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.
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 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.
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.
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