A planned community forum next week on relocation of the rail tracks from the waterfront in White Rock, Ocean Park and Crescent Beach will certainly draw a lot of interest and support.
But talk about relocating the tracks, owned and operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), is much simpler than action.
There are many obstacles to track relocation. One is cost. At an estimate of $350 to $400 million, where will that money come from?
While the three levels of government have co-operated on a series of rail- and road-improvement projects along the Roberts Bank rail corridor, it isn’t likely that such a generous cost-sharing program would be available to relocate a rail line with only moderate levels of rail traffic. BNSF hosts four Amtrak trains daily and four to six freight trains. If coal shipments go ahead at the Fraser Surrey Docks, the number of trains would rise – but that’s a big if.
The Roberts Bank corridor, on the other hand, currently hosts about 18 trains a day and is forecast to go to more than 30 when the port in Delta operates to full capacity.
So if there is little or no funding from Ottawa and Victoria, will Surrey and White Rock foot the entire bill to relocate the tracks?
BNSF is a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, one of the best-known and most successful U.S. companies. Buffett is in business to make money. While he is planning to give most of his fortune to charity, the cities of White Rock and Surrey would have a tough time convincing him or BNSF to pay for relocation.
If the money can be found, where will the tracks go? The most logical new route would connect to the Roberts Bank rail corridor somewhere near Cloverdale, as some BNSF trains proceed to the port and other trains could link up with the BNSF line through North Delta and North Surrey at Colebrook.
However, there is a steep hill between the border and Cloverdale. The original Great Northern rail line was built over the same hill in 1891, and the line was relocated along the coast in 1909 to avoid that grade. The only way to deal with that barrier would be with a long and expensive tunnel.
And part of the rerouting would have to take place in the U.S. The Canadian portion would likely go across farmland in the Hazelmere Valley, and some of B.C.’s most productive farmland south of Cloverdale. That would raise a hue and cry from farmland preservationists and residents, and would be a serious assault on the Agricultural Land Reserve.
Nothing is impossible, of course – with enough money and political will – but it seems unlikely this project will attract enough of either.
White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin is right to note that the issues of the replacement of the Campbell River rail bridge, Lac-Mégantic, increased coal train traffic and fears about hazardous goods have all arisen at the same time.
However, there has been no spill involving hazardous goods in the 104-year history of the rail line, and there have been no coal-train derailments, even though they have operated for the past 40 years. The public needs to be heard on this issue. But when it comes to paying for rail relocation, most members of the public won’t happily accept a huge jump in property taxes to pay for it.
(The Nov. 26 forum on the relocation is set for 7-8:30 p.m. at the Pacific Inn, 1160 King George Blvd.).
Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.