File photo The transportation of heavy freight and dangerous goods by rail is a year-round feature of the White Rock and South Surrey waterfront.

COLUMN: Semiahmoo Peninsula rail relocation much easier said than done

Numerous obstacles would hinder a rails-to-trails approach

Rail relocation is an easy sell for those who find themselves jarred awake by train whistles, and decry the frequent rumblings of endless freight trains along the shoreline.

But it’s not hard to see why talk of relocation has dragged on for years.

There can be little question that reducing or removing the current spate of rail traffic from the waterfront – which far outpaces any original use of the line – is desirable.

While the loss of life of those who’ve ventured too close to the BNSF line is undeniably tragic, it has been observed that there is no rush to eradicate our busy roadways, which almost daily contribute to a much higher death toll.

Yet the heavy freight traffic through our community – particularly trains carrying coal or hazardous materials – is clearly an accident waiting to happen, and moving it to another, more inland, route makes sense in the long run.

If a future high-speed rail link between Seattle and Vancouver is being contemplated – on a route following Highway 99 – then it would also make sense to engineer and develop a corridor that could support carrying the freight traffic as well as the fast trains, as MP Gordon Hogg, MLA Tracy Redies and both White Rock and Surrey council members are advocating, and which will be presented in a citizens forum White Rock would like to schedule for this fall.

The impression that relocating the route can be achieved overnight – with the rails and ties consigned to the scrapheap the following morning – is wishful thinking at best.

The work involved in engineering such a corridor, and securing the necessary rights of way, is going to be a task of pyramidic proportions – probably outlasting the reigns of several of our local political pharaohs.

Another suggestion is that a network of existing CN and CP rail lines through north Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford and Matsqui could be used for rerouting the freight traffic, but this, too, would require herculean feats of organization and negotiations with the railway companies.

But even supposing that the current BNSF traffic is rerouted, we can’t suppose that the landscaping trucks could roll in the next minute. The more than 50 year-old rails-to-trails movement is being increasingly threatened in the US over the issue of ‘reversionary rights’ – after a 2014 court ruling established a precedent that easements on unused rail lines should actually return to the original land-owners rather than being appropriated for public use.

In the case of the BNSF line, the issue is even more complicated. Politicians long dead and gone saw fit to grant ownership of the land in perpetuity to the railway in the early 1900s. Even if the line is decommissioned, the property is not White Rock’s, or Surrey’s, to play with. Arguably, it would be the BNSF’s to develop.

Even if a valid inland route can be developed, buying the existing corridor from BNSF, or exchanging it for other property, would have to be part of a much larger series of negotiations involving not only the cities, but the provincial and federal governments, and most likely Semiahmoo First Nation as well.

It seems that the Semiahmoo Peninsula will be dealing with the railway – one way or another – for a long time to come.

Alex Browne is a reporter at the Peace Arch News.

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