EDITORIAL: Safety plan goes off the rails

White Rock's new waterfront fence seems to symbolize a determination toward confrontation rather than compromise.

The City of White Rock, BNSF and Transport Canada seem to agree on only one thing about the city’s latest railway safety controversy.

Ongoing fencing-off of train tracks along the waterfront will be a fact of life, so long as the railway is here, and so long as beach visitors can’t be trusted to respect the obvious perils of an active line.

It’s too bad the three parties, in all their discussions over the years, have never been able to agree on safe alternatives for beach access – whether in the form of signalled crossings, pedestrian bridges or tunnels under the track.

The tunnel option existed for many years on West Beach at Elm Street – constructed more than a century ago by the Great Northern Railway, BNSF’s corporate ancestor, at the order of the Railway Commission of Canada, pre-cursor to Transport Canada.

It’s interesting that, in that era at least, the federal body was as concerned with residents’ rights of access as it was with safety, while the railway’s standard approach was to fence everything and block all access to the beach.

The eight-foot-wide tunnel was, by all accounts, not a perfect solution. It silted up every year and had to be cleared, and there were flooding concerns because the ‘subway’ was below sea level. (In fact, it functioned as a conduit for hillside runoff, and some see its latter-day removal as a contributor to the great flood of 1999.)

In 1947, the White Rock Board of Trade asked Surrey – then White Rock’s governing municipality – to push the Railway Commission for safer access to the beach in the form of overpasses and underpasses at street ends. Surrey got as far as costing out an overpass at the pier, but the idea was never pursued.

Is it not possible that engineering methods have improved over the intervening years – allowing for easier and safer crossing options?

Or do the present-day parties even have an interest in working out a reasonable and workable solution?

The recent blame game over the installation of a locked gate at the West Beach boat launch seems to suggest other forces at play here. The city says it had the clear understanding that installation of a permanently locked gate was ordered by Transport Canada, while Transport Canada says it was not.

How does such a misunderstanding arise?

Whatever the explanation, the chain-link fences springing up along the waterfront this month seem to symbolize a determination toward confrontation rather than a desire for compromise.