Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Human error likely caused Swinomish Reservation train derailment, official says

A BNSF train derailed March 16 on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes, Wash.  (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
By Isabella Breda Seattle Times Seattle Times

A miscommunication between a train crew and a bridge operator likely led to the derailment of two BNSF engines near Anacortes last week, a federal official said.

In the early morning of March 16, two train engines came off the tracks on Swinomish land, a few hundred feet from Swinomish Casino and Lodge. They leaked an estimated 3,100 gallons of diesel near the shore of Padilla Bay.

As crews contracted by BNSF worked to excavate contaminated soil, they found a sheen of diesel in the groundwater and put monitoring devices in place to ensure that the contamination doesn’t spread, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said. BNSF is paying for the cleanup and repairs.

Meanwhile, leaders from Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and BNSF testified in a muggy Seattle courtroom this week. The issue at hand is whether BNSF willfully, consciously or knowingly trespassed over the reservation and whether it intentionally breached a 1991 easement agreement limiting the number of cars that cross the reservation. The civil trial is the result of a 2015 lawsuit, but the issue dates back to 1889, when BNSF’s predecessor constructed a railroad through the Swinomish Reservation without permission.

Last week’s derailment happened as the train was headed toward a BNSF-controlled swing bridge over the Swinomish Channel, a waterway connecting Skagit and Padilla bays from south to north. The bridge typically stays perpendicular to allow boat traffic to pass, but a bridge operator aligns the bridge with the tracks if train traffic is anticipated.

Devices on either side of the bridge called “derails” are in place to stop trains if the bridge is not aligned. The devices are typically used in places where there is a risk of more severe damage or injuries if the train is allowed to proceed past the derail point.

When train crews head toward the swing bridge on Swinomish land, they can likely see if it’s in place, but they can’t see the position of the derail device below them, said Herb Krohn, legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division, which represents railway workers. Typically the bridge operator would give them the “OK” to proceed, but it appears there was a miscommunication in last week’s derailment.

The derailment occurred when the lead locomotive struck a fixed derail device, forcing the train engines to topple on the south side of the tracks, a federal official told the Seattle Times in an email. The official was unauthorized to speak publicly about the incident.

BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent said the investigation is “still ongoing and not complete.”

KUOW first reported that Tom Wooten, the Samish Indian Nation chair, said the derail device caused the accident.

Washington State Department of Ecology officials said the train had likely just departed a nearby oil refinery at the time it derailed. None of the cars the engines were carrying came off the tracks.

BNSF in 2012 began transporting 100-car trains of highly combustible crude oil through Swinomish land to a nearby refinery, court documents show. In the 2015 lawsuit, the tribe alleged that BNSF was running trains with four times the number of cars permitted under the easement agreement with the tribe.

The railroad crosses sensitive marine ecosystems over a swing bridge over the Swinomish Channel, near the site of last week’s wreck; and a trestle across Padilla Bay within the reservation. These water bodies connect with other marine waters of the Salish Sea, where the tribe has treaty-protected rights to fish.

Seattle Times staff reporter Lauren Girgis contributed to this report.