More than 300 people packed the White Rock Community Centre Monday night for a “community dialogue” on rail safety and the transportation of dangerous goods.
Touted as an opportunity to “dispel recent misinformation” concerning the waterfront tracks, the event – moderated by Surrey–Panorama MLA Marvin Hunt – featured a panel of city and BNSF officials, as well as transportation consultant Mary-Jane Bennett.
Those who turned out to listen, comment and question – and occasionally applaud agreement or scoff disgust – were not just from White Rock, Coun. Grant Meyer noted.
“It’s obviously an issue that affects the whole region,” he told Peace Arch News the next day, citing representation from cities including Surrey, North Delta and Langley. “It’s not just us, and some of the stuff that’s going on could set precedence anywhere in Canada.”
The seaside tracks have been a source of growing concern and frustration for the past year – particularly since a jogger was struck and killed by an Amtrak passenger train on East Beach last July. The tragedy occurred within days of the derailment in Lac Mégantic, Que., which killed 47 people and drew local attention to the deteriorating condition of the Little Campbell rail bridge. That, in turn, reignited a call to relocate the tracks away from the increasingly busy waterfront.
Mayor Wayne Baldwin told forum attendees the Lac Mégantic incident was “a game-changer” for White Rock. It highlighted concerns with the transport of dangerous goods such as crude oil and chlorine along the line – issues Bennett told the crowd “that everybody in White Rock should be reminded of and take part in (finding) a solution.”
A chlorine spill in a major city could kill 100,000 people within 30 minutes, she said.
Bennett, a former board member of the Canadian Transportation Agency, said such high-risk cargoes comprise five per cent of the goods that are transported along the country’s rail lines, but they account for 50 per cent of insurance costs.
Poor regulatory oversight by Transport Canada only exacerbates the problem, she said.
Transport Canada officials were invited to Monday’s meeting, but did not attend. Baldwin noted that response to a letter of concern sent to Minister of Transportation Lisa Raitt last fall was received just this month. He described the federal government’s “total indifference” to the city’s concerns as “astonishing.”
Regarding pedestrian safety, Meyer told attendees the public’s disregard for rules around the tracks – including to not walk on them – played a large role in events that culminated last month in the installation of a locked gate at the West Beach boat launch, and fencing at the westernmost end of Bayview Park.
“Not adhering to that is what got us into this mess,” Meyer said. “Please be careful down there. You learn that when you’re a kid, so let’s keep that up.”
Baldwin credited citizens – “people power” – with effecting the gate’s removal two weeks later, and he urged those with concerns to put them directly to Transport Canada officials.
“The very worst thing that a senior civil servant can face is to pick up the phone and find a member of the public on the other end,” he said.
The mayor directed them to contact information for three Transport Canada officials – details that were among stacks of photocopied documents prepared for forum attendees interested in the paper trail behind the waterfront developments.
In one letter to BNSF regarding “insufficient” steps to improve the White Rock situation following a Feb. 24 notice, a Transport Canada inspector notes he had expected railway and city officials to agree on crossing warning systems, 1.8-metre-high fencing for the promenade and “other related issues.”
Hunt delivered a statement from Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale MP Russ Hiebert, in which it was noted fencing “will not necessarily improve safety.”
Hiebert encouraged “personal responsibility and common sense on the part of everyone who visits the beach.”
Attendees’ questions to the panel began after a light-hearted but sincere appeal from Hunt to those wanting answers from the BNSF panelists: “These men take orders from others. Let’s please be kind to the sweet men who come.”
Questions that followed included what could citizens do to prepare for a spill; if the volume of the train whistles could be adjusted; how many times train engineers have to blow their whistles along the waterfront; why coal trains aren’t covered; and, what they thought of relocating the tracks.
Bennett’s description of the latter as “the best solution for White Rock” was met with applause, cheers and whistles.
One woman who told BNSF representatives that the train noise “is wrecking my life” said the time to relocate the line is now.
Asked if the “endless nighttime howling” can be quelled, the railway’s Benjamin Marx was jeered when he said there’s “usually a reason” for what residents feel is excessive whistling.
Marine Drive resident Madeleine Buhlau told the panel she is driving to work sleep-drived every morning due to the trains.
“That’s not safe,” she said.
Buhlau and her husband, Ralph, later told PAN that while the evening provided a better understanding of what has happened so far, they felt it was more about “passing the buck.”