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Fiery U.S. derailment fuels argument to move rail off Semiahmoo Peninsula waterfront

‘It most certainly could have been a really big disaster’: rail relocation advocate

A fiery train derailment just 20 km south of White Rock on Tuesday (Dec. 22) may be a catalyst to re-energizing the conversation around relocating tracks that run along the Semiahmoo Peninsula waterfront – or at least that’s the hope of some local rail-relocation advocates.

“It’s not our desire to try and make these things into sensational things that much, because we want to work with BNSF and Amtrak to get this relocation built,” Ken Jones, a White Rock resident and president of SmartRail, said, a few hours after the derailment.

“It just points out one more reason, one more problem we have. We need a straight run through this area.”

Authorities confirmed that seven cars of a northbound train carrying crude oil derailed and two caught fire Tuesday at around 11:40 a.m. in the downtown Custer area, about 160 kilometres north of Seattle.

Whatcom County officials said on Twitter that nearby streets were closed, there was a large response for a fire and that all residents and visitors within a half-mile of the derailment needed to evacuate; BNSF officials said their first priority “is dealing with any safety issues.”

It’s not believed anyone was injured, and the cause of the derailment remains under investigation.

READ MORE: Train carrying crude oil derails, burns north of Seattle

Rail relocation, meanwhile, has been a growing concern in South Surrey and White Rock for decades, with much determined discussion and research happening quietly in the background. It returns to the spotlight with increased intensity whenever rail-related incidents occur, be those storm-triggered slides that send debris along the waterfront line, or far greater, more tragic incidents elsewhere.

The movement gained particular traction following the 2013 derailment in Lac Lac-Mégantic, Que. that killed 47 people.

Jones said Tuesday that the latest derailment in Custer had the potential to be far worse.

“It could’ve been (along the scale of Lac Megantic),” he said.

“If it hadn’t been so conveniently located right beside the highway where they could get at it easily – instead of along the bluffs of Ocean Park or Crescent Beach – it most certainly could have been a really big disaster.”

Commenters on Peace Arch News’ Facebook page have also weighed in. One noted it will take a “catastrophic event” such as that in Quebec to initiate change; another pointed to better routes, such as through Sumas/Abbotsford, or from Blaine north along Highway 99.

“It is time to get the heavy loads OFF the waterfront,” writes Marilyn Stirn McIntosh, noting both train traffic through the area and the population have increased dramatically.

Erik Seiz, another rail-relocation advocate, told PAN that he has long believed that one of two things would set the relocation ball firmly in motion: a serious business case that illustrates how much more profitable an inland, multi-track route would be; or “a ridiculous disaster.”

“It certainly isn’t going to move because people don’t like it, or (because) it would make a nice little bike path,” Seiz said.

“I truly believe that the only way this conversation is going to happen, unfortunately, is the motivator will be a disaster. And hopefully, it won’t be one here. Hopefully this one (in Custer) will be a word to the wise.”

He noted that trains carrying only crude oil are a relatively new addition to the Peninsula’s waterfront line.

“We used to see none,” he said. “They only started this up a couple years ago. Now they come through regularly… a number of times per week.”

Seiz said the derailment “might help bring some attention to that” and create an opportunity to ask questions around future plans for crude-oil transport, including what safety process is in place should something go awry.

BNSF officials have said in the past that while the company would be willing to review any officially sanctioned plan to move the line, “realistically, it would be a very difficult undertaking.”

– files from Associated Press

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Tracy Holmes

About the Author: Tracy Holmes

Tracy Holmes has been a reporter with Peace Arch News since 1997.
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