Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum says an increase in occurrences of trains blocking access in and out of Crescent Beach means it’s time to “push harder” for rail-safety improvements in the area.
“I think the push has got to be a lot harder now because the circumstances that are happening are a lot more frequent now,” McCallum said.
“We may have to start to accelerate the pressure on the federal government and on Burlington Northern.”
McCallum spoke to Peace Arch News about the issue Tuesday, after a “mechanical issue” left a southbound BNSF freight train blocking traffic at Beecher Street the morning before, for what some residents say was 40 minutes.
BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas confirmed an “emergency situation” stopped a train at 8:05 a.m. on Oct. 21, but said it was back on the move at 8:30 a.m. and did not pose a threat to the public or environment.
Area resident Erik Seiz said a railway worker at the scene told him the incident was a result of air loss in the train’s braking system, however, Melonas said only that the mechanical issue that triggered the problem “required further inspection and attention” and remains under review. Speed was not a factor, he added.
“BNSF is investigating further,” he told PAN, apologizing for the inconvenience the blockage caused.
“We understand the importance of mobility for the public at crossings,” he said. “Our goal is not to block these crossings. In this case, it was an emergency.”
Melonas noted that communication with the City of Surrey was “immediate.”
Seiz said the incident was the fifth blocking incident at the site in the past two years. It further validates claims that freight trains “can not reliably navigate the 24th Ave. track curve,” he told PAN by email.
McCallum said options for improving the situation – such as an overpass or, as he’d prefer, complete relocation of the tracks – have been raised in the past, but that neither the federal government or BNSF have made any substantial changes.
“It’s presented, for many years, a very serious problem,” McCallum said, citing the inability of emergency crews to get to crash or medical scenes during such events, as well as the “huge hazard” that would result if a spill necessitated evacuation.
“There’s literally no way to get the people out of Crescent Beach,” he said. “We need to work a lot harder with both the federal government and BNSF to try and get some solutions.”
McCallum said the federal government needs “to start to demand they have a solution for this.”
“(BNSF) continue to try to stonewall us as far as doing any corrections down there.”
McCallum, noting that it’s his understanding that the cargo on Monday’s train included chlorine gas, said he plans to write to the new minister of transport once that person is in place; as well, to request a meeting with BNSF’s Canadian contact. The latter is something “we’ll push hard” to have as soon as possible, he said.
Melonas couldn’t confirm exactly what the train, with just under 100 cars, was carrying, but said chlorine gas was a possibility, as “freight of all types move on this line.”
He said Wednesday that BNSF “is willing to discuss the crossing issue with the Mayor.”
He disputed McCallum’s assertion that little has been done in Crescent Beach.
“BNSF has made a strong effort in reducing blocking these crossings and our records indicate that significant improvement has occurred in that area,” he said.
“We will continue to focus on this approach to allow for continuous public mobility… that includes the mechanical focus, to operations practices, track upgrades – all of this leads to efficient train movement.”
Regarding relocating the tracks, McCallum said the railway, in the past, has “shown no interest” in the idea.
An overpass, he added, would provide “at least a temporary thing.”
McCallum also predicted the worst – that, without any action, it’s “just a matter of time” before a serious incident occurs.