Washington is one of the biggest oil refining states in the country, with a million and a half barrels heading its way each week by rail. And while America’s energy boom means cheaper oil, shipping massive amounts of crude can lead to another kind of boom: So far this year, five oil trains have derailed and caught fire.

BNSF Railway, one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America, has lobbied the state Legislature to kill any bills that would encourage or require increased transparency. The company says it’s an issue of national security and “proprietary business information.” But some residents and public officials want more information.

KUOW reporter Ashley Ahearn of the public radio collaboration EarthFix meets a citizen who’s leading the fight for transparency on the part of railroads. Last year, Dean Smith gathered volunteers in his community and founded the Snohomish County Train Watch, a group that counts trains – around the clock. Watchers take shifts and note what the trains are carrying and what time they passed through.

In this story, Ahearn joins Smith on a train-spotting shift to see how it works.


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Julia B. Chan worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until June, 2017. Julia B. Chan is a producer and the digital editor for Reveal's national public radio program. She’s the voice of Reveal online and manages the production and curation of digital story assets that are sent to more than 200 stations across the country. Previously, Chan helped The Center for Investigative Reporting launch YouTube’s first investigative news channel, The I Files, and led engagement strategies – online and off – for multimedia projects. She oversaw communications, worked to better connect CIR’s work with a bigger audience and developed creative content and collaborations to garner conversation and impact.

Before joining CIR, Chan worked as a Web editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. She managed the newspaper’s digital strategy and orchestrated its first foray into social media and online engagement. A rare San Francisco native, she studied broadcasting at San Francisco State University, focusing on audio production and recording. Chan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.