Citing an “immediate threat” to safety, a Transport Canada inspector ordered the City of White Rock to close off its West Beach boat launch, and BNSF to ensure trains are blowing their whistles from dawn to dusk, along the length of the waterfront.
“What he wants is a six-foot-high fence along the promenade,” an outraged Mayor Wayne Baldwin told Peace Arch News Monday, after discussing the demands in open council.
“We’re being dictated to by some petty little bureaucrat in Vancouver,” Baldwin told residents during question period. “We find this outrageous. It’s stupid. It’s an overreaction. This individual took it upon himself to safeguard the public. We will appeal.”
While fencing the length of the promenade was not part of the orders issued Friday – those discussions are ongoing as part of a safety review ordered by the federal agency last summer – waterfront visitors will soon see six-foot-high chain-link fence along the west edge of Bayview Park, at the bottom of the Coldicutt Ravine and from the Finlay Street crossing east to Semiahmoo First Nation land.
The fencing – to be in place this month – was proposed by BNSF after Transport Canada inspections May 30 and June 2 identified risks. A gate at the boat launch was installed Tuesday.
According to orders – emailed to PAN by Transport Canada railway signal-systems officer Dennis Maskell Monday night – the directives follow a mix of incidents and inadequate steps by the city to address safety along the rail line since 1996.
The most recent incident on the tracks was in February, when a senior was struck after wandering from a nearby care home. The last fatality was on the East Beach tracks in July 2013, when jogger Anita Lewis was struck and killed.
Transport Canada also cites the city’s push to encourage locals and tourists to the promenade; an increase in businesses, tourists and trains; increased risk factors; and an observation last week of beach visitors putting themselves at risk as further justification for immediate action.
“Pedestrians have been noted walking, jogging and stopping on the railway tracks, walking their dogs on the railway tracks and doing yoga on the railway tracks,” Maskell writes in his cover letter, noting that on June 2, “there were trespassers in front of the locomotive running to get ahead of it, six teenagers, a mother and her two children, all climbed through the railing and darted in front of the locomotive and crawled through the railing closest to the promenade parking.
“There was no horn warning from the locomotive, nor was there any whistling at the pedestrian crossings within the promenade. While discussions and communications continue, it is my opinion that the public safety of persons using the promenade and related track area are at great risk.”
While signage affixed to the gate by the City of White Rock notes the closure is permanent, Maskell describes the orders and notice as “temporary measures to support rail safety and public protection.”
Maskell could not be reached by PAN press deadline Wednesday to address Baldwin’s comments.
Railway safety has been top of mind for many on the Semiahmoo Peninsula since Lewis was struck by a passenger train as she jogged across tracks in the 15600-block of Marine Drive. One week earlier, a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que. killed more than 40 people.
Discussions were further intensified by the deteriorating condition of the Little Campbell trestle on First Nation land and the increase in rail traffic transporting dangerous goods.
The incidents were all cited in a decision last fall by Baldwin and Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts to explore relocating tracks inland.
Residents at Monday’s council meeting reiterated the call, describing Maskell’s orders as “decreasing safety 1,000-fold.” Some who contacted PAN since the boat-launch gate went up have described the measure as “ludicrous”, “appalling” and “foolish,” noting that with legal access blocked from west of Bayview Park to the pier, people are crawling through and over the West Beach hand-railing, hauling beach supplies with them.
At the gate Tuesday, Baldwin encouraged concerned beachgoers to contact Transport Canada.
“Welcome to Berlin,” he said, gesturing toward the barricade.
Coun. Grant Meyer – chair of the city’s rail safety task force – described the orders as “asinine.”
“This is an absurd-slash-dangerous precedent that could affect every community across the nation,” he said. “Yeah, you want things to be safe, but how far do you go? If we have to do it, shouldn’t every other community in Canada? I just think it’s crazy.”
Baldwin said that as tragic as last year’s death was, it should not have triggered current demands.
“We’re spending millions of dollars for an accident that was a mistake on the part of the individual,” he said, noting the jogger was wearing headphones when struck. (The coroner’s office confirmed Tuesday that the death remains under investigation.)
“If it had happened 30 feet north, would we be closing the street off? No, we wouldn’t,” the mayor said. “It doesn’t require ridiculous lengths.”
Local MP Russ Hiebert told PAN Tuesday that he, too, has concerns regarding the gate, and has asked for a review of the order.
“From my perspective, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to trade off railway safety for marine safety, when the boat launch is meant to be a marine access point, a rescue point,” he said. “I’m also concerned about the fact that this was created as a handicapped access point.
“I’ve raised all these concerns with the ministry and now I’m going to give them a little bit of time to review them…”