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Two Washington state women have been charged with a terror attack and violence against BNSF Railway Co. after they allegedly placed a "shunt" on the railroad's tracks near Bellingham, Washington, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced this week.
Samantha Frances Brooks and Ellen Brennan Reiche, both of Bellingham, Washington, were arrested Nov. 28 in Bellingham as they were placing the shunt on the tracks. A shunt disrupts the low level electrical current on the track and can disable various safety features. Such actions can cause derailment, decoupling or failure of gates at crossings, endangering the public, federal authorities said in a press release.
The women appeared in federal court Nov. 30 to face charges.
"Since January, there have been 41 incidents of shunts placed on the BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties — causing crossing guards to malfunction, interfering with automatic braking systems, and in one case, causing the near-derailment of tanks of hazardous chemicals," said U.S. Attorney Brian Moran of the Western District of Washington. "These crimes endanger our community. I commend the agents from Customs and Border Protection, FBI, BNSF Police, and state and local partners who prioritized stopping this criminal conduct."
According to the criminal complaint, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has been investigating the placement of shunts on the BNSF tracks since Jan. 19. The shunt is comprised of wire and magnets that are stretched between the tracks, disrupting the systems that indicate a train is on the tracks.
On 10 occasions, shunts were placed in areas that disrupt the crossing guards where the tracks cross streets. On the night of Oct. 11, multiple shunts were placed in three different locations in Whatcom and Skagit counties. The shunts triggered an automatic braking system on a train that was hauling hazardous and combustible material. The emergency braking caused a part of the train to decouple from the engine.
Shortly after the first shunts were discovered in January, a claim of responsibility was posted on an anarchist website, federal authorities said. The claim of responsibility stated that the shunting activity was carried out in solidarity with Native American tribes in Canada seeking to prevent the construction of an oil pipeline across British Columbia, and with the express goal of disrupting BNSF operations and supplies for the pipeline.
On Nov. 28, BNSF Police observed video surveillance of two people kneeling on the tracks near a crossing in Bellingham. The Whatcom County Sheriff's Department responded to the scene, and Brooks and Reiche were detained for trespassing. A shunt was found on the track near where they had been observed on surveillance. The women had a paper bag containing wire, a drill with a brush head and rubber gloves. The wire was similar to the wire used in the shunting incidents.
A terrorist attack on a railroad is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
BNSF officials have not yet responded to Progressive Railroading's request for comment.