A piece of heavy equipment goes up onto one track while working to move one of several train cars which had been hauling crude oil and derailed a week earlier, Dec. 29, 2020, in Custer. The Federal Railroad Administration said the train showed evidence of possible vandalism after it “experienced a broken train collision.” (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, file)

A piece of heavy equipment goes up onto one track while working to move one of several train cars which had been hauling crude oil and derailed a week earlier, Dec. 29, 2020, in Custer. The Federal Railroad Administration said the train showed evidence of possible vandalism after it “experienced a broken train collision.” (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, file)

Bellingham woman convicted of placing shunt on train tracks

She and another defendant who pleaded guilty are each facing up to 20 years in prison.

By Denver Pratt / The Bellingham Herald

BELLINGHAM — A 28-year-old Bellingham woman was convicted Thursday in federal court for her role in placing a shunt along the railroad tracks near Bellingham to disrupt BNSF Railway train safety features in late November.

A jury deliberated for roughly three hours after a two-day trial before convicting Ellen Brennan Reiche for violence against a railroad carrier in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle, according to a Thursday U.S. Department of Justice press release.

Reiche faces up to 20 years in prison, and her sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 17, according to the release.

Reiche was one of two people arrested on Nov. 28, 2020 for placing a shunt north of Bellingham north of the railroad intersection with Cliffside Drive. Samantha Frances Brooks also was arrested and indicted for one count of terrorist attacks and other violence against a railroad carrier, according to federal court records.

Brooks pleaded guilty to those charges July 9, and a federal judge accepted her guilty plea July 26. Brooks also faces up to 20 years in prison, according to the release, and her sentencing is set for Oct. 8.

Shunts consist of a wire stretched between and connected to the rails of the track to mimic the electrical signal of a train on the track, according to previous reporting in The Bellingham Herald. Sensing trains, safety systems prevent trains from entering the area until the shunt has been located and removed.

The placement of shunts also can cause safety hazards by interfering with the operation of crossing gates at intersections with roadways and can cause gates to allow vehicle traffic to cross tracks, even with a train approaching, court records state. Shunts can also cause the automatic braking system on trains — known as Positive Train Control — to engage, which can cause decoupling of cars or a derailment, federal records show.

The arrests

In late November, BNSF police received a motion alert from a game camera placed along track just north of Bellingham, and saw a person trespassing along the tracks north of the railroad intersection with Cliffside Drive. BNSF police contacted the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office to investigate.

Deputies found Brooks and Reiche in the area. The pair attempted to run, but stopped when deputies ordered them to and they were detained for trespassing on railroad property, according to federal court records.

Deputies later located a wire shunt between the tracks in the area where Brooks and Reiche were seen. A bag that Reiche was carrying also was found, which contained rubber gloves, a piece of black insulated copper wire and a Makita drill with a wheel-shaped brush attachment, according to court records.

The wire found in the bag was similar to the wire used in shunting incidents, according to the release.

A train carrying crude oil and other cargo was scheduled to come through the area where Reiche and Brooks placed the shunt soon after the incident, the release states.

‘Reiche “disrupted the signal system designed to stop trains from crashing into each other or crashing into cars … A car driving through the intersection (near the shunt) would not have warning that a train was coming,”’ Assistant United States Attorney Sok Jiang told the jury in her closing argument, the release states.

Other shunting incidents

Since Jan. 19 of 2020, there have been at least 41 similar attacks along BNSF track in Whatcom and Skagit counties where shunts have been placed, according to previous reporting in The Bellingham Herald and several Department of Justice releases. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has been investigating the incidents since the first attack in January 2020.

On 10 occasions, shunts were placed in areas that disrupt crossing guards where tracks cross streets, the release states. And on Oct. 11, 2020, multiple shunts were placed in three different locations in Whatcom and Skagit counties. The shunts triggered an automatic braking system on a train, which was carrying hazardous and combustible material, and caused a portion of the train to decouple from the engine, the release states.

Investigators believe some of the attacks on the safety equipment were to protest the construction of a natural gas pipeline across British Columbia through Indigenous land and to keep supplies from reaching Canada.

To cause those delays, shunts were used to disrupt the low-voltage current traveling through the tracks that allows the tracking of trains’ location on the tracks, according to charging documents.

Reiche’s conviction comes on the same day that the Federal Railroad Administration released its report on the possible causes of an oil train that derailed and exploded into flames in Custer in December 2020. The federal agency’s report said the train showed evidence of possible vandalism after it “experienced a broken train collision.”

While the Federal Railroad Administration said it can’t be certain of the accident’s cause, the agency ruled out drug or alcohol use among the crew, damage to the tracks, crew fatigue and weather-related factors because of freezing temperatures and light snow on the ground.

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