After eight years of riding Sounder commuter trains, Alana Kelton could tell this was no ordinary stop.
She didn’t see train-station lights through the window. The train slowed rather abruptly — as if a car driver saw a yellow traffic light and suddenly braked rather than rolling through.
“None of the horns or whistles were blowing. It was a forceful stop,” she said.
Fortunately, the engineer Wednesday night saw the mud from a landslide in time to apply emergency brakes just before reaching Everett. The train stopped with its front end in shallow debris.
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Nobody was hurt, but the incident revives a nerve-wracking question for transit officials: On the Everett-Seattle line, where landslides have prevented hundreds of trips over the years, should Sound Transit be running passenger trains during a rainy workweek?
In the wake of this week’s near-hit, Sound Transit CEO Mike Harbour said transit managers will consider pre-emptively canceling trains — as opposed to waiting until after a slide — if the weather and monitoring devices indicate a high risk.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is Sound Transit’s board chairman, said Friday he’ll bring up landslide matters at a transit-board meeting.
“The board’s first concern is safety. In light of this incident, and service interruptions during past winters, I plan to ask the board to discuss rainy-season operational challenges,” Constantine said in a statement.
The north-line trains have been canceled since Thursday, until at least Monday morning. If rain continues, the restart might be delayed.
Sound Transit’s routine has been to suspend trips for 48 hours after a slide because of BNSF Railway engineering policy. Another slide early Friday at Mukilteo pushed the 48-hour clock to early Sunday.
Harbour took an extra step by canceling Sunday’s north trains to the Seahawks game. If a slide or soggy conditions forced a shutdown, agencies wouldn’t be able to quickly send a fleet of buses to transit stations on a Sunday, he explained.
Amtrak could be running by Sunday, The Associated Press reported.
For years, mudslides have bedeviled the route connecting Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Seattle, where 206 train runs were canceled in the wet season of 2012-13. Some seasons, none have had to be canceled. So far this season, three slides have canceled passenger service, according to BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks.
Sound Transit has presumed the odds are thin that a hillside will crumble at the exact moment a commuter train passes by.
But now it’s happened.
Another passenger train, the Amtrak Empire Builder, was derailed by mud in April 2013. The previous fall, a freight train was slammed, and it was captured on cellphone video. Most of the Everett-Seattle corridor passes between steep hills and the beach.
John Niles, a longtime critic of Sound Transit rail service, has asked to have the commuter-train risks mentioned in a forthcoming expert report on this spring’s Oso landslide, which killed 43 people along the Stillaguamish River.
“For sure, it shouldn’t be run in the rainy season. There should be a seasonal cancellation, at least,” Niles said.
Sound Transit previously has sidelined trains beyond the 48-hour periods after successive slides and storms posed obvious danger. Spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said in the future, the agency’s judgments will be further aided by new rain gauges and soil-monitoring devices.
Some already have been installed by BNSF Railway and more will be added in 2015, said railway spokesman Gus Melonas. The equipment is part of a $16 million program by BNSF, using federal funds, to reinforce six prolific slide zones, using retaining walls and boulders. Two projects are done. Harbour said Wednesday’s slide was at a slope that will be strengthened next year. BNSF says it has spent $10 million of its funds to improve drainage and culverts.
Slides disrupt schedules, one factor causing Sounder North to be plagued by low ridership. However, ridership gained 10 percent, to a total 94,000 riders, in the second quarter of 2014, compared with the year before.
Commuter trains used to be slower than a bus, but they’re suddenly gaining value, as buses take more than an hour to travel I-5.
“The train is always choice No. 1,” said Kelton. “The bus is a much less pleasant experience. When you’re on the train, you get to see Puget Sound the whole ride.”
But she hopes transit officials will conduct more safety checks, whenever the hills become wet.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631