A train workers’ union told a harrowing tale Thursday about ascending Stampede Pass in a blizzard, where a train broke apart, and a locomotive engineer spent 10 hours stranded inside the tunnel.
The conductor made six trips through waist-deep snow in the dark and through the exhaust-filled tunnel to help reconnect railcars, then left to make radio calls, according to a union report.
A previous train was delayed by a fallen tree, while behind them, an empty grain train prepared to leave Kanaskat near Enumclaw after midnight.
“While waiting, we could hear the two crews ahead of us talking about hitting numerous trees and how much snow was coming down,” conductor Mark McGaffey, of Tacoma, testified to the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee Thursday, recalling a Dec. 21, 2015, shift. The hearing follows the Dec. 18 Amtrak Cascades derailment near Nisqually that killed three passengers and revived political interest in safety.
“We were finally told to cut away from our train and just take our locomotives up the hill, and to attempt to rescue the crew – my friends – and the train. Of course we were willing to do this, because these are people we care about and we knew they were in trouble,” McGaffey, a safety representative for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) union, said of the Stampede incident. McGaffey’s train eventually returned west, not knowing what was happening in the stranded train, he said.
The union seeks “retributive corrective action” against BNSF Railway officials. Jim Johanson of Edmonds, a former legislator and the union’s lawyer, said the state still operates under a 1909 code, in which dangerous actions by railway employees are a mere misdemeanor.
Rail safety and whistleblower cases are controlled by federal law, so it’s questionable whether Washington state can wield clout.
The Federal Railroad Administration notified SMART state representative Herb Krohn by letter in 2016, “We found that BNSF did not violate Federal regulations in the scenario you described.” State safety agencies didn’t investigate.
“We are federally pre-empted,” Anne Souza, assistant director for the state Department of Labor & Industries, told senators.
BNSF Railway can’t comment about the Stampede Pass events because of possible litigation, said Johan Hellman, executive director of government affairs. The company is a leader in positive train control, which slows a train to avoid collisions. Two weeks ago, BNSF reported its equipment is 100 percent installed and in use for freight trains.
BNSF spent $1 billion over five years in Washington state, to include lasers, electronic track sensors, even drones, Hellman said.
Shahraim Charles Allen, of Tacoma, an engineer and representative of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, suggested the pass be equipped with electricity generators, self-contained breathing apparatus, snowshoes and wayside signals that mark obstructions.
Former engineer Lacy Rodriguez, of Olympia testified, “I have operated an unsafe train, safely over territory. The reason that I and others have done things like that is because of harassment from the railroad.”
Chairwoman Karen Keiser, D-Kent, asked to be notified if anyone faces retaliation.
Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said federal safety rules are stacked against workers, who can’t match the money and power of railroads.
“We know we had men who went out in trains. Their health and safety were threatened, their lives were put in jeopardy for real. That happened because of decisions made by management at BNSF, and nobody’s taking responsibility for it. That’s a problem for me, and it should be a problem for you.”
Hellman offered to meet with her and provide more information.