BNSF: A casual approach to railroad safety

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Mon, Apr 04, 2016, 8:17 pm  //  John Servais

A coal train of over 100 loaded rail cars going north above Clayton Beach on Bellingham Bay with dangerous erosion on 40 foot bluff supporting rails.

The coal train in the photo above is heading north along Bellingham Bay just above Clayton Beach. Notice how it  seems to overhang the sandy bluff?  That is because the bluff has been eroding toward the track and is now within a couple feet of the track ballast, as can be seen in photos below this article.  

These photos show the erosion of the 40 foot bluff that supports the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad tracks about five miles south of Bellingham.  The bluff is entirely made of sand laid down by natural geologic processes and is gradually eroding. Except for this section, the railroad has dumped big rocks below the bluff in an attempt to stabilize it along the beach.

The photo above, taken on Sunday, April 3, shows a heavily laden coal train of over 100 cars on the track. The sand erosion is plain to see. I am amazed the shore-side rail has not sagged and propelled a coal train - or worse, an oil train or even Amtrak - down the 40 foot cliff. It takes little imagination to realize the catastrophe of either an oil spill or the human tragedy if a passenger train were to derail.

Photos below were taken in January, February, March and last November, as we have been observing and photographing the actively advancing erosion as it works toward the tracks. As you can see, the erosion is occurring at the rate of an inch or two a month. But the erosion does not need to reach the actual rail ties for there to be a disaster.

Looking at the expanded gravel sides at either end of this eroded area, it appears there are plans to add a rail siding over a mile in length. Perhaps BNSF is waiting for a permit to build the siding and will then expand the reinforcement of this embankment. If so, they are playing with our environmental and physical safety.

Elisabeth Britt, who posts the Latte Republic blog here in Whatcom County, has collaborated with me over the past few months as we have tried to make sense of this potential disaster in the making. She has written to the railroad experts - Burlington Northern and the railroad inspection people - to express her concerns. Their responses are that there is nothing to worry about, they are aware of the situation and it will be fixed in due time. Their soothing replies are posted as screen shots below this article. 

For readers not familiar with it, Clayton Beach is a rustic, undeveloped state park along the shore of Bellingham Bay on State Route 11, Chuckanut Drive. It is a beautiful sand beach. An oil spill here would quickly flow into the Salish Sea  - which includes Bellingham Bay - and flow with tidal currents through the San Juan Islands. It would be extremely difficult to get rescue or cleanup equipment to the beach area from either land or sea.

A final note.  In a couple photos below you can see the remains of some white chalk marks. That was originally a smiling face put there by BNSF workers.  They told Elisabeth Britt that when the face was gone they would fix the gap. Well, the white smiley face is completely gone and they are now putting orange chalk markings there....

Close up showing how close the erosion is to the rails. In four months it has eaten away a couple feet closer to the rails.

A view looking north and showing Clayton Beach below, Bellingham Bay and Lummi Island in the top left.

The erosion on Feb 2, 2016, two months ago. As of April the eroded embankment is not only closer to the rails, but much steeper than last Feb.

The chalk smile in January, 2016. In April it is gone as erosion continues. You can see the high tide of Bellingham Bay which is eating away at the sandy base of this bluff.

The erosion as of Nov 21, 2015 - four months ago.

Elisabeth Britt letter of concern last November, 2015.

Aerial view showing where Clayton Beach is located on Chuckanut Drive south of Bellingham.

Close view from Apple Maps showing the RR tracks along Clayton Beach and the Chuckanut Drive highway further up away from the shoreline.

For over a mile along this straight stretch of track the BNSF has widened the gravel bed - probably for a planned siding along Chuckanut.

April 3 view of the train with Clayton Beach below the bluff.

Related Links:

-> Broken rail causes massive oil train wreck in W Virginia
-> Oil train mishap was preventable - inspectors failed in their inspections

Tip Johnson  //  Mon, Apr 04, 2016, 9:37 pm

They carry plenty of cargo far more hazardous than coal or oil.  Just one car of highly toxic compound might catastrophically damage the estuary, not to mention any number of beach goers.

David Camp  //  Tue, Apr 05, 2016, 3:18 am

It seems strange that BNSF would leave this for so long when they are spending so much money on roadbed improvements, double tracking, and closing public road RR crossings in the County. I suspect they have a big plan for this spot, prob double tracking, and are waiting for drier weather to start work. Or dealing with more pressing matters. If they are planning on double-tracking this stretch, it may make a mess of Clayton beach - be careful what you wish for.

BNSF: A casual approach to railroad safety

At Clayton Beach, we have tracked increasing erosion under railroad tracks and written to the railroads and federal inspectors. To no avail.

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