Blockading Trains and Shutting Down Pipelines
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
I spent a lot of 2014-2018 trying to get people to blockade trains carrying fossil fuels. Occasionally, it worked, and sometimes the experiences were undeniably beautiful, but the extent to which these actions were ever truly disruptive of the fossil fuel economy was minimal. The blockades which have emerged across Canada in response to the RCMP evictions at Unist'ot'en Camp reflect precisely the strategic paradigm I spent so long attempting, and failing, to manifest. Owing to the current interest in blockading trains, I am putting this article online that appeared in the Earth First! Journal in fall 2019. If you read the original text I sent to the Journal on this page, you will find a few somewhat weary, humorous framing paragraphs which they decided to edit out. If you read the PDF of the article as it appeared in print, you will get the photos illustrating what I'm talking about, plus framing that makes me sound less like an exhausted, failed revolutionary.
Love to all those who are showing courage against all those who are causing suffering.
A few field notes on blockading trains and shutting down pipelines
Imagine people were hungry for a way to fight back, so you spent awhile disseminating the tactics of blockading trains and shutting down pipelines. Years, for instance. Further imagine that the experience left you weary, and the collection of highly rigorous, meticulously footnoted, hyper-technical videos and manuals you always imagined yourself to be writing never quite materialized, but the sense that you should document a few insights nagged at you, so you ended up throwing them into one hasty article and sending it to the Earth First! Journal. Such a scenario would be no more or less absurd than much of life.
Otherwise useless details about trains can be psychologically meaningful. In the Pacific Northwest, where a person who wandered around for years trying to get people to stop trains could easily be imagined to reside, blockading coal and oil trains has become a fairly normalized aspect of the liberal-leaning climate movement status quo. Thus, suggesting a train blockade no longer produces a look of disoriented horror in the eyes of participants in said movement, at least in this region. This wasn’t always the case, and it does seem to be true that knowing a crazy—and arguably superfluous—amount of detail about trains really seems to calm people’s nerves. This being a Journal article, you, dear reader, probably misspent your youth in such a manner that you still sometimes require the whine of air compression brakes to fall asleep at night. But if your game is working with folks who are a little more risk averse than you, throwing some terminology around from the crew change guide and railfan websites will get you a long way.
Stop a moving train with a phone call as opposed to your body. In the US, federal regulations require that road crossings of train tracks have a phone number posted on them whereby the train dispatchers, who are watching the activity of trains and signals over vast territories on computer screens, can be contacted in case of an accident, a stalled vehicle, or someone’s grandmother locked to a 55-gallon barrel full of concrete on the tracks. There’s exactly one good option for stopping a moving train, and it’s calling that number and telling them there’s an obstruction. These numbers will often be the same over huge areas, but you might as well get one posted nearest to where you’re blockading. These signs also contain location identifying information, like mileposts. A sample phone call might go something like: Hello, BNSF? It’s your archnemesis, Skeptic. If it were 363 other days of the year, we’d let you go on crashing the global ecosystem—but not today! Today we’re blockading train traffic in Spokane, Washington at milepost 263.1, west of the yard where Division St. intersects the rail line. Of course, blockading a train that has already stopped is always an option, and if you’re in a city with a train yard, it’s relatively easy to plan for, because that train yard will have a signal where traffic will often stop, change crews, and wait for clearance before exiting. A crew change guide—that’s a photocopied document circulated among train riders, if you didn’t totally squander your adolescence—is useful, as is scouting.
There’s braking and then there’s fucking braking. Trains have an emergency brake mechanism. Train operators have, in a number of cases, some pretty bad memories associated with them. They also have a rule of thumb about how quickly they can make a train stop with one: The square of the speed the train is traveling, in miles per hour, is the distance required to come to an emergency stop, in feet. For instance, a train traveling at 20 miles per hour, by this rule of thumb, would require ~400 feet to stop, and a train traveling 50 would require ~2,500, which is about half a mile. There’s absolutely no good reason to make a train operator use their emergency brake, but it’s one of those aforementioned details that can be really useful to convey to nervous people. Trains have speed limits you can look up, based on the class of tracks. BNSF has its own speed limit of 60mph, and most of the high-speed tracks in the US have federally mandated limits of 70mph, but there’s a section of tracks in the northeast US where speed limits are much higher. A sane distance for a train moving at high speed is miles—say, three or four or five. Consider the time it will take to make the phone call. If your blockade is not technical or otherwise requiring a huge amount of time to set up, consider getting on the tracks when your scouts tell you the train has definitively stopped. Also, in some places, especially cities, trains have very low speed limits. You can look these up in track charts, which are sometimes available online and sometimes have to be ordered in hard copy. This isn’t a substitute for scouting, and train drivers break speed limits just like you and me. It’s good to have scouts travel the tracks for what you determine is a safe stopping distance in either direction from your blockade site, and keep in touch with them as you’re setting up you’re blockade and making your call. They have to travel the tracks, or with the tracks in sight, rather than just going to a location deemed a safe distance, because there’s always a possibility a train is parked in between your blockade and that safe distance that will start moving again.
Train signals can also be a useful guide to whether you’re about to die. Train drivers respond to signals which tell them to do things a layperson can easily anticipate, like stop and go, and then some things that are harder to anticipate, like ‘proceed on diverging route not exceeding prescribed speed through turnout prepared to pass next signal not exceeding 35 MPH’. One fundamental way that train signals are different from automobile traffic signals is that a signal is required to tell the train driver the next signal will tell them to stop. This is a logical implication of the greater distances required to stop a moving train. Simple signals—arrays of one or two lights—will say simple things. Solid green means go, solid yellow means prepare to stop at next signal, solid red means stop. Complex signals—vertical arrays of three or four lights, for instance—will sometimes say complex things. You can look these up in signal charts. Flashing lights mean something different than solid lights. There are people called railfans on the internet who neither blockade nor ride trains, but obsessively document their functioning. These people know the answer to your question about train signals in copious (arguably absurd) detail. Knowledge of signals can be used by scouts to help blockaders make decisions. For instance, watching the nearest signal or two turn from green to red is a pretty good indication your phone call had the intended effect.
EF!J Editor's note: Never walk on or across the train tracks, especially near a train yard or a curve in the tracks. Train cars can be moved silently at any time. Always treat a train car as if it may begin moving. Beware of slack action; a sudden violent jolt across the entire train which is easily capable of throwing a person off as it is pushed or pulled. In the context of blockades and scouting for them, there is no reason to even touch a train car or tracks.
Turning pipeline valves might be easy, but first you’ve got to find them. Federal regulations require a marker wherever pipelines cross roads or railroad tracks. These markers are pretty distinctive and standardized, a round little placard that says ‘petroleum pipeline’. You usually can’t find pipeline valve locations online. There are exceptions—sometimes you might find them in environmental review documents, if NEPA or a state-level analogue came into play when the pipeline was being constructed, and sometimes you can find them in federally mandated oil spill response plans, called in the regulatory nomenclature Facility Response Plans (FRPs, cause every goddamn thing has to have an acronym). FRPs all used to be online in the US, but then people turned valves and that shit got taken down. In the case of most pipelines, you’ve got to go out and look. A decent place to begin your scouting is on one of the big pipeline maps, like the National Pipeline Mapping System *(which allows you to select a map by pipeline, online at www.npms.phmsa.dot.gov/), or the Energy Information Administration’s infrastructure maps *(which also contain maps of mines and power plants—online at www.eia.gov/maps/), which will have the locations of pipelines at a spatial scale that’s less than perfect, to prevent people like you from doing exactly the kind of thing you’re thinking about doing. So the protocol becomes making a driving survey of the area the map indicates the presence of a pipeline, looking for those distinctive little markers. Once you’re onto one, you get that mild adrenaline rush of continuing to cross it over and over again on different roads, confirming the general contours of the map, until that magical moment you are on a road which crosses the pipeline at a valve site. Also, federal regulations require that anywhere a pipeline crosses a river 100’ or greater in width, a valve must be located at a crossing. That makes finding at least one in any given area pretty damn easy.
Valve sites are guaranteed to have a few identifying characteristics. Valves and valve sites will exhibit a lot of variation, but federal regulation requires a few key features to be present. First, enclosure. It will be surrounded by a fence. This will usually be the same cyclone fencing you started climbing when you were five. Barbed wire is not a requirement and is not common. Second, conveniently, a sign. It will provide the company and/or pipeline name, and a number for the control room. This exists for the same reason railroad crossings are required to feature train control numbers—so that the public can call and alert of an accident or other 'abnormal operating condition'. Sometimes, these signs explicitly say 'block valve site' or something very similar, but won't necessarily. Third, communications infrastructure. This is how their control room receives data on flow rate, pressure, temperature, and—sometimes but not always—valve position. This could be fairly invisible, if it's fiber optic cable, but usually, the communications method of choice is a satellite dish. These three features—a fence, a sign with the pipeline name or the operator's name, and a satellite dish, are what you should expect to find when you locate a valve, in addition to the valve itself. Note that on most pipelines, you'll encounter complex assemblages which might contain many valves and many other features you're not certain the identity of. For instance, those sections of pipe you see coming off the main line that just terminate in a cover are there to launch pipeline inspections gauges, which travel the length of the pipeline collecting data. A whole lot of valves and a whole lot of other machinery is likely a pump station. Sometimes along pipelines there's also assemblages of pressure relief tanks which take up oil in an emergency, and valves can divert the flow from one pipe to another in those systems. All of these assemblages add, at best, layers of complexity and possibilities for failure, and there's probably enough stress and ambiguity associated with a pipeline shutdown to stay away from such sites. Block valve sites such as have been used in past pipeline actions exist simply to stop the flow of oil, in case of an emergency or for maintenance, and should be relatively simple—a wheel attached to a horizontal shaft going underground to meet the pipeline, or an inverted-u shaped section of pipe coming aboveground with one or two wheels on it, and not much else, the aforementioned sensory and communications equipment, and not much else.
Turning pipeline valves isn’t always that easy, they just make it look that way in Canada. Just to embellish our story of a hypothetical person who goes around disseminating pipeline tactics, imagine such a person took an online pipeline operating course, got 100% on their final exams, went to absurd lengths like reading issues of a publication called Valve Magazine, and still doesn’t really know what to tell you about valves. They’re not particularly standardized, and there’s a wide array of different types. There’s single block valves that require many turns, like you saw in that cool video SubMedia did when the tactic was innovated in Canada, and in the Shut It Down actions in the US. But there’s also single block valves that require just a quarter turn—an aperture instead of a gate mechanism, if that means anything at all—and there’s no easy way to discern the difference just by looking at one, and it could really matter (the reason why will be explained momentarily). There’s double block and bleed valves. These are just two adjacent block valves with a small section of pipe in between them that operators can drain (bleed) the oil from to make sure the pipeline’s really closed. There’s valves where the pipelines surface, and there’s valves that close pipelines buried beneath the ground (this is the case on the Keystone XL pipeline, so if you want to see what that looks like watch a video of Michael Foster shutting it off). There’s valves that are only manually operated, valves that are only remotely operated, and valves that can be operated in either manner. This diversity implies that some pipelines will be a lot simpler to shut down than others, and that some might have enough ambiguity associated with them that they’re best left alone.
A few variables influence the risk of causing an oil spill by turning a valve. Just to be perfectly clear about this, if the shit industry talked about safety in their PR brochures and their federal environmental reviews was real, this danger would be virtually nonexistent. Pipeline pressure and valve position are constantly monitored by a system called SCADA, the general character of which is a computer control room somewhere connected to a bunch of satellites or fiber optic cables or other means of communication. People are supposed to be watching. Alarms are supposed to go off when conditions cross certain thresholds. Valves to pressure relief tanks are supposed to open. There’s emergency shutdown procedures. The problem, of course, is that if any of this were nearly as functional as industry claims, oil spills wouldn’t be the constant, numbing horror they are. When you turn a valve, you’re gambling that they’ll take the appropriate action of shutting down the flow of oil in time to not cause a spill. In theory, they should do this whether or not you call, because of aforementioned monitoring technology, but calling is a lot less of a gamble. It will take a certain amount of time for the flow to stop. The Keystone XL EIS, for instance, describes a 15 minute emergency shutdown time. The amount of pressure that has built up in that time will depend heavily on where your particular valve is in relation to the nearest pump stations. Pump stations exist precisely because oil loses sufficient pressure to keep moving, so if your valve is really close to where a pipeline enters a pump station, pressure will be lower by a huge factor than if you are really close to where one exits a pump station. Pump stations can be found just like valves. Now here’s some other, particularly vexatious shit to keep in mind: In addition to the linear accumulation of pressure that results from the time oil keeps getting pumped into a pipeline with a closed valve, a sudden change in the flow of oil in a pipeline produces its own brief but significant pressure wave, which engineers call water hammer and hydraulic shock and other scary stuff like that. That’s why, at the time of valve closure, pipeline actions have caused significant vibrations and crazy sounds that subsequently died down. The magnitude of this pressure wave is a function of the time it takes to close the valve, so closing a valve real slow—even if it is one of those that requires lots and lots of turns—may be a warranted precaution. This is also why it really might be better to only turn valves that have gate or other mechanisms that require many turns, and just sort of stay away from quarter turn valves (which thus far no one seems to have encountered in an action, indicating they’re more rare, but maybe we’ve all just gotten lucky so far).
Neither of these tactics have crossed the threshold into truly significant disruption, but the potential is there. What’s so magical about the notion of shutting down pipelines and blockading trains, or tripping train signals, is that these are vastly dispersed infrastructure, and what every security analyst and military think tank seems to be in agreement about is that there’s really no way to guard such things. In nations where pipeline attacks have become a standard tactic of an insurgent movement, drones and massive patrols have been deployed along lines, but their fundamental spatial properties have implied that attackers have still found plenty of opportunity. Insurgents in Iraq attacked pipelines 137 times in 2004, despite the obviously very heavy presence of the US military trying to stop them from doing exactly that. One imagines hordes of resistors hugely impeding the operations of the fossil fuel industry on a daily basis. Some people have turned valves or tripped signals and run, but not in numbers anyone would describe as a horde. That’s the part that requires navigating that evasive phenomenon of sudden mass participation in resistance, which emerges and dissipates by a magical formula none of us seem to have quite been able to determine, and thus constitutes the really hard work. As we all know from watching shit be quiet for long periods of time and then suddenly be on fire, it could happen anytime. As for the hypothetical weary protagonist of our story, one imagines them wandering around, detached from movements but also failing utterly to adapt in any meaningful way to civilization, smoking too much weed and zoning out on dozens of TOR tabs, looking for something worth breaking.