Alarm over unguarded trains spreads to Washington, D.C.

By:  Liz Rocca
Source: KOMO News

When a KOMO Problem Solvers investigation blew the whistle on a major railroad's practice of leaving running trains unlocked and unguarded - it sounded the alarm all the way to Washington, D.C.

Two federal agencies are investigating, and a U.S. senator is pressing for change.

In Olympia, meanwhile, state lawmakers are demanding that Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway close these security gaps.

And people living near these potential time bombs want the problem fixed.

For months the Problem Solvers criss-crossed the state, finding and boarding these running trains that are hauling hazardous chemicals, unmanned, unlocked and unguarded - with the key, called a reverser, left inside.

In Skagit County - at 9:30 a.m. on a recent day - a Burlington Northern crew climbed aboard a train. Until then, the engines had been idling, the locomotive empty and unlocked for nearly five hours.

Jim Weidert lives just 400 feet from the railroad tracks.

"As early as 5 in the morning, with engines idling non-stop, for four to five to sometimes as many as 10 hours," he says.

For years, the Weidert family has been afraid of the possibilities.

"Trains being hijacked by terrorists, idling, the noise, the environmental impact," says Jim Weidert.

"That just scares the heck out of me - that they can grab one of those and barrel off, they are gone," says Monica Weidert.

After Weidert says his complaints to Burlington Northern fell on deaf ears, he thought he'd never get anyone to care - until the KOMO Problem Solvers' investigation proved just how vulnerable these idling trains can be.

State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, didn't know about these trains until the Problem Solvers told her.

"Oh, this is ridiculous," she says. "I find that almost hard to believe. I mean - I am watching it so I know it's true, but it's almost unbelievable."

Unbelievable - and according to Haugen - dangerous.

"It is truly a threat to the security of our country, if one of these had been tampered with - say a bomb put on it, and it is going through a major city or over a bridge. What could happen would be pretty appalling," Haugen says.

"There is significant risk - a catastrophic risk - if someone hijacks these trains. All the cargo they carry," says Jim Weidert. "Obviously in your piece, you proved that people can get on the train and take off and blast down the track at 70 miles per hour."

Retired BNSF Conductor Jim Larkin says workers have been warning the railroad about the risk of terror on the tracks for years.

He says, "Some safety improvements are slow, some are faster. This here could be a fairly fast change."

Yet when we showed our undercover video to Burlington Northern officials, they claimed our video wasn't real.

"So that's at night, inside the locomotive," said Burlington Northern spokesman Gus Melonas says as he watches the video.

When the video shows the reverser, or key, inside the cab, Melonas responds, "How do I know that's an actual reverser?"

While BNSF doubted us publicly, behind the scenes our investigation prompted action.

An internal alert obtained by the Problem Solvers shows the railroad now requires staff to remove reversers from idling and unlocked trains - but only in Washington state.

Our investigation has sent ripples through the U.S. Senate. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is now pressing Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration for new regulations.

TSA administrator John Pisole says, "I think it's an issue that needs to be addressed both from a safety and security perspective - yes."

And leaders of our state's Transportation Committee want action, too.

After seeing our investigation, the state lawmakers sent a letter to the Federal Transit Administration demanding they do something about the security gaps we found.

"I certainly am going to raise the issue, and if we have the authority to do something about it - we'll do it," says Sen. Haugen.

KOMO's investigation just keeps getting results. The Federal Railroad Administration is still in the midst of its investigation into what we found.

And we just got our hands on a letter that Sen. Cantwell sent to the TSA.

In it she again expresses concerns about the security gaps we uncovered - and urges the agency to evaluate the risk of the running and unguarded trains we found and their hazardous cargo.