MP Dianne Watts has won a call for a federal study of the safety of the BNSF line through White Rock and South Surrey – but acknowledges relocation of the contentious waterfront route is on a back burner for now.
The South Surrey-White Rock MP’s motion was approved in Ottawa Monday, by the Standing Committee for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.
Watts, Conservative critic for infrastructure and communities, confirmed that consideration of relocating the railway inland is not on the table at present.
“We are not discussing the realignment at this time,” the former Surrey mayor told Peace Arch News by email Tuesday. “It is about rail safety and the access to Crescent Beach and the erosion of the foreshore. That is the priority at this point in time.”
Relocating the rail line inland has long been discussed by local politicians, including Watts during her three terms as mayor prior to her election as MP last fall.
Watts told PAN the scope of the study would be determined by the committee at its next meeting and that she expected witnesses would be called “in the near future.”
In the motion passed by the committee, Watts outlined long-standing issues about the line, including increased freight traffic, the carrying of dangerous goods, population density near the tracks, soil erosion and landslides during periods of heavy rainfall and environmental concerns.
She also highlighted lack of emergency access to Crescent Beach when a train is blocking the road crossings, citing a major blockage incident in 2007 and several examples within the past year-and-a-half in which emergency braking by trains had led to extended blockages.
In November 2013, the then-mayor was one of the drivers of a community forum in South Surrey – on a panel with White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin – that presented four possible BNSF realignment routes for discussion.
Although met with some resistance by residents anxious that a relocated route would invade their neighbourhood, the idea of ‘moving the tracks’ has remained a hot-button issue in the community.
It was raised again this month at a White Rock forum on the upcoming federal budget, organized by the South Surrey-White Rock Federal Liberal Association, at which Fleetwood-Port Kells Liberal MP Ken Hardie – who also sits on the Transport, Infrastructure and Communities subcommittee – said relocating the rail line “makes all the sense in the world.” He cautioned, however, that “gone are the days that any government can just simply bulldoze its way through and do what it wants.”
Watts has said consistently since the original forum that her overriding concern is safety around the existing route.
In December 2013 she told PAN that the first meeting was “about beginning the conversation” and that “the realignment conversation is secondary to the conversation around safety issues.” Moving the line, she acknowledged at that time, “would be a lengthy process, without a doubt.”
Watts’ successor at Surrey City Hall, Mayor Linda Hepner, campaigned in the November 2014 municipal election on a promise to pursue relocating or realigning the BNSF waterfront route, or at least address the concerns of rail safety, slope stability and access to Crescent Beach.
Baldwin has said repeatedly that relocation of the rail line off the waterfront is still the most desirable goal for the city.
“This has been sort of like our long-term goal,” he told PAN in 2014, estimating it could be accomplished in five years.
Rail relocation was also a popular topic at all-candidates meetings during the federal election, with candidates for the Liberals, the NDP, the Green party and the Progressive Canadian Party arguing that shifting the rail route is a moral responsibility that would supercede considerations of cost.