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Originally published Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 8:49 PM

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Project aimed to stop landslides on rail tracks north of Seattle

Workers have begun a $16 million, multiyear project to scour and strengthen six of the region’s slipperiest bluffs, after last winter’s rains caused the cancellation of 206 passenger trains between Seattle and Everett.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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When did they stop calling them backhoes & start calling them scooper machines? MORE
Note how its federal money paying for this, not BNSF, the owner of the track. BNSF... MORE
backhoes is no longer PC. Just like brown bag and congressman. MORE

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MUKILTEO —

The hillside is moving again over the BNSF Railway tracks. This time, it’s on purpose.

Workers have begun a $16 million, multiyear project to scour and strengthen six of the region’s slipperiest bluffs, after last winter’s rains caused the cancellation of 206 passenger trains.

The job site is a mile north of Picnic Point Park, near where there have been several mudslides. The nearest landmark is a wooden, beached World War II-era minesweeper.

Two scooper machines removed the soft dirt Thursday into a six-car train, while two others fill the gap with granite spalls. They’re using rocks 4 to 8 inches wide, which have been successful alongside the rails near Ballard, said Gus Melonas, spokesman for BNSF Railway.

Starting next week, an old wooden retaining wall between Mukilteo and Everett will be removed, then replaced by a reinforced concrete wall 10 feet high and 700 feet long.

The purpose is to improve reliability for Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter trains between Seattle and Everett, and for the Amtrak Cascades line to Vancouver, B.C.

Washington state took years to design its plan and secure the $16 million, drawn from federal high-speed-rail stimulus funds. Two work sites this year represent only a fraction of the slide-prone zone.

“These two were the easiest to get started this year, and we wanted something done this year,” said David Smelser, Cascades project manager for the state Department of Transportation.

Besides the mud control, several other high-speed rail projects — including the recent restoration of historic King Street Station in Seattle — are scheduled to be done by 2017, with a total $800 million in federal stimulus aid. Many are bypass tracks, so passenger trains can glide past freight yards and save minutes.

Rainy slopes along Puget Sound canceled 40 passenger trains in 2005-06, which prompted frustration but could be dismissed as a freak event. Some years there were zero disruptions.

But the last three seasons saw 70, 41 and 206 lost trips, respectively.

Lost trips compounded a broader problem on Sounder’s north line, which has always suffered from low ridership, currently around 1,200 weekday trips total, on four round-trip trains. Transit officials considered asking the Federal Railroad Administration to reduce its 48-hour moratorium on passenger travel after each mudslide.

In December, a freight train in Everett was hit and derailed by collapsing earth, in a video watched worldwide. That put to rest any talk of relaxing safety rules.

Other factors play a role. Housing development has brought more runoff, and new four-story homes line the slope near Picnic Point.

Melonas said Matt Rose, the CEO of BNSF Railway, has blamed the problem partly on landowners whose improper or broken drainpipes wet the hillside. BNSF and the local governments are working with landowners to fix or change drainpipes, Melonas said.

Washington state has printed brochures with advice for residents, such as to avoid tossing yard waste over the edge, where it becomes fodder for a slide.

Since work began in mid-August, the hillside excavation is proceeding better than expected, because of sunny, dry days, BNSF workers said.

It’s dangerous work, because freight trains pass through sometimes, and more so because heavy machinery is pivoting on makeshift terraces and roads, even traveling downhill in reverse.

The job is being done only between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., so as not to conflict with the Sounder schedule.

Though BNSF Railway waited for federal aid to pay for this work, the railroad has funded recent hill work in North Seattle, said Sounder operations manager Martin Young.

The railroad spent at least $6 million in the Blue Ridge, Carkeek Park and Golden Gardens areas, and $10 million more throughout Puget Sound for culverts, drainage trenches, slide-clearing operations, and other stability work, said Melonas.

In the Everett-Mukilteo area, it’s hard to predict how BNSF’s slide-control work will improve travel.

The next winter could be dry. Or there could be slides at other locations.

“We’re well aware that slides are a part of railroading,” Melonas said. “Anytime a 300-mile corridor from Portland to Vancouver, B.C., is lined on one side with water, and steep slopes on another, and we’re in the middle of this rain-forest area, slides are a reality.”

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom

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