Washington state: Two women charged with 'terrorist attack' for interfering with train tracks

Samantha Frances Brooks and Ellen Brennan Reiche were arrested Saturday night and have been charged with one count of terrorist attack for interfering with train tracks in Washington state. The pair are accused of placing a “shunt” on a railroad track which simulates a train being in that location.

Essentially a shunt is just a piece of wire strung between the two sides of the track that passes low-voltage electricity from one side to the other. That signal replicates what happens when a train passes over the tracks and can cause other trains nearby to brake automatically as if there were a train in the way. The shunt can also cause nearby rail crossing signals not to operate properly.

In fact, the court documents indicate that both things have happened this year. In one case, a train carrying hazardous material reacted to a shunt placed on the tracks by braking automatically. The force of this caused a train carrying hazardous materials to decouple in a residential area:

On the night of October 11 to October 12, 2020, multiple shunts were placed in three different locations in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. A shunt located at BNSF milepost 87.6 caused PTC to engage emergency braking on BNSF train HLYDVBT109A. The force of this sudden emergency braking caused a failure in a “draw bar,” which is the device that couples train cars together, causing the train to separate into two unconnected parts. This decoupling had the potential to cause a derailment in a residential area, and illustrates some of the potential damage caused by shunting activity. BNSF train HLYDVBT109A was carrying 12 placarded hazardous material cars, including combustible liquid and flammable gas at the time of the decoupling.

In 10 other incidents, railway crossing signals failed to operate because of a shunt placed nearby. That could have prevented crossing arms from lowering when a real train was coming.

Though the pair are only facing one charge for the incident Saturday night, there have be 41 such incidents in Washington state this year staring in January. Back in January, the anarchist site It’s Going Down published a statement from an anonymous contributor under the heading “Whatcom County, WA: Rail Shut Down In Solidarity With The Wet’suwet’en Fight Against Colonial Invasion.” The authors of that piece specifically referenced interfering with the train control system:

We were able to interrupt the track circuit used to detect the presence or absence of a train on the tracks. With high resolution maps, Google Street view, good scouting, and a little flexibility, this tactic is fast and discreet. On a single rail track with a Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) system, this simple action can generate enough confusion in the system to cause big slow downs and bureaucratic delays.

The piece made clear this was inspired by an indigenous protest in Canada against the Coastal GasLink pipeline and encouraged others to do likewise. I’ll spare you the background to the GasLink pipeline protests in Canada but if you’re interested I wrote about it here. It did turn out to be a pretty huge story in Canada because protesters eventually shut down a significant portion of the country’s railways for much of February.

In any case, these shunting attacks on BNSF railways in Washington state continued throughout the year until last Saturday night when Brooks and Reiche were caught because they accidentally triggered a game camera set up near the tracks. The camera transmitted a photo showing one person standing on the tracks and what looked like a second person crouched over the tracks. Deputies were sent to investigate and while they were headed to the location a Deputy Chief opened his laptop and witnesses a track signal appear and disappear at the location where the individuals had just been seen, as if someone were tampering with the tracks. At that point he contacted the JTTF task force.

When authorities arrived at the location, Brooks and Reiche tried to run for it but stopped after police identified themselves. They claimed they had lost their keys and were looking for them on the tracks. Asked if they had a flashlight or a phone to help them look, Reiche said she’d left her phone in her car nearby. Authorities looked at the car and took a photo of the “Indigenous Land” sticker above on the bumper (see above). Remember, these track shunt actions were originally done in solidarity with indigenous protesters in Canada.

Police found a shunt on the tracks in exactly the location where the photo had been triggered earlier and Reiche was holding a paper bag that contained rubber gloves, a Makita drill with a wire brush attachment and some insulated wire “similar to what had been used in previous shunting incidents.” Authorities noted that in previous incidents the tracks had been scuffed with something like a wire brush to ensure a solid connection to the wire.

Writing at the Post-Millenial, Andy Ngo has some additional background information on one of the two alleged domestic terrorists:

Reiche, who identifies as “non-binary” and uses “they/them” pronouns, was the deputy field organizer for Washington State Democrats, according to their now-deleted LinkedIn profile. (The official Democrat organization has been reached for comment.)

Additionally, Reiche is a radical queer and environmental activist who co-founded the Bellingham Lesbian Collective. They are a co-host on “The L World” lesbian-themed podcast.

The pair were in court Monday and have another court date in two weeks. If convicted on the terrorism charge they face up to 20 years in prison.

David Strom 4:41 PM on September 26, 2022