anybody reading this know for sure if the four Sounder North Line trains ran southbound on the usual schedule Monday December 17 a few hours before the mudslide shown in the video above? Or was a 48 hour moratorium in effect early on that Monday morning?

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