Amtrak Seeing More Mudslides Than a Dairy Queen on a Summer’s Day

Courtesy WSDOT

On their blog, WSDOT own up to being “frustrated with mudslides along the Amtrak Cascades rail line.” Part of the appeal of rail travel is reliability, but that is simply not a feature of the Cascades route. Now, with the wet winter we’ve had, you might have better odds at the roulette table.

“There were 16 mudslides that kept 90 trains from reaching their destination in Dec. 2010 alone,” says WSDOT. “Normally, we average anywhere from three to 10 mudslides over a six-month period, but in the last three months we’ve had nearly 20.”

And it’s not slides in the hinterlands: 35 of those 90 trains were thrown off-schedule by slides in the area between Seattle and Everett alone, an area that also affects Sounder trains. It’s safety protocol that after any mudslide that threatens tracks, passenger rail service be halted for 48 hours. Though Amtrak tries to create “bus bridges” where possible, there’s not always enough free bus capacity to handle bumped train passengers.

In the comments section of the blog, passengers lobby for a shorter post-slide window, 24 hours, with a 20-mph speed limit in slide zones, and for Amtrak to at least run trains as far as is feasible up to where a slide has occurred, rather than canceling the whole train.

Unhappily, the mudslide problem is not being addressed with all dispatch. WSDOT notes:

We are working with Sound Transit, Amtrak and BNSF to find a solution. The biggest challenge is funding. Before we can start any improvements, we have to complete an environmental assessment (EA) to determine potential key environmental impacts before beginning any construction. There is currently no funding for the EA – without it, we can’t begin construction to fix the problem.

Right now, WSDOT would like to get their hands on federal rail dollars refused by Florida. But otherwise, the main mudslide prevention activity anyone is engaged is hoping the rains stop. (Good luck with that: “Heavy rains linked to humans.”) At that point, Amtrak Cascades unreliability will be determined by more mundane factors, like slow freight trains (44 percent) and bad tracks (37 percent).

It’s funny, but Amtrak builds in delays to its performance statistics so that anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes late is “on-time.” Even so, for the past 12 months, Amtrak Cascades “on-time” performance is a hideous 62.3 percent. Last year blogger Zach Shaner noticed that, “Of the 16 one-way trips I’ve taken in the past year, not a single one has arrived on-time.” In fairness, Shaner sometimes arrived early, but that’s not always a bonus.

Still, Amtrak Cascades carried a record 838,251 riders in 2010–you can only imagine what the demand would be for a train that daily, with numbing regularity, made the trip from Seattle to Portland, or Seattle to Vancouver, within a few minutes of the time printed on the schedule.