Alex Browne photo Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner responds to questions from the capacity crowd at the rail safety forum at White Rock Community Centre on Friday.

White Rock rail forum leads to renewed calls for relocation

Upgrading safety is not enough say local politicians

A public rail forum hosted by the City of White Rock Friday brought together local politicians and some 200 concerned citizens who reaffirmed the need for a study of relocating train tracks off the waterfront.

The meeting was attended by Robyn O’Brien Stroud – mother of Jack Stroud, the 15-year-old who died in July when he was struck by a passenger train near Crescent Beach. Although O’Brien Stroud did not speak publicly, her presence – and that of friends and supporters – gave testimony to the human cost of a railway line so close to human habitation.

The panel – chaired by White Rock council incumbent Grant Meyer and including retiring White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin and retiring Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, as well as South Surrey-White Rock MP Gordon Hogg, Surrey-White Rock MLA Tracy Redies and lawyer and rail-relocation expert Mary-Jane Bennett – was adamant that efforts would persuade the provincial and federal governments to help fund a long-planned rail-relocation study.

Although Hogg came bearing gifts from the federal government – a $1.63 million-plus commitment to five White Rock and Surrey infrastructure projects to increase safety of the BNSF line – speakers indicated agreement that this was a first step only.

Baldwin said his council would move forward on work to upgrade crossings and safety bells and whistles that could reduce the need for train horns. But while the work would mean, “safer crossings and allow people to get a better night’s sleep,” Baldwin said, “it’s a stop-gap measure – it’s not the end result.”

He said he has been heartened by agreements between the province and the U.S. to move forward with high-speed rail, and that he believes that a twinning of the route up Highway 99 could take dangerous goods off the waterfront.

Making a case for a more economical route would be key to moving ahead with relocation, he said.

“If we can prove there is an economic benefit to rail relocation, then BNSF will pay the bulk of (the costs)” he said.

Mayor Linda Hepner said that while Surrey has renewed its call for a 10 m.p.h. train limit in Crescent Beach, she feels climate change and shoreline erosion will inevitably lead to consideration of route relocation.

For their part, Redies and Hogg vowed to keep up pressure on Premier John Horgan and federal Minister of Transport Marc Garneau to come through with funding for the joint White Rock and Surrey study of relocation.

Hogg stressed the importance of unified action in moving forward to relocation, noting that ‘facts’ cited on different sides of the issue – including the BNSF’s beliefs about the safety of the line – are difficult to reconcile.

The forum also heard from Eric Seiz, who has done much to document photographically the impact of slides and other incidents on the rail line, and frequent White Rock council critic Roderick Louis, who loudly berated Baldwin and Hepner for waiting for federal and provincial funding to initiate a relocation study, claiming that both Surrey and White Rock have had ample financial resources to do the work since the cities first discussed it at a public forum in 2013.

Hepner and Baldwin argued, however, that federal and provincial authorities must be involved in the work for it to have a chance to succeed.

Bennett noted that in addition to 18 track-covered mud slides impacting the rail route since 2014, there have been eight ‘undesired emergency braking’ incidents (UDEs) with trains over the last four years in the Crescent Beach area.

Such braking produces extreme lateral forces on heavily-loaded trains in curving downhill routes, she said, and, coupled with worn rails, are what Train Magazine has referred to as a “recipe for disaster” mirroring conditions of derailments of dangerous goods in the Chalk River derailment of 2000, and the Brighton, Ontario derailment of 2009.

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