Trainrelocation group seeks ally in city council

Published on Thu, Jul 6, 2006 by eg Olson

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Train relocation group seeks ally in city council

By Meg Olson

Proponents of shifting the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train tracks to the east away from the shoreline have approached the city of Blaine, looking for an ally.

“There’s quite a bit of history in trying to get a realignment,” said Paul LeMay, speaking at the June 26 meeting of Blaine City Council. “Hopefully we’re not talking about it as a pipe dream tonight.”

LeMay represents the group Semiahmoo Peninsula Citizens for Public Safety (SPCPS), a group from the White Rock area that believes a shoreline track threatened by mudslides is an unsafe place for trains that could be carrying potentially hazardous chemicals. “We were rather concerned with the calamity that might arise with the derailment of a dangerous goods train in our community,” LeMay said. “Almost every year we have mudslides. We’re playing Russian roulette with the safety of our communities.”

LeMay said the group thought it was feasible to ask BNSF to relocate the track, and ask federal state and provincial authorities on both sides of the border to support the move.

“The Burlington Northern railway did not use to run on the shoreline, it ran somewhat inland,” LeMay said.

From 1891 to 1912 a track ran across the border at the Pacific Highway crossing, proceeded up the highway into Canada and then ran east along Woodward Ridge and up to Cloverdale where it joined major east-west lines.

In 1909 the coastal line opened and the inland line was taken out of service. Since 1909, LeMay said, mudslides along the coastal line have caused nine derailments.

According to information assembled on the SPCPS web site, while there continues to be mudslide activity along the shoreline track there has not been a derailment since 1954.

However, LeMay said, to assume it will not happen at some point in the future would be putting the community at risk. SPCPS formed in January 2006 after two large mudslides covered the BNSF tracks in White Rock.

A recent victory for the group, LeMay said, was to get support in principle from both the city of Surrey and BNSF for sirens that would alert citizens to a derailment, speeding evacuation and potentially saving lives if a tanker full of ammonia or chlorine was overturned and leaking a potentially lethal gas.

“This is a very serious thing,” he said. “If it should happen to us and the wind is in the wrong direction there could be dire consequences for Blaine.”

Despite the risks of a train derailment, LeMay said after the meeting that “moving dangerous goods overland by rail is by far the safest method available. So the balance that must be struck is to reduce, as much as possible, the risks posed to the community. In the case of Blaine, every level crossing presents a risk.”

The route and design LeMay and his associates have envisioned for Blaine is for the rail line to cross Interstate 5 near Dakota Creek, proceed north along the freeway to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection yard near Sweet Road, then along state route 543 in a trench alongside the highway to the border.

“Providing a below current road grade trench extending from H Street to theCanada-U.S. border at the Pacific Border crossing is one example of how the level crossing risks can be addressed,” LeMay said.

“What’s more, it should be noted that in the case of chlorine, as a heavier than air gas, in the rare and unlikely event that a derailment did take place in such a trench, the gas would remain relatively contained within the trench.”

The next step for proponents of the realignment is to highlight incentives to make the massive prospect of realigning the railway attractive to BNSF.

“To just ask a railway of that size to realign is not something that particularly gets that big railroad’s attention,” LeMay said.

Some things he said the railroad had indicated an interest in was a more secure facility for inspections at the border, to avoid costs associated with long delays when a train is held along the single coastal track for inspections.

The proposed new rail line would have a dual track and an inspection facility with additional sidings could be constructed if land were set aside now for that future development.

“Another possibility is an international rail station,” LeMay said. “As far as I know none exists in North America.”

City council member Bruce Wolf wanted to know “where is the funding coming from?”

On the Canadian side LeMay said he expected a consortium of Canadian National Railway, BNSF and the federal government would take on the task.

Where Blaine came in was on the U.S. side. “This community is exceptionally positioned to champion this,” LeMay said.
Washington state’s transportation commission is working on a comprehensive rail capacity and systems needs study, due for completion in November. Projects given priority in such a state study will be given highest priority for federal funds set aside for rail projects in several bills recently approved by the U.S. Congress.

“Since the study is going on, now is the chance for Blaine to make its views known,” LeMay said.

The cost for the 2.25 miles of new track, trenches and overpasses on the U.S. side, were the project to go forward, would be between $25 and $50 million, LeMay estimated, depending on geology and what engineering was needed.

A bill signed by President George W. Bush in August 2005 allows states to apply for grants not to exceed $20 million for rail relocation projects, with a minimum of a 10 percent local match.