COLUMN: No shortage of rail-route obstacles

The debate on relocation of the railway tracks goes on

Over 50 years, there have been many discussions on relocation of the railway tracks along Semiahmoo and Boundary bays.

Politicians have used the idea as campaign fodder, and a variety of studies have been commissioned.

That’s as far as the idea has gone. Political will has waned and some citizens who were fired up have slowly given up on the idea.

One who hasn’t is Ken Jones. A former BC Liberal MLA and White Rock councillor, he is president of SmartRail. Using a study commissioned by Surrey in 2002, the group has come up with a plan to reroute the railway tracks through South Surrey, to connect with the existing Canadian Pacific/BC Rail line to Roberts Bank. BNSF freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains would go onto new tracks just south of Interstate 5 in Blaine, just before the existing line starts winding along the Blaine waterfront.

The proposal calls for a line to cross the border at the east end of the Pacific Highway truck-inspection area, then head northeast to about the 18800-block, near 16 Avenue. The new tracks would traverse a deep 125-foot cut to cross the hill that separates the Hazelmere Valley from the Nicomekl flood plain.

Joining existing tracks south of Cloverdale, the proposal calls for trains to travel along the Roberts Bank line to Colebrook, where they could join the existing BNSF line.

Jones believes the route could be built for about $200 million – including land-acquisition costs – and has the potential to become part of a touted high-speed rail corridor.

Others have doubts.

Barrie Sanford, a civil engineer who wrote the book Railway By The Bay, says it is “dreaming in Technicolor” to think the U.S. government and BNSF Railway would co-operate in such a routing, at least partially due to land-acquisition challenges.

The only option he thinks has any chance would “cross the border at the Peace Arch, immediately turn north and go through an open cut on the west side of Highway 99 to 8 Avenue, then tunnel (to) the Nicomekl River crossing then continue on the power-line right-of-way to Colebrook.”

This would entail a tunnel of about three miles. The intrusion on Semiahmoo First Nation lands could be made up, he said, if the First Nation was given the chance to take over foreshore lands vacated by the railway.

BNSF has no real interest in relocation. Spokesman Gus Melonas says “BNSF does not envision a need for relocating our railroad.

Our current route in British Columbia provides safe and efficient transportation for both freight and passenger trains. Since rail relocation is generally the most complex and expensive alternative for resolving community concerns… we believe a better approach is one that identifies and addresses specific concerns at specific locations.”

He notes talk of rail relocation never takes into account the challenges in the U.S. side and impact on an international trade corridor.

The debate goes on, but it appears there are no shortage of obstacles to any concrete action.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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