A freight train heads into White Rock after crossing the Canada/U.S. border.

COLUMN: Rail move likely to raise more than just eyebrows

Next week's community forum to discuss moving tracks from White Rock and South Surrey waterfront is sure to draw a crowd

A planned community forum next week on relocation of the rail tracks from the oceanfront 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 Railroad, is simpler than action.

There are many obstacles to track relocation. One is cost – at an estimate of $350 to $400 million, which may be a lowball figure, 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? The railroad isn’t likely to pay much, if anything. It’s not in its interests to do so.

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, something he does very well. 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 the costs of relocation.

If we assume that the money can be found for relocating the tracks, where will the tracks go? The most logical new route would likely 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 steep grade. The only logical way to deal with that barrier would be with a long and very expensive tunnel.

Where would the tracks be routed? Part of the rerouting would have to take place in the U.S. The Canadian portion of the route would likely be 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 of those areas, and would be a serious assault on the Agricultural Land Reserve.

The issues of cost and routing make it very difficult for rail relocation to go ahead. Nothing is impossible – with enough money and political will – but it seems unlikely this project will attract enough of either.

White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin is quite 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, and add focus to the challenge posed by a rail line along the ocean.

However, there has been no spill involving hazardous goods in the 104-year history of the rail line along the ocean. There have been no coal-train derailments, even though they have operated on a limited scale for the past 40 years. And if it wasn’t for the railway, White Rock would have developed very differently, and it is highly unlikely that the beach would be the major public asset that it is today.

The public needs to be heard on this issue. But when it comes to paying for it, it is unlikely that members of the public would happily accept a huge jump in property taxes.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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