Photo by AvgeekJoe

Earlier this week, WSDOT announced that work has finally commenced on mudslide prevention efforts along the BNSF tracks between Seattle and Everett. Last winter’s record-setting mudslide season marred Sounder North Line, forcing the cancellation of 170 trips and obliterating ridership. The slides had also been partly responsible for a flurry of bad publicity that made the news rounds last fall.

Over the past year, WSDOT and BNSF have worked to isolate six problem spots along the North Line, two of which are set to be fixed by mid-October. The work includes hillside stabilization, building retaining walls, drainage control, and other measures aimed at preventing the slopes from being oversaturated during periods of sustained rain. $16.1 million in stimulus money is expected to fund the projects.

According to the Everett Herald:

One of the hillsides is near the border of Mukilteo and Everett, Melonas said. The other is at the south end of Mukilteo near the Pacific Queen shipwreck.

Four more trouble spots in Everett and Mukilteo are targeted for fixes. These projects are still being designed and won’t be done this winter, but all the work is scheduled to be done by early 2016, said Alice Fiman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

Seeing as this is one of those instances where whatever hurts/helps freight rail also hurts/helps passenger rail, the multitude of stakeholders (BNSF, WSDOT, Amtrak, Sound Transit) here may actually be helping spur the urgency of the project. On top of the obvious benefit to North Line service, these improvements may also be some of the most critical in establishing a reliable corridor for future high-speed intercity rail.

51 Replies to “WSDOT Announces Start of Mudslide Prevention Work”

  1. A reliable corridor situated in the most useless route imaginable, and talk about building your foundation on sand!

    How are we ever going to get Portland to Vancouver medium speed rail if we keep having to shore up a ridiculous, serpentine seaside route from mud puddles.

    Let’s ramrod the thing right up I-5 like it should have been, or better yet, take it up the Eastside, away from water.

    1. You know it’s to bad that Kirkland is being allowed to pull out the rails that would have let it go to the eastside.

      1. I’m not sure why people are up in arms about this. The physical rails will be gone, but the corridor is still railbanked, so rail service can be returned there at any time in the future. Plus, I don’t know why you’d want to keep the existing rails– it’s all single-track anyway.

      2. Each time Sounder got extended, ST had to replace the tracks with new tracks capable of supporting the Sounder trainsets. This actually reduces the cost of extending modern passenger rail, should it ever be decided to build one here (not that I expect that to happen any time soon).

      3. Sherwin
        As to why a corridor with rails in place is preferable to a railbanked corridor.
        Once the rails are gone, it will be much more difficult politically to restore them. NiMBYism will have taken ahold, and all of the neighbors, will fight harder against the re-railing then they would have if the rails had been left in place

        It is also (at least it is my understanding) that it is cheaper to refurbish a rail corridor with rails in place, then if the rails have been removed.

      4. Jim Cusick’s point is important. The Burke-Gilman, connecting to the East Side route, is actually the correct route for trains leaving Seattle to the north, as it avoids most of the mudslide risk and most of the sea level rise risk. It is explicitly railbanked, IIRC.

        Are you ready to campaign to lay tracks and evict the bicycle trail? Do you think this is easier, politically, than replacing tracks, if the old tracks were still there? Mmm-hmmm.

      5. Yay, it’s another stupid Kirkland argument!

        The Kirkland corridor is single-tracked and any serious passenger rail project using it would need to move a bunch of earth to double-track it and totally rebuild the tracks that are there. That’s if any serious passenger rail project wants to use it, decades in the future.

        The idea that we’d be better off had we kept tracks on the Burke-Gilman corridor just in case the US finally learns how to do inter-city rail correctly by 2020 is ludicrous.

      6. Yes, Al, if you assume that the US is incompetent at building rail, then it is better to rip up the rails. This seems almost tautological.

      7. The Burke-Gilman Trail has been open 35 years. Do you think that in those 35 years, if those tracks had been kept, that any passenger rail would be running on them? That we’d have reconnected them to Interbay and downtown Seattle and connected them to Everett for the run north to Vancouver?

        I don’t think there’s a snowflake’s chance in hell of that. Meanwhile the Burke-Gilman Trail allows actual real breathing non-hypothetical people to travel east-west in Seattle (something that’s a minor miracle in itself). Say by 2028 we turned the corner on inter-city rail incompetence in this country and built a decent service between Seattle and Vancouver along this route. Would that have been worth 50 years of an abandoned corridor north of the ship canal, to have a service that won’t even begin to capture all those people living in freeway neighborhoods in the suburbs that will drive to Vancouver no matter what the train does? Inter-city transit is just not that important if the arrangement of the cities being connected doesn’t support it. Intra-city improvements are really important, and the Burke was unequivocally one of those, one that has been intimately tied to the general revitalization of areas north of the Ship Canal.

      8. The Burke Gilman ROW connects to what turns into the Centennial trail and it ends up in Sumas, WAY east of Vancouver. If I recall correctly, passenger service to Vancouver on this route ended in the 1920’s or maybe even earlier because the shoreline route was more direct. If you wanted to cut the corner, that route would be from Sedro Woolley to Burlington and you’d still face the Chuckanut route to Bellingham.
        Having just ridden my bike to Vancouver I can assure you there are two BIG hills on the eastern route, one between Woodinville and Snohomish and another between Snohomish and Arlington. That’s why that route was abandoned in the first place and the connection to Interbay torn out back around 1970.
        You can dream about putting tracks back on the Burke Gilman but the market spoke 40 years ago. it was an even worse route than the beach. It’s a beautiful rural ride now once you get out of Woodinville which means – no passengers!

      9. What baffles me, Nathanael, is that for all of your encyclopedic historical knowledge of U.S. rail corridors, urban and otherwise, you sometimes make incredible errors of pseudo-prescriptive judgment that betray an overwhelming ignorance of facts on the ground. I appreciate you, but this habit makes me want to demand that you leave Ithaca once in a while to actually see the places in whose future transit situations you take such an intense interest.

        The Burke-Gilman has literally hundreds of grade crossings, including countless ones at major arterial streets. The four miles from the UW campus until the trail exits Sand Point are exceedingly twisty. The approach to the former drawbridge crossing at W Ewing Place, to connect to the Interbay main line, hasn’t existed in decades. And the UW is about to embark upon a complete reconstruction of its section of the trail, because the ROW is not wide enough to handle two-way bike and pedestrian traffic, much less modern two-way passenger rail!

        No matter how problematic the shoreline routing may be — and I, for one, find it unconscionable that no one from WSDOT is willing to stand up to the “property rights” purists in the media by calling out the real cause of the mudslides and going after the property owners above for prevention actions and restitution dollars — the fact is that the Burke-Gilman routing is one hundred times worse. This, as you like to say, is a “non-starter”.

      10. I can’t believe people are seriously proposing to put trains back on the Burke-Gilman trail. Are bicycles and pedestrians unimportant? This is the only right of way available for a trail from Ballard to UW and from UW to Kenmore that’s completely separated from traffic except for occasional crossings. You want to take that away for a few heavy rail trains running a few times a day? The north mainline should be moved, but not to the Burke-Gilman trail.

        The Eastside corridor is different because there’s nothing nearly as dense as UW, Wallingford, or Ballard within ten miles of it. The Eastside trail will be lucky to get a quarter as much use.

      11. No one is “seriously” proposing such a thing.

        Nathanael is opining from ignorance in remote Ithaca, NY.

    2. Several months ago, there was a discussion about this somewhere on this blog. I advocated running the line parallel to Link and I-5, so it could also serve as Lynnwood Link express tracks. Unfortunately, other people cited the maximum grade requirement for intercity rail tracks and pointed out it’d be almost impossible to get from Interbay to the Maple Leaf tunnel portal on that grade.

      I suppose the only way around that would be if it turns out that grade limitation only applies to freight trains – I’m not sure. Or, perhaps we could just have Seattle’s northbound train station at Northgate?

      1. Light rail trainsets may not share — or even cross — trackage hosting locomotive hauled heavy rail trains. There is simply too much kinetic energy in such a train; a collision would obliterate a light rail vehicle.

      2. For a high speed rail system, we only need one station in Seattle. If Northgate is where it makes sense to put it, then I have no objection. If we have to move it somewhere else, then put it where it makes sense. Just because King Street/IDS is where most of our lines meet at the moment does not mean that it must also be the high speed rail/bullet train station for Seattle.

        I find the BNSF alignment a bit dubious right now given all of the problems that corridor has. I think we will want a new corridor for high speed rail where ever we can find the space to put it. We will also want to make sure that whatever corridor we choose does not prevent us from running even faster trains through there later, otherwise the infrastructure will not be worth investing in.

      3. “Light rail trainsets may not share — or even cross — trackage hosting locomotive hauled heavy rail trains. There is simply too much kinetic energy in such a train; a collision would obliterate a light rail vehicle.”

        Complete nonsense. There are grade crossings in the Philadelphia region between the heavy freight train lines and the urban trolley line.

        It works just fine. There’s never been a crash. The secret is SIGNALLING.

      4. Oh, also, look up the RiverLine in New Jersey (they use “time separation” for their signalling, which is overkill), and the northern end of the Newark City Subway, which is shared with freight trains.

        Or look at Karlsruhe in Germany, which pioneered “tram-train” running.

        Oh, there’s another tram-train diamond in Tampa.

        There are no safety issues with running very heavy trains and light rail on the same tracks, and even less with diamonds. You just have to get the signalling right.

      5. Nathanael,

        I am very surprised that the River Line was allowed to cross heavy rail tracks, since it was recently built. At this time my understanding is that Federal regulations forbid it. The others you mention are either outside the country or long-built lines and therefore grandfathered.

        And I will bet some actual money that CSX line being crossed has ten mile an hour switchers two or three times a week. Look at the rail; it’s little sturdier than the streetcar rails crossing them. And “Yes, I do understand that the heavier rail in a diamond determines the rail thicknesses for all trackage”. I mean the off-street trackage in the background. It’s 100# rail at the most. This is hardly a trunk line the trolley is crossing.

        I seriously doubt that you would get FRA approval for a wildcat scheme to have LRT vehicles running “express” (the proposal) on trackage shared with even emerging level trains.

      6. @Charles,

        If you put the station at Northgate then you have to connect the Portland side to Northgate. You have solved nothing.

        Besides the point HSR is city center to city center connections.

      7. An HSR station would pretty certainly be in SODO, because that’s where inexpensive land and space for a station is. My understanding is that HSR stations are quite large, so there’s probably not room at King Street Station for it, but there’s plenty of room a bit further south.

    3. We had rail along the I-5 corridor from Lynnwood to Everett. It was called the interurban.

      1. Yep. Its not usable as a rail corridor anymore in its current state though. I’ve ridden the whole path a number of times on bicycle and though there are clearly some parts that are very wide and could be usable as both a bicycle path and a rail corridor in the future, the entirety of the corridor is full of a number of problems that make it difficult to use:

        – It tends to run through less connected parts of town (with the exception of Everett and Alderwood mall).
        – It clearly was buried by I-5 for long segments in Snohomish county.
        – It crosses a number of streets at weird angles
        – Some parts of the original route appear to be on private(?) property now.
        – Some sections are too narrow for both rail and bicycles (and getting us bicycles to give up one of the more popular and useful routes would be a big fight for sure).
        – Some major roads now cut off sections of the previous route (205th and 104th in Edmonds).

    4. John, Everyone,

      “Ramrod[ding] the thing straight up I-5” will cost several billion dollars at a minimum.

      I-5 is pretty flat when one is driving on it, at least, between Northgate and Everett Mall, excepting the valley at 205th/244th. But south of Northgate and north of Everett Mall there are significant elevation changes which will require a two mile tunnel or deep cut at the north and at a minimum a four mile tunnel through an urban area at the south end. That assumes that one connects to the existing tracks at Interbay rather than to the existing BNSF tunnel which would add two very difficult miles of tunnel.

      Then, there’s the problem of land acquisition and construction. Link is going to take the east side of the I-5 right of way, so that means that Amtrak would then have to be on the west side. Ah, but Link will be switching over to the west side north of Montlake Terrace, in order to serve Lynnwood and then apparently will leave the I-5 corridor.

      While it’s possible to design the new Link ROW through southern Snohomish County to be a good neighbor with an HSR facility, the curve radii would necessarily be much wider than required for LRT, adding to land acquisition costs.

      I say “HSR facility” because no one is going to vote to build such an expensive facility for an “Emerging” class line. “Emerging” is all the rage because it can be done using existing rights of way, especially back in the flat, uncongested Midwest, and that is what the level of traffic between Seattle and Vancouver could support.

      They’re cities in different countries not in a fiscal union between which air travel is about a dozen smallish flights a day. Right now we have two small trains a day (barely) which often run with ample room. There is vastly insufficient demand for HSR in the Vancouver BC-Seattle corridor.

      Does it make sense to improve the current line’s capacity and add some trains over the next decade, if we can pay for them? Yes. But to spend four or five billion dollars to build a new heavy rail corridor alongside I-5 would be foolish.

      1. Spend the money and improve the line north of Marysville. The property is much cheaper, so you can achieve high speed (125mph) straight sections for much less money. You will get more bang for you buck, and you will get to Vancouver faster. The same thing goes south of Olympia. Urban construction is expensive.

      2. P.S.

        And Bellinghammer’s points about North of Burlington are well-made. Chuckanut mountain is a mighty barrier, but to choose the SR9 route would lose the only respectable trip generator on the route between the end-cities.

        And finally, just look at the difference in auto traffic on I-5 north Everett versus south of Tacoma. Yes, there are lots of trucks in both places, many the same ones if you look a few hours apart, but the auto traffic is much greater to the south. That’s where we should focus our intercity rail activties, between Seattle and Portland.

      3. Some time in the future there will be fewer cars, and then we can convert 2-4 lanes on I-5 to something else, most likely rail and utilities.

  2. Oh, man, 2016? Does it really take that long? We will have U-Link by then. Well, the people of Snohomish County thank you for squeezing the work into this decade.

  3. While this work is clearly necessary, I can’t help but wonder if we are investing in the wrong corridor. I agree with John Bailo, investing the money in putting a high speed rail corridor up the BNSF line seems pretty ill advised with its placement. Given that large portions of the north end of the line are right on the waterfront, erosion will be a significant issue going forward even with the proposed fixes.

    Also, if we were to try to put a high speed rail corridor in, we would want to avoid having to go through places like downtown Edmonds, Mukilteo and Marysville where you can’t have trains running at over 60 mph passing through town. Running up the I-5 corridor is a much better idea. We will just have to have adequate transit connecting to the limited number of stops on that line so people will be able to get to it. High speed rail needs existing transit systems to feed them anyway.

    Since the light rail is going to be running up I-5 anyway, it seems that this will make transfers much easier.

    1. But again, like I posted upthread, how are you going to get there from the waterfront at any halfway-reasonable grade?

      1. The only options I’ve heard are all very pie-in-the-sky, products of beer chats. One would be to have a higher elevation station than King St in order to avoid having to ascend from sea level in the first place. This could be done with London-style disconnected termini, with a north terminus maybe in Belltown near the soon to be unused Battery Street Tunnel. Or you could repurpose the express lanes for rail and build your Seattle station underground near 5th/Columbia (220′ elevation).

        The most outlandish idea I’ve heard is a cut-and-almost-cover (retained cut) on Aurora, building a double track railway at varying depths below Aurora to even out the grades, pushing the road footprint out into the current setbacks where feasible, and cantilevering 1 or 2 road lanes where you can’t push the road outward (like near 80th St).

        You’d also have to deal with the quick descent from South Everett to the Snohomish flats, not an easy engineering task and you’d deal with a decade plus of wetland permitting hell.

        North of Everett things could be pretty easy until Burlington. Then you’d have to decide whether to tunnel under Chuckanut or use the SR9 corridor. The former would retain a station in central Bellingham and set you up for a quick run into New Westminster or Vancouver via a White Rock Bypass. The latter would lose Bellingham but perhaps significantly sweeten the deal for Canada, with potential stations in Abbotsford and maybe even connecting to the WCE tracks near Mission

        Again, all speculative dreaming.

    2. It’s kind of hard to see that double-decking the Aurora Bridge or repurposing the express lanes would make any sense for the value of having a high-speed rail corridor to Vancouver compared to what else the money it would cost might be spent on. I suspect the incremental number of people using this, compared to current Amtrak, in its first century, would be less than the number that would use a subway to Ballard in six months.

  4. Whether we like it or not, this IS the northward rail corridor for at least another decade, probably two. We spend now to live with its foibles until we have the courage and fortitude to build a modern higher speed double track railway inland.

    1. I do not disagree. I do doubt this will be usable ever as a high speed rail corridor, but its certainly the only intercity option we have at the moment.

      Link will be a better commuting option for most of us eventually (and it will be far better local service) but this line, with as few runs as it will ever offer is the only “express” intercity rail we will have until we build a new corridor.

      Once we build out to Everett and Tacoma, we might be able to reconfigure link to allow some express service (skipping stations) and we might get some additional speed out, but it will not replace a real high speed rail corridor.

      1. Now that the permanent version of the Sound Transit overflow lot at Edmonds (with clear signage), is finished, it is seeing about 30 cars a day.

        The parking lot vigilantes can take a well deserved vacation.

        Now potential North Sounder commuters have no excuses.

        Fill this lot, and start charging$$ !!

    2. What are your thoughts about the potential coal trains?
      If that becomes a reality, which given enough $$$, and
      loud enough chanting of “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs”, is a possibility.

    3. Given the huge costs involved with building a whole new ROW, what we’ve got now is what we will have for the foreseeable future. And I mean well beyond two decades. If we were really going to have a new railroad route to the north in two decades, we would have already started planning it.

  5. It is looking like the travel time between Everett and downtown Seattle will be a near dead heat between North Sounder and North Link. Throw in as little as 3-minute peak headway and a station actually in downtown Everett, and ridership on North Sounder will disintegrate.

      1. To happen any faster (before 2030), the folks up in Snohomish county who want rail would actually have to get organized and push for it. So far I have seen nothing happening along these lines, but I have seen people in Lynnwood beginning to fight against the current alignment plans.

        Anyone know if any pro rail groups are forming up there, or is just down here in Seattle?

    1. Oh no, disintegrating ridership on North Sounder? And Sherwin decrees “…obliterating ridership…” due to mudslide related outages. Hot News Flash Just In: Ridership on Sounder North has never been more than about 1/3 that claimed to justify spending 1/2 Billion on a pipe-dream. [Ah]

  6. “these improvements may also be some of the most critical in establishing a reliable corridor for future high-speed intercity rail.”

    High speed rail on this corridor? Ha! That’s a good one. It will never happen. The only way we get high speed heavy rail is an all new rail corridor off the beach an inland. Given the right of way needs and noise concerns for heavy rail, I don’t see a new corridor ever happening unless a lot of it was buried or elevated. It would need 10’s of billions of federal dollars… Or Hyper Loop! Ha!

    1. Hey Joe, what are the two weird signs on the columns, show just in front of the locomotive. One green, one orange.

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