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Mayors probe moving White Rock, South Surrey train tracks inland

Waterfront visitors stroll White Rock’s promenade – a few feet from the BNSF tracks under discussion for relocation – Tuesday afternoon.  - Tracy Holmes photo
Waterfront visitors stroll White Rock’s promenade – a few feet from the BNSF tracks under discussion for relocation – Tuesday afternoon.
— image credit: Tracy Holmes photo

A case is being made to relocate the BNSF train tracks off of the Semiahmoo Peninsula’s waterfront, White Rock’s mayor announced Monday.

Citing incidents that have intensified discussions on rail safety over the past six months – including the tragic July derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que. and a jogger fatality that same month in White Rock – Wayne Baldwin said a joint community forum is to be held Tuesday evening to share information gathered to date by Surrey and White Rock officials, including possible options for relocating the century-old line.

Council attendees applauded the announcement, which preceded unanimous approval of a motion by Coun. Larry Robinson to call on federal Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt to develop a policy that mandates fire departments be pre-advised of trains coming through their communities with dangerous goods.

Baldwin told Peace Arch News that the costs of moving the line are estimated at $350-400 million, not including any work south of the border.

Staff from the two cities have been researching the plan’s feasibility and preparing a business case for it since August, he said.

While the idea has been raised many times over the years – and in increasing frequency – Baldwin said it gained serious steam following his July radio interview in which concerns with the condition of the Little Campbell rail bridge were discussed. Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts called in to the show, then told Baldwin privately, “We have to get together and talk about this,” he said.

Both cities are critical of plans for a new coal-export terminal in North Surrey, which would increase trains on the waterfront.

Watts told PAN Wednesday that while she and Baldwin are both scheduled to speak at Tuesday’s forum, she considers realignment only one part of the “timely” discussion. She said traffic, safety, frequency of trains and possible solutions will be discussed.

Baldwin described where the railway runs now – which includes along the White Rock and Crescent Beach waterfronts – as “the worst possible route” between the states and Vancouver.

“It’s longer, it’s slower, it winds and twists,” he said, noting it also runs alongside a bank that is prone to slides.

BNSF train

Baldwin said convincing Transport Canada of the relocation’s merits is key.

“The potential ramifications of not doing it are pretty bad,” he said. “We’re dealing with people’s lives here, and the environment.”

He noted concerns with the deteriorating condition of the Little Campbell train bridge only reinforce that the direction is the right one to take.

“Any bridge in those kind of conditions should not be used in transporting dangerous goods through a community,” he said.

Baldwin said he did not have a sense as to whether BNSF would support relocating the tracks.

Reached Tuesday, railway spokesman Gus Melonas told PAN only that BNSF “would certainly review a substantial plan if submitted.”

A Vancouver transportation consultant who met with Baldwin and Coun. Grant Meyer last week said that in her experience – she is a former board member of the Canadian Transportation Agency – relocating rail lines away from communities is a win-win for all involved.

“It’s not an easy and it’s not (a) cheap issue to pull off, but it is one that can benefit both the carrier and the communities, and so it’s one that is liable to proceed,” Mary-Jane Bennett, a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, said in an interview Tuesday.

Speaking specifically to the local effort, Bennett – who plans to attend next week’s forum – said there are “sound safety, operational and logistic issues” for relocating the rail line.

“This one makes sense from every angle. I see it as one that is likely to proceed.”

Meyer said he supports relocating the tracks for several reasons. In addition to a more rural route reducing the “catastrophic” impact of a derailment, a faster, more direct passageway for goods and people would result in substantial time savings, he said.

Meyer also cited the potential that the absence of an active rail line creates for a waterfront walkway linking White Rock’s promenade with Crescent Beach, Blackie Spit and Nicomekl River trails.

He said that given rail events of recent months combined with the area’s growing population and changes to the size and frequency of train traffic, the timing is right to seriously pursue relocating the tracks.

He acknowledged it is a change that won’t happen overnight.

“It could take seven years, (but) you’ve got to start somewhere,” Meyer said.

White Rock resident Hannah Newman – who is among residents who have been outspoken in their opposition to Fraser Surrey Docks’ proposal to build a new coal-export terminal – agreed the timing is right to push for relocating the tracks.

Newman said the Lac-Mégantic derailment changed “everything.”

“It’s almost like the stars are aligning… but it’s on the souls of 43 deaths,” she said.

The Nov. 26 forum is set for 7-8:30 p.m. at the Pacific Inn, 1160 King George Blvd.

BNSF special series

More reading: Peace Arch News BNSF Series
Peace Arch News looked back in 2010 at a century of BNSF land ownership along the Semiahmoo Peninsula waterfront.
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