COLUMN: Decide railway issue on facts, not feelings

Taxpayers must also be kept in the loop, as any such project will cost them a significant amount of money.

A proposed $700,000 technical study to look into moving the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks from the White Rock and South Surrey waterfront to a new alignment is an early indicator of how costly this idea is.

Municipal politicians are already trying to shift the cost onto their neighbours. Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner says White Rock should foot a significant portion of the cost, while White Rock taxpayers likely think Surrey should pay for all but the consultant’s last cup of coffee.

A move could benefit the waterfront residents of both communities, and if it ever takes place, the corridor should become a seawall.

However, that’s a big if.

BNSF points out it has spent millions in upgrading the line in recent years, including an expensive new bridge where it crosses the Serpentine River. That bridge alone has cost about $15 million. BNSF has also replaced the Little Campbell River trestle.

Hepner says that, if any line realignment goes ahead, the new rail line would have to be underground for its entire length. Given that a relatively short piece of underground SkyTrain line along the Broadway corridor in Vancouver is proposed to cost close to $2 billion, it’s a reasonable guess the cost for an underground line from the U.S. border to Cloverdale, more than 10 kilometres, would over $5 billion. That is assuming soil conditions in the low-lying farm area south of Cloverdale wouldn’t lead to significant additional costs.

Where is this money coming from? BNSF certainly isn’t going to pay for the line relocation. It already has an existing line which it has spent millions in maintaining and upgrading each year.

Local taxpayers could not afford even a one-third share of a $5-billion project, as is required in most federal-provincial infrastructure projects.

Would the federal and provincial governments be willing to come up with their thirds? That is debatable, given the long list of pressing infrastructure needs such as transit improvements and replacement of crumbling bridges and overpasses.

What is needed even more than a technical study is a thorough cost-benefit analysis.

BNSF is criticized for running coal trains to Roberts Bank. The likelihood is these trains won’t be running that much longer, given even China agrees coal-fired electricity plants need to be phased out.

Hazardous goods will be hauled on any train, no matter where it goes. A tunnel does not guarantee there won’t be a derailment. BNSF has proven to be a good operator, with no derailments along the waterfront line for many years.

There is an significant problem at Crescent Beach, with emergency services unable to get into the residential area if a train blocks the tracks. That can be solved with an overpass – a far cheaper alternative to tunnel.

Amtrak passengers would benefit from travel time savings if there was a direct line from Blaine to Cloverdale. However, the time saving would likely be no more than 10 to 15 minutes.

Surrey and White Rock would benefit if the waterfront property could become a regional park and trail. However, BNSF is the owner of that land and won’t give it up for nothing. And what would happen to White Rock’s lucrative pay parking on BNSF property?

These are some of the pros and cons of a possible new route. There are many others.

It is important that any relocation move be driven by facts, not feelings. It is also important that taxpayers be kept in the loop, as any such project will cost them dearly.

Frank Bucholtz is the recently retired editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.


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