Federal investigation suspects tampering caused Custer derailment

Sep 14, 2021, 3:04 PM | Updated: Sep 15, 2021, 6:59 am
train derailment, Custer derailment...
A train derailment in Custer, Wash. in December of 2020. (Photo courtesy of the state Department of Ecology)
(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.

Follow Nicole Jennings on Twitter or email her here

Local News

Stephanie Klein

Puget Sound region could see unstable weather as cold air moves in

After a beautiful fall Saturday, the Puget Sound is due for a bout of unstable weather conditions.
17 hours ago
dees moines...
KIRO 7 News Staff

3 killed, 3 injured in shooting outside Des Moines sports bar

Three people were killed and three more were injured early Sunday in a shooting outside a Des Moines sports bar, police said.
17 hours ago
tacoma homicide...
Deborah Horne, KIRO 7 News

Third homicide in a week in Tacoma; homicides still below 2020

Neighbors are tense after a shooting early Saturday left a man dead at a homeless encampment on East 38th Street in Tacoma.
17 hours ago
Washington State University...
Associated Press

One killed, another injured in shooting near WSU campus

Police say a man has been arrested in connection with a shooting that killed one person and injured another near the Washington State University campus early Saturday morning.
2 days ago
homeless camp...
Andrew Scheinthal, KIRO 7 News

Seattle business attempts to clear homeless camp, backtracks after advocates step in

A Seattle business is facing heat from homeless advocacy groups after they attempted to clear out an encampment off of Lake City Way.
2 days ago
COVID, hospitals...
Nick Bowman

‘Tough few weeks ahead’ as state’s hospitals continue to struggle with flood of COVID patients

While Washington's COVID crisis has begun to stabilize in recent weeks, health officials warn that the state's hospitals are not quite out of the woods yet. 
3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

IQ Air

How Poor Air Quality Is Affecting Our Future Athletes

You cannot control your child’s breathing environment 100% of the time, but you can make a huge impact.
Swedish Health Services

Special Coverage: National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

There are a wide variety of treatment options available for men with prostate cancer. The most technologically advanced treatment option in the Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform.
Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for both lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.
Courtesy of JWatch Photography....
Experience Anacortes

Summer Fun Activities in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
By Alaska Airlines

Calling all football fans: follow Russell on the road

Take your Northwest spirit that we’re known for on the road this season with Alaska Airlines.
By Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.
Federal investigation suspects tampering caused Custer derailment