On December 22, 2020 at 11:45 AM, ten rail cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in Custer, Washington. The train in question, which was comprised of at least 108 cars, was on its way to a refinery when the incident occurred. According to recently released transcripts from an ongoing investigation into the event, that derailment was not an accident. It was deliberate sabotage by a Washington state anarchist organization.
On the night in question the train stopped just outside of Custer, Washington to change crews. The crew driving the train had hit the end of their 12-hour workday. This was the end of a six day trip from the oil fields in North Dakota. A new crew had to take over for the remainder of the trip.
For two hours the train sat motionless on the tracks. All together the train was carrying three million gallons of the highly flammable and unstable Bakken crude oil, which reacts more like gasoline than crude oil when ignited.
When the new crew arrived the train began to roll toward its destination – a refinery on the coast. There were two locomotives at the front of the train pulling and two more at the rear of the train pushing. The two locomotives at the rear of the train were unmanned and operated remotely by the engineer at the front of the train.
As the train moved forward half a mile behind the locomotive at the head of the mile long train, two tanker cars uncoupled. This should have automatically triggered the emergency braking system. It did not. Instead the train continued hurtling down the tracks separated into two sections.
“The train split apart and was operating in two different portions while traversing north,” Kyle Kitchens, a BNSF foreman and investigator, testified in the internal hearing.
In order for the two rail cars to have become separated a pin – which physically connects them – had to have been removed. The process involved is not easy, and it cannot happen accidentally. Physical inspection of the wreck also showed that the actual braking system for the train, which should have been triggered and acted to stop the train had been sabotaged.
After the train separated into two sections the gap between those sections grew to roughly 800 feet. Then as the train approached a curve near the refinery, it slowed dramatically to about 7 miles per hour. The back half of the train continued forward under power impacting the front half of the train. Fortunately, only the contents of a single tanker car actually spilled and caught fire.
Federal investigators arrived quickly and from the outset seemed to be focused on sabotage. It was determined that two young men had been seen leaving the area near where the train had been stopped shortly before the accident. They remained unidentified and on the loose.
There is a good reason why federal investigators were focused on sabotage from the outset. The interest of anarchist groups in targeting trains carrying crude oil is longstanding and well known. Only three weeks earlier, two women, Ellen Reiche and Samantha Brooks, had been arrested late at night on train tracks 10 miles to the south. They were charged with “terrorist attack and other violence against a railroad carrier.” The two were caught in the act of placing wire “shunts” on the tracks. Shunts can interfere with rail signaling and force a train to halt to avoid a possible collision.
In January 2020, an anonymous author speaking for Puget Sound Anarchists posting on’ ItsGoingDown’ –an anarchist website – claimed responsibility for sabotaging railroad tracks in Whatcom County, Washington. The action was tied to the efforts of native peoples in Canada to defend their lands and to prevent the construction of pipelines in the region.
“The United States is complicit in these crimes, and responsible for the global network of resource extraction that threatens the health of the planet and criminalizes resistance efforts. As settlers on the stolen and occupied territories of Turtle Island, we acknowledge that this legacy of colonialism lives in our bodies and homes.”
“Inspired by other solidarity actions and our commitment to upholding Indigenous sovereignty and acting where we stand, we disrupted the high volume railway that moves resources from the active ports of Everett, Edmonds, Seattle and further south to the Blaine border crossing into Canada. We were able to interrupt the track circuit used to detect the presence or absence of a train on the tracks. With high resolution maps, Google Street view, good scouting, and a little flexibility, this tactic is fast and discreet.”
“You should do this too.”It’s Going Down
Since January 2020, the FBI has investigated at least 41 incidents of wire shunts on train tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties of Washington State. Those incidents including causing crossing guards to malfunction, interfering with automatic braking systems and, in at least one case, causing the near-derailment of tanker cars filled with hazardous chemicals.
What we have in short is an ongoing, broad scale anarchist/terrorist campaign against rail lines in the Northwest United States. At the same time, almost nothing is being said about this threat. In fact, the engineer of the train that derailed on December 22, 2020 said after the accident that the first time he ever heard about the ongoing campaign by anarchists to target oil trains was when he was interviewed by law enforcement following the incident.
More broadly, of course, this is all occurring against the backdrop of the narrative being pushed by this administration that the primary threat to the nation is from white supremacist groups looking to topple the republic. Many, many months into what is a growing and ever more capable leftist insurgency, we continue largely to ignore it and to deny to the public it even exists.
The growing danger is real as is our continued myopia. The groups pushing the tactic of train derailment for example are expanding and strengthening. The damage they are capable of inflicting is as yet not fully appreciated. The derailment of a few cars in a remote area and a resulting fire is not by any stretch of the imagination the worst that can happen.
In the next two installments of this series, we will delve into the details of both those elements and consider what the future may bring.