COLUMN: Coal key to railway profits

Shipments have, historically, been major revenue source

Lobby groups, politicians and letter writers are talking about the plan to ship more coal from Wyoming by rail to the Fraser Surrey Docks, on the first leg of a trip to China to power electric plants.

One letter in the Peace Arch News asked an unusual question – on what basis did the railway ever come through White Rock, and what is its legal status? Letter writer D. Barros notes that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad leases the land it uses through the Semiahmoo First Nation reserve.

To the best of my knowledge, it owns the rest of its route through White Rock, Surrey and Delta.

The writer also noted that the original agreement goes back to 1903. That sounds about right, as the predecessor Great Northern Railway came to Surrey in 1891. By 1903, it was successful enough to seek a more level route for its trains between Seattle and Vancouver.

The New Westminster rail bridge was under construction (it opened in 1904), and the railway would then be able to run trains directly into Vancouver.

The GN originally came to this area through a subsidiary known as the New Westminster Southern Railway. It crossed the border just west of the current Pacific Highway crossing, went through Hazelmere, Cloverdale and Port Kells, and along the Fraser River to Brownsville.

When it arrived in 1891, it was a big deal. There were no cars or trucks. Transportation was by horse and buggy, riverboat, bicycle or on foot. A railway enabled heavy loads, passengers and farm products to be carried at any time.

Roads at that time were a sea of mud for much of the year. A trip to the nearest town, New Westminster, was an all-day affair.

When the rails did arrive, it facilitated logging and farming in Surrey and was an immediate boost to the economy.

Surrey municipality, which White Rock was a part of in 1903, would do what it could to keep the railway operating. The line along the beach used an existing road which had been used years earlier by surveyors, and my understanding is that the railway simply bought or pre-empted the land – probably from the provincial government.

There were a few homes in what is now White Rock, and no commercial services of any kind. The tracks were extended around the bluff to Ocean Park and Crescent Beach, to Mud Bay, Colebrook, adjacent to Burns Bog through Delta, before coming back into Surrey near the present Fraser Surrey Docks.

The Semiahmoo First Nation land was already part of a federal government reserve, and the rail corridor was likely leased to the railway for a very long period.

Barros points out that the City of White Rock has little bargaining power, yet the city has frequently made business arrangements with BNSF, whether it was the donation of the old station, which is now an historic gem, or operating pay parking. BNSF has been a good corporate citizen in White Rock.

It is not up to the city to stop coal trains. It has influence and needs to use it.

The Fraser Health Authority does have the ability to stop an activity if it causes excessive health risks, but thus far there is little direct evidence of coal dust along the rail line causing health problems.

Railways, unlike all other transportation modes, own and maintain their own routes. This does not come cheaply.

If citizens want to get BNSF to stop hauling coal, they might wish to make representations to the railway’s owner, Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, which is headed up by well-known businessman Warren Buffett.

I think they will have to make a very strong and detailed case, because coal shipments are a major source of revenue for BNSF, and at the present, many U.S. utilities use coal to provide electricity.

There are problems with shipping coal to China, but convincing a transportation company not to haul it won’t stop China from using coal. The challenge is convincing China to switch to forms of energy with a much lower carbon footprint.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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