COLUMN: In for the long haul

Fight against expanded coal shipments will be difficult as they are a major source of revenue for railway companies.

Lobby groups, politicians and letter writers are talking about the plan to ship more coal from Wyoming by rail to the Fraser Surrey Docks, on the first leg of a trip to China to power electric plants.

One letter to the editor asked an unusual question – on what basis did the railway ever come through White Rock, and what is its legal status? Letter writer D. Barros notes that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) leases the land it uses through the Semiahmoo First Nation reserve. To the best of my knowledge, it owns the rest of its route through White Rock, Surrey and Delta.

The writer also noted that the original agreement goes back to 1903. That sounds about right, as the predecessor Great Northern (GN) Railway came to Surrey in 1891.

The GN originally came to this area through a subsidiary known as the New Westminster Southern Railway. When it arrived in 1891, it was a big deal. There were no cars or trucks. Transportation was by horse and buggy, riverboat, bicycle or on foot. Roads at that time were a sea of mud for much of the year.

When the rails did arrive, it facilitated logging and farming in Surrey and was an immediate boost to the economy.

Surrey municipality, which White Rock was a part of in 1903, would do what it could to keep the railway operating. The line along the beach used an existing road which had been used years earlier by surveyors, and my understanding is that the railway simply bought or pre-empted the land — probably from the provincial government.

There were a few homes in what is now White Rock, and no commercial services of any kind. The tracks were extended around the bluff to Ocean Park and Crescent Beach, to Mud Bay, Colebrook, adjacent to Burns Bog through Delta, before coming back into Surrey near the present Fraser Surrey Docks.

Barros points out that the City of White Rock has little bargaining power, yet the city has frequently made business arrangements with BNSF, whether it was the donation of the old station, which is now an historic gem, or operating pay parking. BNSF has been a good corporate citizen.

It is not up to the city to stop coal trains. It has influence and needs to use it. The Fraser Health Authority does have the ability to stop an activity if it causes excessive health risks, but thus far there is little direct evidence of coal dust along the rail line causing health problems.

Railways, unlike all other transportation modes, own and maintain their own routes. This does not come cheaply.

If citizens want to get BNSF to stop hauling coal, they might wish to make representations to the railway’s owner, Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, which is headed up by well-known businessman Warren Buffett.

I think they will have to make a very strong and detailed case, because coal shipments are a major source of revenue for BNSF, and at the present, many U.S. utilities use coal to provide electricity.

There are problems with shipping coal to China, but convincing a transportation company not to haul it won’t stop China from using coal. The challenge is convincing China to switch to forms of energy with a much lower carbon footprint.

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