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Washington state’s passenger-rail director apologized Tuesday for a blockage that left Amtrak riders stranded for six hours Sunday night in Ferndale, Whatcom County, just south of the Canadian border.

Ron Pate said he will discuss solutions with Amtrak, as well as BNSF Railway, whose disabled coal train clogged a single-track stretch of the Puget Sound mainline.

“We are investing a lot of federal dollars in this corridor, and we expect better service,” he said.

“We apologize to the public and we are looking for ways to prevent this in the future.”

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Pate wants to devise a plan for buses to shuttle passengers in case of a train stoppage.

Amtrak Cascades Train 517 left Vancouver, B.C., for Seattle around 5:45 p.m., with 98 passengers aboard.

Two hours later it stopped. A conductor announced a coal train had become uncoupled, said passenger Rachel Lane, 34, who said she was returning from a birthday trip with her partner and sister.

BNSF owns and operates the regional corridor, while providing track time for passenger lines.

The coal train became disconnected in three places, and a locomotive stopped running, Pate said. “Everything went wrong that could go wrong,” he said.

BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas called it a rare situation. “BNSF apologizes about any inconveniences on this one,” he said.

More than a dozen
passengers got off the train. Among them was Erika Brink, of Kent. She said one walked off, and then after 1 a.m. another eight people shared an SUV, and eight caught taxis.

Brink said she paid $311 for a cab to Seattle’s King Street Station and wants to be reimbursed for that, plus her $48 rail fare.

She said Amtrak offered a voucher for a future trip, which she refused.

“After being stuck for six hours, why would I want to get back on a train?”

The train crew tried to request a bus shuttle. They provided cheese, nuts and water. They turned off overhead lights so people could sleep.

Swing dancers from Edmonds-Woodway High School performed in one car, said Kathie and Steven Colwell, of Kenmore, returning from a 46th-anniversary vacation.

“We just tried to make the best of it, and it went by pretty fast,” Steven said. He said they had a lovely trip along the water going north. “We would go again,” he said.

The coal train was finally repaired at 1:40 a.m., and passed to the left of the Amtrak train, Lane said. She arrived in Everett at 3:15 a.m., six hours late, and the train reached Seattle around 5 a.m.

“The fact is, this is a customer-service business, and they rely on our dollars to continue,” Lane said. “It doesn’t seem very caring.”

BNSF expects freight traffic to grow, and the coal industry has proposed increased exports from the region, which could increase track congestion.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) is spending more than $800 million in federal stimulus money to establish “high-speed rail,” including bypass tracks to separate freight and passenger trains. BNSF is using some of these dollars to reduce mudslides in Mukilteo and Everett.

Except for a few sidings, the mainline is single-tracked through Skagit and Whatcom counties, Pate said.

Efforts to build clientele on the Vancouver, B.C.-to-Seattle route are hindered by the chance of slowdowns, though not generally this bad.

DOT’s Pate said reliability is improving, and 75 to 80 percent of Cascades trains north of Seattle arrive on time. He said he wants to make amends for the riders left stranded Sunday night.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom

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