UPDATE: Rail traffic resumes after tampering found

BNSF halts trains for several hours, tightens security

By John Branton and Paul Suarez

Published:

 

Someone tampered with BNSF Railway tracks in a dozen spots between Felida and Chehalis on Monday, prompting railway officials to halt train traffic for a few hours and call out railway police. Nine trains, including both freight and Amtrak, were temporarily delayed.

The tampering was discovered shortly before 11 a.m. near the Longview junction, said Gus Melonas, the railway’s regional spokesman.

Officials quickly went to work inspecting 60 miles of tracks and bridges and found more tampering.

BNSF police deployed at least one K-9 team. They walked, rode trains and led some trains with Hi-Rail pickup trucks fitted to travel by rail or road.

Melonas and Cowlitz County officials refused Monday night to reveal what sort of tampering was done.

BNSF officials are working with local police, according to a bulletin from the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office. In addition, the FBI is aware of what happened and will work with local police if needed, said spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo Dietrich, based in Seattle.

Officers with the Ridgefield Police Department inspected the tracks in the city limits twice Monday, said Linda Stuckenschneieer, civilian clerk with the department.

Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp wasn’t aware of any police activity on railroad tracks Monday. Officers with the department guarded railroad crossings in downtown Vancouver on Sept. 21 as a BNSF freight train loaded with grain headed through town on its way to Longview, where it was blocked by protesters.

About 60 trains travel on the tracks between Vancouver and Chehalis on a daily basis, Melonas said.

The tampering delayed travelers at Vancouver’s Amtrak station including John Blake, 69, of Astoria, Ore., who stood unperturbed outside near the tracks.

“I don’t care,” said Blake, who was traveling to California and on to Nevada. “I don’t have to be there until Wednesday morning.”

He added later, “At least it’s not raining.”

Blake said he was headed south to Sacramento, Calif., and then to Reno for a national cribbage tournament that’s drawn up to 1,000 players in recent years. “I got hooked on it in the Navy,” he said. “That’s all you have to do.”

About 4 p.m., the heavy turntable of the nearby train bridge started moving very slowly, to align its tracks with the ones on the ground. The line was open for business.

Minutes later, the southbound Amtrak Coast Starlight pulled up to the station. After a very short stop, at 4:26 p.m., Train 14 headed south across the bridge.

BNSF personnel had determined the line was safe for all rail operations, but will continue escorting trains through the corridor, Melonas said Monday afternoon.

The railroad planned to inspect tracks through the night and into the future, he said.

Officials would not speculate on who tampered with the line. In the Longview area, the railroad tracks have been the scene of violent protests in recent weeks as a dispute between the Longshoremen’s union and managers of a new grain terminal has escalated. The union maintains it has exclusive rights for work at the Longview port. The grain terminal’s owners have hired workers from a different union.

The Washington State Labor Council, a statewide labor association that speaks for the Longshoremen, said it never condones violence or vandalism but understands the Longshoremen are in a very difficult situation in Longview where unemployment is high, said spokeswoman Kathy Cummings.

“I have no idea who did this or what happened,” she said. “We never condone the violence but we understand the position they’re in. We support the Longshoremen but not the violence.”