The wet winter and spring have taken a toll on our railroads. Since the beginning of this year, nineteen (19) landslides have cancelled more than fifty (50) Amtrak Cascades trains. However, unlike the famous problem areas near Mukilteo that have plagued Cascades and Sounder alike, these mudslides are in a new trouble spot. Two-thirds of the total mudslides in the corridor this year have occurred in Clark County, just north of Vancouver in the Felida/Ridgefield area. Given BNSF’s mandatory 48-hour moratorium on passenger service following a mudslide, every slide can knock out as many as 20 trains. Compounding the problem, the Coast Starlight has been quietly out of service for more than two weeks now due to bridge damage in Northern California.
Mudslide mitigation in the Everett/Mukilteo area has been a great success, with millions spent on slope stabilization, homeowner education, and more. Cancellations have been sharply reduced in the northern corridor this year. But officials are scrambling to coordinate and plan a response to these new trouble spots. In an email to WSDOT, officials would only say that, “Representatives from WSDOT’s Rail, Freight and Ports Division are talking with Clark County representatives to determine how we can apply this same approach in this new area of concern.”
Fortunately, the legislature has provided ongoing funding for landslide mitigation to the tune of $33 million through 2030, a clip of roughly $2.50 million per year. Unfortunately, however, like everything else it is subject to politics and the need for biennial renewal of its funding. And though the annual outlay is generous, the current biennium only doled out $1m total, leaving agencies strapped for mitigation funds just as they finish up nearly $800m in 2009-era rail improvement projects in the corridor. So this problem may persist for a year or two.
Sometime this autumn, Cascades will add two new roundups to Portland, shuffle schedules to permit same-day business travel, and shift trains to the Point Defiance Bypass between Tacoma and Nisqually. Another wet winter and widespread cancellations could significantly hobble the new services just when they need to attract passengers most. Let’s hope the legislature will recognize the problem and approve mitigation funds in a timely and bipartisan way.