By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
The phrase “soggy Pacific Northwest” has an entirely new meaning for BNSF Railway Co. In Washington state, heavy snowstorms in mid-December were shortly followed by torrential rains, fast-rising temperatures and quick-melting snow in late December and early January.
Several portions of BNSF’s Stampede Subdivision were pummeled with rushing waters, including 18.5 inches of rain that fell in one 24-hour period. Mudslides containing large trees and boulders slid down the Cascade Mountains, tearing up track and substructures between Lester and Stampede, especially small segments on the east and west side of the Stampede Tunnel.
In addition, three other Northwest Division subdivisions were inundated with floods and mudslide debris.
By the time April rolls around, BNSF will have spent about $8 million and toiled for more than three months to fully restore operations, primarily along the Stampede Sub line, which is one of three BNSF routes into and
out of the Pacific Northwest and a prime alternate route for Tacoma-area traffic.
However, as bad as the destruction was — including a gaping 100-foot-wide and 40-foot-deep ravine near the tunnel, and mudslide goo several feet thick that enveloped one track segment — it could have been worse, says Dave Hestermann, BNSF’s assistant vice president and chief engineer-North Region.
Above-freezing temperatures melted snow 8,000 feet up in the mountains rather than a more common 4,000 feet, but the mild temps didn’t last long, he says.
Plus, the railroad was better prepared to take on a severe weather event in Washington than it had been in the past because of experience gained from previous storms.
“We learned lessons in how to shore up the railroad,” says Hestermann.
For decades, BNSF has dealt with infrastructure damage caused by a variety of severe weather that’s hit the Northwest Division, which runs through areas at sea level and thousands of feet above it.
For example, one major meteorological phenomenon known as a Pineapple Express hammers the Pacific Northwest about every 10 to 12 years, with the last one
occurring in the Northwest Division in the winter of 1996-97. Unfortunately for BNSF, one hit Washington state in late December.
A Pineapple Express accumulates moisture around the Hawaiian Islands and sweeps into the Pacific Northwest, then passes over mountain ranges and — because of moisture-laden air and atmospheric dynamics — increases air temperatures and causes heavy rain.
“The last Pineapple Express was worse because temperatures didn’t come down for a long time,” says Hestermann. “We had some subdivisions out for 10 to 12 days.”
The long track outages prompted BNSF managers to create winter action plans for every region on the railroad in 1997.
The plans detail steps that need to be taken if weather patterns change, such as corralling equipment and organizing work crews well ahead of a storm.
The railroad also established a command center
in Seattle that’s staffed around the clock during severe weather events.
“We had received a forecast that the Pineapple Express would case rainfall of 20 inches on West Coast and temperatures would increase,” says Hestermann. “We went into full command center mode and got employees ready to go.”
After mudslides and floodwaters battered the Bellingham, Scenic and Seattle subdivisions, workers
repaired track and infrastructure within 48 hours between Stanwood and Mount Vernon; Everett Junction and Seattle; Monroe and Snohomish; Sumner and Tacoma; Centralia and Chehalis Junction; and Kelso and Vancouver.
However, the extensive damage in the Stampede Sub couldn’t be repaired as quickly.
“This was not a flatland flood,” says Hestermann. “Water rushed downhill from the rain and melting snow, and gained velocity as it pounded track and rockbed.”
BNSF will need the three-plus months to fix about 2,000 feet of track damaged by a washout of Martin Creek near the Stampede Tunnel and two track slipouts (support structures that failed because of rushing water and debris).
In addition, 300 feet of track in another area was buried by several feet of mudslide debris, including trees more than two feet in diameter that “littered about the track like straws,” says Dan McDonald, BNSF’s manager of engineering in Seattle, who is overseeing restoration work.
The Class I decided to take more time than usual — restoration work is expected to wrap up at March’s end — because traffic levels are down, and the work could be assessed and completed more safely, efficiently and cost-effectively in a longer timeframe, says Hestermann.
Seeking outside expertise is helping in the efficiency and cost-control departments, primarily because of the magnitude of the damage, says McDonald.
The railroad hired geotechnical firm Shannon and Wilson Inc. (“The doctors of dirt, as we call them around here,” says McDonald) and HNTB Corp. to help evaluate the damage, devise a restoration plan, and provide design and project management services.
BNSF also conducted a pre-qualified bidding process and contracted Scarsella Brothers Inc., which is based in the Seattle area, to serve as the lead contractor.
A total of 40 workers — evenly split between BNSF and contractor forces — have been assigned to the restoration work.
Scarsella Brothers has expertise in rail facilities and has done work for the Class I in the past, says Hestermann, adding that the contractor will help control labor costs.
“They are working only during daylight hours and are avoiding overtime,” he says.
BNSF also is saving money on materials and transportation. Instead of purchasing rock and railing it to the work areas, rock is being blasted on site to provide fill material for track support structures.
At the Martin Creek site alone, the railroad needed 6,000 yards of fill material, says McDonald.
To boost efficiency, project managers also decided to replace a culvert with a 25-foot bridge structure at the mudslide debris-covered site.
The bridge structure will provide a better clearance and hold up during a severe storm, says McDonald.
“A debris field would produce mud and material flows that could easily overwhelm a typical culvert,” he says.
Last month, crews cleared the thick and muddy
debris — which had the consistency of wet concrete — from track, clearing the way for bridge structure work, says McDonald.
The last hurdle to clear before BNSF can reopen the line likely will be the slipouts. Project managers are deciding whether to shift track as part of the repairs, says McDonald.
One slipout at milepost 53.6 “poses the largest engineering challenge to our restoration efforts,” he says.
“The size of the slipout, its geologic features and the remote location are challenges we have had to contend with,” says McDonald.
So is local wildlife. The subdivision is home to mountain lions, bald eagles, elk and bears, and their habitats need to be left undisturbed, says McDonald.
“We take our environmental stewardship very seriously and have worked to ensure our construction footprint is as small as possible,” he says.
BNSF isn’t taking safety for granted, either. As of late last month, no injuries had been reported, primarily because project managers have tried to identify and eliminate safety risks, says Hestermann.
“This shows what our team can do and how employees are key,” he says. “They’re making it look easy.”
It hasn’t exactly become child’s play, but the railroad has become adept at taking on a multitude of severe weather incidents that occur in the division’s diverse geography.
The division’s terrain ranges from sea level, where BNSF faces embankment failures, sea wall issues, mudslides, washouts and flooding, to mountain passes, where the railroad faces avalanches, snowstorms, slope failures, rock falls and large debris flows, says McDonald.
Browse articles on BNSF on Progressive Railroading