An initiative north of the border to relocate the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail routes away from the Boundary Bay shoreline could be just the spark needed to reignite the discussion for a Blaine Amtrak rail stop.
The push, led by Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin, comes on the heels of two train disasters – the explosive and deadly derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on July 6 that killed 47 people, and the death of a jogger at the White Rock crossing the same month – and aims to increase the safety of residents by redirecting hazardous cargo trains from the waterfront and further inland onto existing but unused rail lines. “The main push for this realignment is safety,” said White Rock councilor Grant Meyer. “But there would be a whole slew of benefits to redirecting the rail, including the high speed rail agreement that was signed by then-B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and previous Governor Christine Gregoire.”
Gregoire and Campbell signed a memorandum of understanding in 2012 that aims to establish a high-speed passenger rail system between Seattle and Vancouver, but the current alignment does not support the creation of that system due to the nature of the route’s windy coastal route. “It won’t support that goal in any way,” Watts said. “We need to look at other options.”
Watts said that she has talked to Matthew Rose, chief executive officer of the Berkshire Hathaway owned BNSF, and that he was “interested in working with us and the community in terms of how we can move this [realignment] forward.”
“This is a dramatic new development [in terms of an Amtrak stop],” said Bruce Agnew from the Cascadia Center for Regional Development. “We fully support it, because changing the current alignment could give us the three to five minutes we need to make the stronger case for creating a stop in Blaine. We just need to connect the dots across the border.”
Both Surrey and White Rock have submitted letters in support of a Blaine train station, which would act as a bi-national stop and would serve the needs of Lower Mainland residents who do not wish to make an hour journey north to Vancouver to board the southbound train.
On November 26, nearly 400 people crowded into the Pacific Inn in South Surrey in a standing-room-only community forum to hear Watts and Baldwin’s proposals for a rail realignment.
Their presentation, titled “Reimagining the Corridor,” focused largely on the safety hazards that plague the current route, which winds 10 miles down the coast from Mud Bay to the U.S. border crossing, and the potential for what could be developed in those areas if the trains were re-directed to the proposed alternative routes.
Citing mudslides, pedestrian risks at the White Rock crossings and the potential for a derailment while carrying hazardous materials, Baldwin said the time to take stock of the rail traffic is now. “When this route was designed and built, there were relatively few trains,” he said. “But times have changed. This is a message we need to take to the federal and provincial governments.
“We have to take a hard look at this train route,” he said. “It’s possibly the most hazardous in the Lower Mainland and it makes no sense at all to run a train along a rugged winding coastline beside one of the most ecologically sensitive bodies of water we have when there’s a much faster, safer and viable route available.”
“It’s a good time to start the conversation,” Watts said. “There’s a lot of risks in the current alignment – there’s an average of five landslides per year and train traffic has increased 1,000 percent since 2004. It’s concerning to us.”
Proposing four alternate routes, which cut through the heart of the mainland and keep hazardous materials away from the coast and more densely populated parts of Surrey, the B.C. leaders estimated it would cost between $300 and $400 million to make the move.
“We’ve identified four alternate routes,” Watts said. “Some are elevated, some are tunneling; now we have to get the key players to the table and find out if there is a funding model that will work and if there is money available from the provincial and federal government for this kind of work.”
Watts said she wanted to get other stakeholders such as Blaine engaged in the conversation as well.
Blaine council member Bonnie Onyon said there is a meeting in the works for some time in January.
“It’s going to be very expensive,” she said, “but they already need to do work on some of the overpasses, so it might not cost that much more to relocate. It’s been talked about for some time, and it will be years and years before this happens, but it would certainly cut time off the route and make a stop in Blaine more feasible.”