It was standing-room-only at Tuesday’s community forum on railway safety, as more than 300 people packed the Pacific Inn in South Surrey to learn more about ongoing research into relocating the train tracks off the Semiahmoo Peninsula waterfront.
Four possible options for realigning the BNSF tracks – including three that would move the line along routes east of 176 Street – were presented in what was described as an opportunity for public feedback.
While most attendees appeared to be in favour of relocating the tracks, the possible new routes did not sit well with everyone. Anna Dean said she was “seeing red” at the suggestion to move the problem from one community to another.
“We don’t want your problem in our neighbourhood,” Dean told a panel that included Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin and City of Surrey staff. “Whatever the alignment is, it will affect another neighbourhood.”
While the idea of relocating the tracks is not new – it has been raised many times in recent decades – the cities’ officials said, and many attendees agreed, the time is right to push for making it a reality.
“There is a much faster, safer and viable route available,” Baldwin told the crowd, to applause.
“If we were starting from scratch, the present route would be the last we would take.”
The issue of the line’s safety has been in the forefront in recent months, following derailments in other areas of the country and the death of a White Rock jogger who was struck by a passenger train.
Baldwin announced plans for the forum at last week’s White Rock council meeting, explaining Watts contacted him in August to invite his city’s participation in Surrey’s efforts – an invitation Baldwin said added much-needed clout to the argument.
“It wasn’t 20,000 people talking,” he said Tuesday, referring to White Rock’s population. “It was over half a million.… This is a great thing.”
Watts noted 15 of the 19 kilometres of rail line eyed for re-alignment run through Surrey. From the border, it passes through the Douglas area, along four kilometres of White Rock’s coastline, then through Ocean Park and Crescent Beach before heading across Mud Bay and joining the main line at Colebrook Road.
Watts cited a number of studies since 1995 that have looked at the feasibility of moving the rail line. Surrey staff revisited the 2002 Delcan Report this past June, and “realized very quickly that we needed to resurrect” the effort, she said.
Watts said a memorandum of understanding signed last year for high-speed passenger-rail service between Vancouver and Seattle further supports the argument.
“As I looked at that, I felt, ‘you’re going to have a problem,’” Watts said. “This current alignment will not support that in any way, shape or form.”
She said safety issues with the existing route include population growth in the area; slope stability and erosion that increases the risk of landslides; pedestrian risk; access; and the transportation of dangerous goods. Predictions of a two-metre rise in sea level and more wet weather must also be considered, she said.
Realignment is estimated by the cities to cost $350-450 million.
One option presented Tuesday parallels King George Boulevard and Highway 99, and would see the line tunnelled between 16 and 36 avenues. Two of the three options for east of 176 Street are envisioned as largely elevated routes.
Attendees were given “10 to 12 minutes” to formally comment or ask questions. Cost and where the funds would come from were among concerns raised. One attendee wanted to know how many fatalities have occurred along the line in its history; another asked Watts to “dig in your high heels” to help move the concept forward.
An online survey on the project is at www.cityspeaks.ca/saferail