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Fed. Railroad Admin. issues summary report on Custer derailment incident

Derailed train on fire in the vicinity of Custer (December 22, 2020). Photo courtesy of Tony Jefferson
Derailed train on fire in Custer (December 22, 2020). Photo courtesy of Tony Jefferson

CUSTER, Wash. — This week the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Office of Railroad Safety issued a Summary Report reviewing the results of their investigation into the December 22, 2020 derailment in Custer. No members of the crew were injured and no civilian injuries were reported.

This is one of many agency reports on the incident. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is considered the lead agency and their investigation, still underway, will indicate whether the derailment was the result of criminal activity.

The FRA report is provided in its entirety below.

The FRA determined the derailment occurred because unlocked coupler pins caused the train to separate, and 2 closed or partially closed angle cocks prevented the train from experiencing an emergency application of the air brakes when it began to move.

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2 angle cocks that appeared to have been tampered with were found during the on-site investigation according to the report. Normally in the open position, 1 was partially closed and the other fully closed.

The first angle cock was found, sheared off from a rail car and laying on the ground approximately 15 feet from the closest derailed tank car in a completely closed position. Due to the extensive damage from the forces of the derailment, FRA could not determine which rail car the sheared off angle cock came from. When the FBI opened the accident scene on December 23rd, FRA and WUTC inspectors found a second angle cock partially closedFederal Railroad Administration’s Office of Railroad Safety Summary Report (September 2021)

The train arrived at Custer that morning after an uneventful trip from Everett. But, instead of continuing on, it was delayed due to “a stalled oil train ahead of them on the Cherry Point Subdivision.” As result, the crew waited about 2 hours before being informed a van was going to return them to Everett before their shift ended. The crew “applied hand brakes on the head end locomotives and railcars, verified the hand brakes would hold by releasing the train’s automatic brake, briefed the key train securement requirements to the dispatcher, locked the locomotive, got in the van, and returned to Everett Yard to tie up.”

About 3 hours later, a local crew was instructed by their management to deliver the train to the Phillips 66 Refinery before starting their own work on the Cherry Point Subdivision.

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The derailment is described in the report as having occurred when the train, as it began moving, separated into 2 sections and the rear section, moving at 21mph, collided with the forward section, moving at 7mph. As a result, 10 loaded crude oil tank cars derailed, and 3 of those 10 cars caught fire.

At 11:29 a.m. PST, the relief crew began their northbound move into track 4002/Custer siding. At approximately 11:40 a.m. PST, eleven minutes later, and only 0.5 miles down the track, Train 1 derailed 10 cars. FRA inspectors obtained security camera footage from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Custer Substation complex, showing Train 1’s arrival and departure at CP Custer. During the train’s departure from CP Custer, the train was clearly seen separating into two sections, with approximately 17 seconds of spacing between the head end and rear end sections of the train. After viewing the BPA camera footage, locomotive event reorder downloads and evidence at the accident scene, FRA determined the leading A-end of rail car TILX 360655 from the rear section of Train 1, impacted the trailing A-end of rail car PPRX 172745 and caused the train to derail and the subsequent fire. At impact, the front section of Train 1 was traveling 7 mph and the rear section was travelling 21 mph.Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Railroad Safety Summary Report (September 2021)

The report focused on 4 elements that could have contributed to the derailment.

  • BNSF management’s failure to notify employees about vandalism events to heighten their crews’ situational awareness
  • BNSF’s failure to comply with Federal requirements regarding the securement of key trains
  • Crews did not perform “train check” function that might have detected the closed angle cocks
  • Possible vandalism while the train was left unattended

If the train check function had been performed and the compromised train line brake pipe continuity detected, the crew should have walked the train to find the problem with the manipulated angle cocks and they may have discovered the unlocked locking pins on the couplers. Even if the unlocked locking pins were not discovered, when the train began movement and decoupled, the train air brake line would have disconnected and the train would have gone into an emergency air brake application at low speed and likely would have avoided the derailment.Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Railroad Safety Summary Report (September 2021)

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