Topic: Coal, Oil & Trains (63)

Unanswered Questions From Oil Train Wreck at Custer

What was the cause of the oil-train wreck and why are public officials not being transparent and honest with the citizens of Whatcom County? Why, seven days after the accident, are roads still closed all around the site? Why, seven days after the derailment, is there no public explanation of the cause?

​To read the newspaper reports, the minor derailment of seven oil tank cars and the two fires that were quickly extinguished seems like a lucky break. Especially with no injuries, no environmental damage to speak of, and no property damage. County emergency teams responded quickly as trained, we are told, and all is well. The 108-car train from South Dakota carrying highly explosive Bakken crude oil, bound for the Philips 66 oil refinery at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, was one of two trains that usually pass through Bellingham and our county every day of the year.

But even today, a week after the accident, the sheriff, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad, and the newspapers tell us that the cause is still under investigation. But is this true? Or, do they know the cause and are withholding it from us? A week is a long time to not know what caused a train wreck. Are some basic facts being withheld? I have tried to learn more but responses have been slow.

The photo at the top of this article shows an item that does not fit: The Seattle Times photo shows eight - not seven - derailed cars. And one car looks more like a locomotive than an oil tank car, with orange paint. We need an explanation. Why does BNSF and the news media keep saying seven cars when the photo clearly shows eight? And what is that eighth car if it’s not a tank car?

Today I learned reliably that 10 cars were derailed, five caught fire and three others leaked oil. These are larger numbers than the Bellingham Herald and Seattle Times have reported. What is the problem with acknowledging how many cars derailed? Why did first reports say only five derailed? BNSF and our county sheriff had to know from the first day how many derailed.

A missing fact: what section of the 108-car train derailed? Was it seven or eight of the last 10 or 11 cars - at the very end of the train? If not, what section was it? This train was on a straight track. A curve could have caused cars in the middle of the train to derail, but there was no curve, so no undue side pressure to distort the rails. There is no mention of any normal things that cause a long freight to derail. So, was the derailment near the front, middle, or rear of the train? Nary a mention - and that is cause for concern.

Was there a pusher engine involved? If so, was it involved in or did it cause the wreck? Newspapers have only reported oil cars derailing. Was the train slowing down at the time of the accident and did that have something to do with the accident?

Was there a rail switch under the train? Was there a portion of siding nearby? Was there construction in progress near the rails where the derailment occurred? Was it something under the control of BNSF that caused the wreck? If there is a switch at that spot, did it mysteriously engage and send the last cars off the rails? What about that odd looking car or locomotive? Did it play any part in the derailment?

The public has been allowed to speculate all week about possible sabotage. There has been talk of “shunts,” which we read about several weeks ago. A shunt disrupts the low level electrical current on the tracks and can disable a variety of safety features. A month ago, authorities arrested two people for setting shunts that have caused signals to malfunction. If the cause is known, and it is not sabotage, then this is pernicious behavior on the part of BNSF and our sheriff department to allow the public to suspect citizens of wrongdoing when it is an error on the part of the railroad. They allow us to speculate about terrorism - while they know the answers.

These are some questions. It is taking an unusually long time for this modest wreck site to be cleared - over a week - and railroad crews do not get days off when a train wreck needs to be cleared. One could speculate it is purposely being done slowly. I tried to get a closer look at the site yesterday but road blocks do not allow one near it.

What I have written may be off target. But this situation just does not pass the smell test. We have a right to know the truth of this train wreck. This article is, in one sense, a starting point. A note to the authorities and BNSF that we think the full story is intentionally being withheld from the public. Why? I hope the Seattle Times delves deeper into this wreck. NWCitizen simply does not have the resources to pursue this as a professional media organization can.

Sheriff Elfo, what is the full story here? What are you withholding from the citizens of Whatcom County?

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About John Servais

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

Comments by Readers

Michael Riordan

Dec 30, 2020

You ask some very good questions, John, and they deserve good answers.

In particular, I had not noticed the eighth derailed car until you pointed it out, and it most certainly does not look like a tanker car. Like you say, it looks like a locomotive — probably a pusher locomotive, which would make these cars the tail end of a 100+ tanker-car unit train. At this point near Custer, it would have been headed NW, but there is a 120-degree left turn just NW of the town, where most of the rest of the train would have been located at the time of the derailment. That spur subsequently turns again farther west and heads south toward the refineries and Intalco.

So let me hypothesize, based on the visual evidence. The locomotive was pushing the rear of the train at the time, which encountered some kind of resistance in going through that turn. Maybe brakes had been accidentally applied somwhere forward of the seven tanker cars that derailed; that could easily cause a derailment, even at 7 mph. And the cars that had NOT derailed could have (and should have, given the fires) been pulled away from the scene by the forward locomotives.

As you say, John, your questions deserve answers. Otherwise speculations run rampant, including of intentional sabotage.

What do you say, Sheriff Elfo? Last I heard you worked for Whatcom County. The citizens who elected you deserve credible answers.



Tim Paxton

Dec 30, 2020

A November press release at quotes a U.S. Attorney Moran as reporting since January 2020 there have been 41 similar BNSF rail road attacks using shunts in Skagit and Whatcom Counties.

Would locals who live near these tracks have been willing to keep an extra sharp eye out for suspcious activity?   Forty One reported incidents sounds like someone has declared war on Skagit and Whatcom Counties.  A derailment in downtown Mt. Vernon or Bellingham / Fairhaven could be a catastrophe.   I.e. large fuel tanks at Encogen, giant high pressure gas lines downtown, major fiber optics line hub, hundreds of apartment dwellers near by and a cat cafe.

Good questions about the incident.  I agree, we are not getting the whole story.  As usual.  Thanks to NWCitizen for picking up the slack.


John Servais

Dec 30, 2020

Michael, good point on the speed of the train probably being very slow at the time of the accident.  If so then that raises the question of why did some of those derailed oil cars slide so far forward and ram each other?   Was it all being pushed by the locomotive in the rear?  Did that locomotive derail?  BNSF knows but is not telling the press and thus us. 

News reports still say the amount of oil spilled in unknown. Frankly that is bull.  BNSF knows exactly how much oil was in those tank cars and knows how much they recovered and knows by simple arithetic how much was spilled on the ground.  And our Ecology department, which keeps saying no environmental damage, should be telling us the facts and not giving us spoonfuls of sugar assurances.  How much spilled and soaked into the ground?  

In the last sentence of the article, I put the onus on our Sheriff, Bill Elfo.  That may be misdirected.  With the FBI out there - as news reports tell us every day - perhaps it is the Feds who are preventing the facts and truth of this train wreck to be disclosed and reported.  Maybe they don’t realize they need to be operating under our American rules and traditions, not Russian or Chinese rules and traditions.  


Michael Riordan

Dec 30, 2020

The wide displacement of the upper track just above the building at bottom is indicative of strong forces being applied there.


Geoff Middaugh

Dec 31, 2020

Excellent questions and the public deserves answers to these questions.   NW Citizen and others need to stay vigilant and we need to have answers to these questions from law enforcement at the local (county), state and federal levels.  Thank you NW Citizen. 


Michael Riordan

Dec 31, 2020

Yes, this is a great illustration of why we need Northwest Citizen when others don’t seem to want to do the hard digging. Thank you, John, for the invaluable public service you contribute.

And, following up on my previous comment, note that the tanker car that traveled farthest from the tracks is just slightly to the right (which I think is the forward direction) of the point of track separation. This observation increases my suspicion that this is the point where the retardation causing the derailment occurred. 

Take it from a physicist and once-avid pool player!


John Servais

Dec 31, 2020

Thursday morn, and the Northern Light of Blaine and Birch Bay - right next to the train wreck - is also asking for answers.  

Thanks to those providing slivers of info that they know about on this wreck. I would prefer the Sheriff and the Feds provide us with information in a timely manner.  We are 9 days out from the accident or incident and still the Sheriff, Feds, BNSF and the NTSB remain silent.  Why?  They seem to not know the first rule about PR - get the truth out there fast before others embarrass you with half truths because you said nothing.  Three Mile Island changed PR - but this gang poking around Custer seem to not realize that.  

Yes, I have reached out to them.  BNSF got back to me with corrected numbers of cars derailed, caught fire and spilled.  But nothing more. None of the others have replied.  Nothing in today’s Bellingham Herald nor the Seattle Times at time of posting this early Thursday afternoon.  


Anson Thurston

Dec 31, 2020

I just wanted to add a couple observations on this derailment. I use to chase trains to photograph as a hobby and picked up a lot of sometimes usless information.

The mystery car is actually a tank car upside down. You can see all the brake plumbing. The orange on the side appears to my eyes as just surface rust. The metal is burnt clean and water was sprayed on it so it did the oxidizing thing. There are flame retardants that are bright orange and it could be that but I would guess rust.

These cars are required to have a safety coupler known as a Shelf coupler, though older cars don’t always have them. Normal couplers can come loose vertically in a derailment and allow one car to puncture the back of another car with the coupler. The Shelf coupler has a guard that prevents that and cars tend to push out to the side in a derailment. That is what I’ve observed here. I would say the couplers worked in that regard.

As for the tracks spread out, the type of rail used is known as ribbon rail. It’s not like the clackity-clack sectional track of 40 to 50 years ago. It is long continuous sections of rail that when heated need to expand. They tend to twist up like spaghetti. The main force on rail is load bearing, downward, so it springs off to the side. Intense heat like an oil fire would warp it quite a bit. Again the force of the derailment assisted by the couplers will push sideways.

If there is even the slightest suspicion of foul play the investigation will go slow due to the nature of the material carried. I’m not advocating for anyone here just as I said, making observations.


John Servais

Dec 31, 2020

Anson, thanks for the informative comment.  In particular for clarifying the overturned tank car as not being a locomotive.  Another person with considerable knowledge of trains also suggested this.  It looks like the end cap of the tank really got ripped off and that distorted what the car looks like.  

I’m also not speculating on what happened although some very credible information has come to me.  But I will continue to press our government agencies to inform us of all the facts of this accident or incident.  We are very very lucky we did not have a Lac Megantic disaster in Custer.  Perhaps due to the slow speed of 7 mph rather than the much higher speeds through Bellingham of the oil trains.  I am amazed at the extent of the damage to the cars with this very slow 7 mph wreck. 


Dick Conoboy

Jan 01, 2021

Tim Johnson at Cascadia Weekly obtained a photo of the “mystery” car (see page 4) from the Dept of Ecology showing clearly that it was the cap of the tank that separated.  


Scott Wicklund

Jan 06, 2021

The tank car which broke in two during the derailment should have a traceable history of service.  Metal failure can be the result of cumulative stresses.  The cars do have a useful life.  Will the other cars be put back in service?  I would like to see the history of the car which broke.  That information must exist, but will be very difficult to optain.  I hope the NTSB will publish it in their report.

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