Rail realignment in Surrey BC: Whose interests will be served?

First published in the Vancouver Observer, Dec 5, 2013

The city councils of Surrey and White Rock say they are keenly interested in a relocation inland of the railway line that runs along their ocean shorelines. That message was welcomed by most of the 400-plus people attending a public forum on the topic that the two councils hosted at the Pacific Inn in south Surrey on Nov 26.

The forum featured Surrey mayor Dianne Watts and White Rock mayor Wayne Baldwin. Each was given much applause when they declared that it’s time to move the line inland.

The case for relocation of the BNSF line has long been compelling. But the realignment proposal begs several important issues that were not answered at the public forum. These include what, if anything, will be done with the air, noise and chemical pollution that accompanies the diesel-powered rail line; and whether a faster and safer rail corridor would end up facilitating expansion of coal and oil transport by the rail operator, Burlington Northern/Santa Fe in partnership with the ever-ambitious Port of Metro Vancouver?

The case for relocation

The historic line that connects the Vancouver region to Seattle was completed just over 100 years ago. Its current ownership incarnation is Burlington Northern/ Santa Fe (BNSF). The railway giant was acquired by the Warren Buffett-owned Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate in 2009. The section of line in question is 19 km long, from the U.S. border north to the east-west line in south Surrey that is operated by CN Rail.

Transportation and environmental advocates (though curiously, not many business interests, it seems) have lobbied for realignment for decades. The White Rock and south Surrey waterfronts are made dangerous and unwelcome by the trains that pass.

According to one participant in the Nov 26 forum, trains there have killed 19 people and maimed 34 over the decades. The most recent death was a jogger in September.

The line’s rail bed and bridges are deteriorating or are downright dangerous. In south Surrey, the steep slope that rises inland from the line is unstable. During heavy rains, it is subject to slides that can derail trains. In 2010, winter rains forced Amtrak to cancel its daily passenger service along the stretch for ten days.

Diesel exhaust pollutants and nighttime noise are serious public health concerns. So too are the carloads of dangerous chemicals—including chlorine gas and propane–that are transported southbound. The Crescent Beach neighbourhood is completely cut off from emergency road access by the lengthy trains as they slowly pass.

The line has degraded the habitat of much of the animal and marine life that could otherwise prosper in the rich setting where the ocean meets the land.

Similar safety concerns prevail south of the U.S. border in Washington State, including in the waterfront northern suburbs of Seattle and in the city of Bellingham.

Mayor Baldwin voiced safety concerns at the forum by presenting a fictional but harrowing account of what could go wrong with a train carrying dangerous chemicals.

The fossil fuel industry offensive

Relocation is driven by two rising concerns—the increasing transport of dangerous chemicals by train, particularly oil, and by the growing number of coal trains using the stretch.

The oil train explosion in Lac Mégantic, Quebec last July 6 has transformed awareness of railway safety in North America. Forty seven people died there when an oil-by-train scheme that was hatched by Irving Oil of New Brunswick turned disastrous. The company had contracted to transport oil from North Dakota’s Bakken field by rail across the continent to its refinery (Canada’s largest) in Saint John. The project passed muster with federal and state/provincial authorities in Canada and the U.S. The disaster occurred little more than one year after the scheme got underway.

A sleeper concern over BNSF’s possible ambitions for the stretch is the fact it is rapidly expanding its movement of oil from North Dakota to the southern and Pacific coasts of the U.S. North Dakota is now the second largest producing region of oil in the U.S. Two thirds of that product is moved by train, and two thirds of that is moved by BNSF.

While little or none of that oil is presently transported to Canada’s west coast, the proposal by the Port of Metro Vancouver to construct a second pier at its Roberts Bank shipping terminal has local watchdogs fearing this could eventually house an oil export terminal. Official plans say the second pier will be dedicated to container traffic.

At the same time, BNSF is transporting increasing amounts of thermal coal to the Pacific coast from Wyoming and Montana, including to the port of Vancouver. In 2002, an average of two trains per day moved along the White Rock/Surrey stretch of BNSF; the number has grown by ten times since then. Coal trains make up much of that increase.

Added to the existing concerns about diesel exhaust is the coal dust that flies off the loads in passing trains. One White Rock resident living near the rail line told this writer recently that he is washing coal dust from the exterior of his house more frequently than ever.

Coal train opponents have important allies just south of the U.S. border in Whatcom Country in the form of a vigorous citizen campaign opposing the movement of coal trains. A giant export terminal is proposed on unceded Lummi Indian lands at Cherry Point, just west of Bellingham. If built, this terminal, named Gateway Pacific, would become the largest coal export terminal on the west coast. The trains that would feed this terminal–several dozen per day–would roll through downtown Bellingham and its waterfront neighbourhoods.

With or without Gateway Pacific, many of the trains delivering U.S. coal to Vancouver are coming through Bellingham. (See BNSF Pacific northwest route map here.)

Where does Surrey City Council stand on coal train and exports?

The presentation by Mayor Watts at the Nov 26 forum should set a few alarm bells ringing for environmentalists and public health advocates.

Her presentation extolled the benefits to industry of realignment. A new line would better support the port of Vancouver and its growth, she said. The city’s photo display on the project lists its benefits, including: “Enables increasing rail frequency and capacity without major impacts to communities.”

Which industries and commodities would grow thanks to realignment? The mayor did not say. And there wasn’t much time to ask—a mere 15 minutes was allocated for questions and answers following the presentations of the two mayors.

Jeff Arason, Manager, Utilities of Surrey’s engineering department, told the Observer that the city’s environmental concerns over the proposed, direct-transfer coal facility at Surrey Fraser Docks are applicable to any proposal that would increase the movement of coal through the city.

On October 28, Surrey City Council voted unanimously to not support the FSD proposal in its current form. The motion requests that Port Metro Vancouver commission a comprehensive health impact assessment by an independent third party as well as full public hearings on the project. 

Surrey Council received a report from staff on November 25 indicating concern with the impact assessment study of coal train movement and coal shipping that was commissioned by Port Metro Vancouver and released on Nov 18. That was prepared by SNC Lavalin and consists largely of reviewing existing reports and studies. The city says there are deficiencies in the assessment and complains it was not consulted in its preparation.

These steps by the city have been welcomed by environmental advocates, but it took considerable lobbying on their part to get to there.

At the Nov. 26 forum, Mayor Watts spoke to the subject of railway safety only briefly. She appeared to downplay concerns about deficient regulatory practices that have come to light since Lac Mégantic. In response to an audience question on the subject, she commented in a reassuring tone that the federal government is looking after railway safety and then moved on. But the state of rail safety regulation in Canada is anything but reassuring.

A new Globe and Mail series on the lessons of Lac Mégantic paints a withering picture of failed railway regulation in Canada. The article on Dec. 2, titled, Inside the oil-shipping free-for-all that brought disaster to Lac Mégantic, explains, “Bestowed with federal powers that date back to the writing of the Constitution, when railways were nation-builders, the industry lies out of the reach of lawmakers at the provincial and municipal levels.”

The Dec. 3 article, Why railways can do as they please in Canada, gives case examples of towns and cities struggling to protect public safety in the face of railway companies that offer little information and cooperation and a federal government that just plays along.

The article looks at the first of two oil train derailments that occurred last summer in Calgary. On June 27, an oil train derailed while crossing CP Rail’s Bonnybrook Bridge that crosses the Bow River in the city center. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi then stumbled upon the information vacuum in which municipalities operate. The Globe writer describes:

“The derailment happened just before 4 a.m., and at 9 a.m. I found myself yelling at CP, saying, ‘What is in the cars? Tell me now, exactly, what is in the cars,’ ” Mr. Nenshi said in an interview. “This was many hours later. It’s a simple question, one would think.”

The article goes on to explain that when the city asked for the blueprints to examine the bridge structure, CP refused. The railway’s authority over the bridge superseded the city’s rights.

Another town portrayed in the article is Lac La Biche in northern Alberta. Its downtown is bisected by a CN Rail line. Trains carrying bitumen from the tar sands regularly block the road and pedestrian crossings. When the town asked the company to relocate its local rail yard for safety reasons, CN said fine, but the town would have to pay $10 million to cover the cost.

The mayor told the Globe, “When you’re dealing with the railways, they’ve got more power than the federal government.”

Several decades ago, Canada began to devolve responsibility for rail safety onto the rail companies themselves. Among the changes was that Transport Canada would no longer directly oversee the safety train operations; its role would henceforth be to audit safety reports that the railways themselves would prepare.

News reports since Lac Mégantic have revealed a litany of failings of the rail safety regime in Canada, including:

  • Transport Canada is not auditing most of the reports that the railways have presumably prepared.
  • It turns out the Transportation Safety Board (an independent agency) is not investigating the majority of runaway train incidents that occur, nor is it making reports on most runaways available. CBC News is reporting there have been at least 459 runaways in Canada since the year 2000, including 33 rail cars carrying residues of gasoline, diesel fuel and sulphuric acid that traveled 5 km on their own in Edmonton two years ago. The runaways are only reported to the public if they result in crashes or derailments.
  • In recent years, railway and oil-by-rail shippers and customers failed to acknowledge reports of the extreme volatility, toxicity and corrosiveness of North Dakota oil and then do something about it. This issue has been scrutinized by the Globe after the conflagration at Lac Mégantic left many oil industry observers wondering why the fires there were so violent and continued for so long. The paper reports, “Prior to Lac-Mégantic, neither Mr. Harrison [CEO of CP Rail] nor any other rail official, shipper, regulator or buyer publicly expressed concerns about shipping… large volumes of Bakken crude.”
  • In the wake of Lac Mégantic, municipalities and provincial governments in Canada renewed demands for disclosure by the railways of shipments of dangerous cargos passing through their jurisdictions. The railways and the federal government have resisted those calls. Changes announced to fanfare last month by the federal government (to which Mayor Watts was likely referring at the public forum) will henceforth provide after-the-fact details of cargo content only. Jurisdictions are still denied advanced notice. This is done in the name of ‘client confidentiality’ or ‘security’.
  • Transport Canada does not consider oil to be a dangerous railway cargo. It made no change in this regard following Lac Mégantic.

Railway safety regulation is an exclusively federal domain. But it necessarily occurs in cooperation with provinces and municipalities; or more typically in acquiescence.

The BC government’s record on safety regulation hardly inspires confidence. A June 2012 submission by the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Victoria to the province’s information and privacy commissioner said the practices of the ministries and departments of the government “may indicate a systemic failure of public bodies to proactively disclose information about risks to public health, safety and the environment.”

The clinic’s concerns were upheld in the case of the specific reference it made to the commissioner, over the failure of the Testalinden Dam near Oliver in 2010. Commissioner Elizabeth Denham ruled on Dec 2 that despite “an urgent and compelling need for public disclosure” of the potential danger of the aging dam, no warnings were issued by the provincial authorities responsible. Luckily, no lives were lost in the failure, but it caused extensive property damage to farmers.

The record of federal and provincial governments on railway passenger issues should also raise red flags. For all the talk of using realignment to increase passenger train service between Vancouver and the U.S. west coast, even to create a fast-train, past and present governments in Ottawa have shown no such inclination. A fast train to Seattle and beyond project has sat dormant for decades. Meanwhile, VIA Rail service connecting western and eastern Canada to the center of the country is all but gone (including the passenger service that until the late 1980s connected Montreal to Saint John via Lac Mégantic).

Federal government obstinacy delayed for several years a second, daily Amtrak passenger train between Seattle and Vancouver. The service expansion finally began in 2009.

The Liberal government in Victoria, meanwhile, is no friend of rail passenger service either. It cancelled rail service linking Vancouver to Prince George after it sold BC Rail to CN in 2004. The government has for years resisted expanding passenger rail service in the Vancouver region, notwithstanding the success of the West Coast Express service that was launched by an NDP government in 1995. The Liberals have spent billions on bridges and highways in the past decades and next to nothing on passenger rail.

With such a record by these two levels of government, talk of fast passenger rail service to Seattle accompanying a rail realignment, leave alone electrification, seems remote. It risks obscuring the threat of increased coal traffic and even the launch of oil traffic through Roberts Bank.

What should be a part of discussion of rail realignment in south Surrey is how it could facilitate more passenger service in order to reduce auto traffic, and how it could replace truck traffic with less polluting rail. And to eliminate deadly diesel exhaust pollutants, the BNSF line should be electrified.

Average global temperatures are rising as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. Mayor Baldwin of White Rock presented this rather starkly in his presentation on Nov 26 when he reminded the audience that sea levels are set to rise by several meters in the coming decades due to rising greenhouse gas accumulations in the atmosphere. Significant increases in annual rainfall in the region are also anticipated.

Broadcaster and scientist David Suzuki summed up the challenge facing society when he told CBC Radio One’s The Early Edition on Dec. 2 that the only rational treatment of fossil fuels in this era of climate warming is to “leave them in the ground.” Surrey should apply that sage and urgent advice in its dealings with the federal government over what passes along the railways in its jurisdiction. The environment movement will continue pushing the city in that direction.

Roger Annis is a writer and retired aerospace worker in Vancouver. He is a member of the Vancouver Ecosocialist Group.

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