A passenger train rolls along the White Rock waterfront.

Semiahmoo Peninsula MP, MLA question track-move viability

Discussions welcomed after proposal to relocate railway off White Rock, Surrey waterfront.

When it comes to possibly relocating train tracks off the Semiahmoo Peninsula waterfront, municipal, provincial and federal politicians are on board with the idea of improving safety.

But while local politicians are quick to back the concept, MP Russ Hiebert offered scant hope – from a federal angle – that it will happen anytime soon.

There are “a couple of obvious hurdles to jump,” Hiebert (South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale) said by email Friday.

White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin announced last week that Surrey and White Rock officials have been working since August to create a business case for relocating the tracks off the waterfront.

The topic is to be front-and-centre tonight (Tuesday), at a joint community forum on railway safety.

Baldwin and Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts are to speak, and information gathered to date on possible options is to be shared.

Hiebert said cost and neighbourhood opposition are two significant hurdles in the equation. He estimated the “tremendous” cost at $400-500 million (Baldwin last week estimated the cost to be $350-400 million), and said governments would have to come up with the funds before rail-line owner BNSF would even consider relocation.

Residents of neighbourhoods proposed for a new rail line likely won’t be any happier with the idea than those who currently want it gone from their backyards, he added.

Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg said while relocating the line is “a nice vision” that he personally supports, he questioned the practicality of the move.

“My first preference is relocation of the coal and the dangerous goods,” he said, citing health of the community and environment.

“The rest of it is all about livability.”

A proposal by Fraser Surrey Docks that would increase coal-train traffic along the waterfront has been a recent driver behind concerns with the century-old railway’s route. Recent tragedies, including the Lac-Mégantic derailment and the death of a White Rock jogger, have only heightened those concerns.

Hogg recalled discussions in the late 1980s – prior to development of White Rock’s promenade – of putting the rail bed underground.

It didn’t go ahead because of the associated costs, Hogg said.

“Certainly if we had a blank slate to work with today, no one would be proposing a train along our waterfront.”

White Rock council members say they have no doubt it is time to relocate the line.

“There’s been a combination of events that lead you to think… could there be a better way, could there be a better route?” Coun. Helen Fathers said, noting she has always been shocked by the line’s proximity to the waterfront.

“I think it bears looking at. I think there could be a genuine case made for moving it.”

At the same time, Fathers is concerned about simply making the matter someone else’s problem.

“I am very conscious of are we just going to be passing it on,” she said.

Couns. Al Campbell and Bill Lawrence said much has changed since the line was first built, in terms of what is being transported and how often.

“It’s time to do it, for safety issues, for many, many reasons. Just the quantity on that one little rail line, meandering around, across the trestle, doesn’t make sense to anybody,” Campbell said. “Hopefully we can get it done within the next five years.”

“Society has changed, and accordingly, the railway should change,” said Lawrence.

Coun. Larry Robinson described relocation of the tracks as a proactive step that would lessen the risks to citizens and trains alike, while enabling rail traffic to move with speeds and quantities that make economic sense.

Coun. Louise Hutchinson said she sees trains “rocking and rolling” every day as they pass her White Rock home. She described the heavier trains as a particular hazard to bluff homes in Ocean Park, citing “vibration erosion” that adds to wind and water erosion that threatens slope stability.

She also has concerns with the volatility of some trains’ cargo, which she said the Lac-Mégantic tragedy proved is often not properly disclosed.

Hutchinson said coal trains are the “tip of the iceberg.”

“Rail relocation should and must be the real problem to tackle,” she said.

Hogg said “good, rational discussion” is essential.

“If there’s a safer way to do this and it’s something that we can afford, it’s something we should be doing.”

Tuesday’s forum is set for 7-8:30 p.m. at the Pacific Inn, 1160 King George Blvd.

 

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