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Rail realignment discussion in Surrey/White Rock poses question of which interests will be served

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  • 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 cargoes 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’.

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, let 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.

The presentations of mayors Watts and Baldwin at the Nov 26 forum can be viewed by clicking here.

Roger Annis is a member of the Vancouver Ecosocialist Group.

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