MUKILTEO, WASH - The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is nearing completion of first two of six major projects designed to stabilize unstable slopes that stand over tracks. The tracks carry Sounder commuter trains, Amtrak passengers and move freight of all kinds between Seattle and Everett.
One notorious slide zone project just south of Mukilteo is wrapping up. A 200-foot-long slope is now covered in granite bounders designed to lock together. It took more than 100 cars to bring in the rock and take out mud, fallen trees and debris.
Five miles further to the north, a work train has pulled out what's left of an old wooden retaining wall.It's being replaced with a ten-foot-high concrete wall braced with piles hammered into the ground.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas, a veteran of the track department that had to deal with these kinds of hazards, says last winter was the fifth worst season for slides since the railroad began studying the slide problem 99 years ago in 1914, when this was known as the Great Northern Railroad.
The 2012/2013 rainy season saw 200 slides, 95 percent of them were between Seattle and Everett. Geo-technical engineers were able to use both historical information and last season's data to identify the six sites responsible for the worst slides, one of which derailed a freight train, a derailment captured on a cell phone camera. Two of the projects, including the placement of a 708 foot long 10 foot high "catchment" wall, will go into South Everett and keep slide debris from covering the tracks.
The cost of these projects, plus increased ditching and drainage work comes to around $26 million, $16 million coming from the Federal Government from funds to increase passenger train reliability. Passenger trains including Sounder commuter trains and Amtrak trains are particularly impacted because safety requirements require a 48 hour moratorium on passenger operations once a slide has come down.
The worst month last winter was December, which saw 27 straight days of rain.