With the Nov. 15 civic election barely two months away, Surrey mayoral hopeful Linda Hepner says she wants voters to be clear on where she and other Surrey First candidates stand on relocating the BNSF rail line.
It’s important for people to know “where to put their mark on the ballot,” Hepner said.
“I am committed.”
Hepner – backed by Coun. Judy Villeneuve and council hopefuls Mike Starchuk, Dave Woods and Vera LeFranc – made a pledge to focus on rail relocation Tuesday morning at a media event staged by the Beecher Street railway crossing in Crescent Beach.
It followed a weekend meeting with White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin, who on Sept. 8 was supported by his council on a motion to direct city staff to initiate the process and application to relocate the century-old line from the waterfront, via the Railway Relocation and Crossing Act.
Hepner, who lives in South Surrey’s Elgin neighbourhood, said her biggest concern with the trains is safety: there is no access or egress to Crescent Beach whenever a train rolls by or breaks down in that area, and she questions how many more heavy, long trains the bluffs can take.
“These trains are now completely isolating an entire community,” Hepner said, to applause from the crowd of more than 50.
“I am simply not convinced that the slope is not being compromised.”
The event had been announced by area residents the day before as Surrey council announcing support for rail relocation, however, the event was more of a rally by Surrey First candidates.
Hepner promised that, if elected mayor, she would immediately engage railway owner BNSF in discussions to have the tracks moved to a more direct, faster and safer inland route. Should that fail, the Surrey First team will work with the City of White Rock to use the Railway Relocation and Crossing Act, she said.
Rail safety and relocation of the line off of the South Surrey/White Rock coastline have been hot topics on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, especially this past year, ever since Quebec’s Lac Mégantic derailment in July 2013 and, closer to home, the death of a jogger on East Beach tracks a week later. Critics have cited issues ranging from dangerous-goods shipments and increased coal dust, to pedestrian safety, beach access and noise pollution.
Residents who turned out for the Surrey First announcement questioned Hepner on alternate route options, the city’s relationship with Transport Canada, quelling train whistles and if five years – as suggested by Baldwin last week – is a reasonable timeframe to strive for.
Hepner said five years is “probably realistic if not optimistic,” and that city engineers are discussing routing.
Hepner said that when it comes to the trains, public safety is her top priority.
“I know that a strong economy needs the bedrock of business,” she said.
“This is about safety. Absolutely nothing trumps safety.
“We need to urge the federal government and the railway to work with us to solve this problem.”
Four options for track realignment – all in the City of Surrey, three east of 176 Street – were presented by Surrey First founder Mayor Dianne Watts at a joint community forum in South Surrey last fall, however, Hepner said Tuesday that her aim was to talk about why relocation is becoming increasingly important.
“We weren’t talking options today,” she told Peace Arch News after her presentation.
She acknowledged she hasn’t always backed the call for relocation.
“In the past, I was not certain the frequency (of the trains) warranted it,” she said.
Last fall, after Watts’ Nov. 26 forum – for which costs of relocation were estimated to be in the $350-450 million range – Hepner was more wary of the likelihood of rail relocation.
She was not at the meeting, but said in an interview weeks later that the idea of a “Utopia” without tracks on the waterfront has come up repeatedly since she was first elected to council in 1985, and that without BNSF support, such discussion is premature.
Helpner also noted then that the issue is a national one – not just a concern in Surrey and White Rock.
“I sit as a member of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which has had a national rail safety committee since the Lac Mégantic disaster,” she told PAN. “The question arises that, if we’re going to move our rails, who else in this nation may wish to move theirs? It’s such a big conversation and we’re a ways away from that coming to fruition.”
Hepner, at that time, also noted she’s concerned “any time we have a significant requirement for new infrastructure it comes at the expense of agricultural land” and some of the alternate route options presented are “beyond 70 per cent in agricultural land.”
Coun. Barinder Rasode – who is also considering a run at the mayor’s chair – was critical of Tuesday’s announcement.
While she agrees rail safety is a priority for cities across Canada, moving the tracks is “not one that can be made as an election promise… not one that we will have much direct impact on.”
Rasode said it is misleading to make the promise before a full strategy to make it happen is in place.
“To provide that kind of hope without a proper plan isn’t fair,” she said Wednesday. “It gives hope and takes away from the real conversation about rail safety – which is the real conversation.”
Representatives of the Crescent Beach Property Owners’ Association said they were pleased by Tuesday’s announcement.
“Anything that shows a level of commitment to the rail issue is good news… regardless of whether it’s politically or otherwise motivated,” said Malcolm Stewart.
Stewart said shifting the tracks to a more direct inland route “is very much a win from the business point of view and from the safety.”
Art Van Wart said the tracks “have to go.”
“It’d be a beautiful trail,” he said, referring to an earlier reference made by Villeneuve.
Villeneuve, a veteran Surrey councillor and Crescent Beach resident, told the crowd waiting to act is not an option.
“I know people living here understand the danger,” she said. “We cannot wait until there’s an accident.”
– with files from Alex Browne