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Federal investigation suspects tampering caused Custer derailment

A train derailment in Custer, Wash. in December of 2020. (Photo courtesy of the state Department of Ecology)

A new report from the Federal Railroad Administration points to vandalism as a possible cause of last December’s train derailment in Custer.

The agency identified four potential causes for the crash, which did not harm anyone but derailed 10 cars, spilled 29,000 gallons of crude oil, and resulted in three rail cars catching on fire.

Besides possible vandalism, the FRA pointed to Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s failure to warn crews of recent rail vandalism in the area, as well as the crew leaving the train unattended for hours and failing to perform certain safety checks.

State senator calls for Legislature to investigate Custer train derailment

The report described how the train was left unattended for hours during a crew change at a stop north of Bellingham the morning of the crash — the same area where acts of railroad sabotage have been occurring. When the train got going again, the derailment occurred within minutes.

“Vandals had opportunities to tamper with the couplers and brake pipe angle cocks” at the time the train was stopped, the report said.

After the derailment, inspectors found that two of the train’s angle cocks were completely or partially closed, which interferes with the train’s braking system.

“The closed or partially closed angle cocks prevented the train from experiencing an emergency application of the air brakes upon movement,” the report explained.

The report concluded that someone had to deliberately close them, as “angle cocks are typically in an open position, even after significant forces experienced during train derailments and accidents.”

The report stated that if the crew had performed the train check function, as they should have done before leaving the stop, they would have discovered “the break in [the] train line brake pipe continuity due to closed angle cocks.”

The FRA did conclude that the crew was not impaired by substances or fatigued, and that neither the weather — sunny with a dusting of snow on the ground — nor track conditions played a role.

The FBI has been investigating more than 40 cases of attempted railroad sabotage in Whatcom and Skagit counties since the start of last year.

Last week, Bellingham resident Ellen Reiche was convicted in federal court of violence against a railroad carrier. Her co-defendant, Samantha Brooks, pleaded guilty in July. The two were arrested last November after placing a shunt on railroad tracks on the north end of Bellingham.

The FBI has not yet finished its investigation into the Custer derailment to determine whether this was also caused by an act of sabotage.

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