www.crescentrockbeach.org, email: email@example.com Submission to Transport Canada’s Advisory Panel reviewing the Railway Safety Act.
I am the president of Surrey's United Naturists (SUN), which is dedicated to the protection and preservation of Crescent Rock Naturist Beach in Surrey, B.C. I’m the resident expert with regards to the history and ecology of this rugged shoreline area that is used as a right of way for BNSF and CN trains. The following is an explanation of the dangerous practices I have recently observed along this section of track which threaten both the environment and area residents.
The BNSF Railway operates along the shore of the South Surrey/White Rock peninsula with their rail line connecting New Westminster B.C. to the Canadian/American border and beyond. The stretch of track between Crescent Beach in Surrey and White Rock lies at the base of the geologically unstable Ocean Park bluff which has been the scene of 9 previous train derailments, all from mudslides. There are over a hundred slides visible on this hill, along with more than a dozen areas where debris has recently hit the train tracks.
This winter during heavy rains, there were eleven mudslides across this bluff that landed on the rail bed. These slides contained a total of 1950 cubic metres of debris weighing 4300 tonnes, or ten times the weight of the famous White Rock boulder falling onto the tracks. This debris was equivalent to over 200 tandem dump trucks and buried 360 square metres of the shoreline in mud. DFO has also been contacted and is currently investigating the BNSF for allegedly dumping slide material excavated from off their tracks onto Crescent Rock Beach below.
Two of the mudslides were important in that they closed the rail line. On March 11, a slide occurred near Crescent Beach in Surrey, covering the rails in 2 feet of mud, rocks, and trees for a length of 40 feet in an area outside of the landslide detection fence. This slide originated from a household drain at the top of the bluff, which had been discharging run-off water from the property onto the slope. A freight train impacted this debris but fortunately did not derail. This slide and a larger one nearby caused the cancellation of Amtrak passenger train service for 24 hours, forcing these people to be bussed between Vancouver and Seattle.
On March 24, the largest slide of the winter occurred at the Coldicutt Trail in White Rock which buried the tracks there in up to 5 feet of mud for over 60 feet, triggering the landslide detection system. This time the Amtrak passenger train was cancelled for 48 hours because of the magnitude of the mudslide and the lingering threat of others. Once again, Amtrak passengers were bussed between Vancouver and Seattle instead of being exposed to the slide risk across the bluff.
While the rails were closed to Amtrak because “they were unsafe” (direct quote from BNSF officials), freight traffic was allowed to proceed once the slide debris had been cleared. I witnessed a BNSF train carrying HAZMAT freight during this time. A total of 15% of its cargo were tankers containing inhalation hazardous chlorine and ammonia gas, along with an additional 15% being other dangerous goods including petroleum and propane. This was the same toxic cocktail that led to the evacuation of Mississauga for almost a week in 1979 after a CP derailment there. This BNSF freight train and others were allowed to pass through this unstable corridor while heavy rains persisted and the slope above was still saturated, threatening even more landslides especially those triggered by train tremor.
To make matters even worse, hilltop residents are being allowed to cut down trees to improve their views, weakening the root structures that hold the soils in place. Run-off water from these properties is also being directed onto the slope, further exacerbating the slide threat. The bluffs are lined with a wide assortment of these drains in various states of disrepair. These conditions have been made known to the BNSF and the local S. Surrey/White Rock governments plus fire departments, but none of them have made any attempt to stop these practices which directly threaten the trains below running next to the adjacent shoreline.
In the event of a mudslide caused derailment, HAZMAT cars would topple onto the rocky shores of Crescent Rock Beach below, possibly contaminating the international waters of Boundary Bay. As it is a major migratory bird stopover and already the scene of a past crude oil spill from the Cherry Point refinery in Washington State in 1972, further pollution of this environmentally sensitive area should not be tolerated.
Residents who live near the BNSF rail line have no way of knowing about an accident occurring on these tracks which are hidden from view by the 200 foot high Ocean Park bluffs. There is no warning system in place to alert people to a dangerous spill of poisonous gas. A derailment onto this boulder-strewn beach could easily cause the release of inhalation hazardous materials resulting in a toxic cloud that would drift silently into nearby neighbourhoods. This is an intolerable threat that could lead to the loss of many lives which simply cannot be allowed to continue.
I would like to recommend the following changes to the Railway Safety Act in order to reduce these risks, improve track safety and protect the environment:
Railways should be made to report natural incidents that threaten track safety such as landslides and rail bed erosion so these occurrences can be tracked. The volume of slides and the length of rail bed erosion should also be reported.
When landslides occur that block rail lines forcing the cancellation of passenger trains, HAZMAT should also be stopped especially if the track is located next to an environmentally sensitive area or near populated regions. These cancellations should be recorded as an indicator of track safety.
Rail lines impacted by slides caused by heavy rains should not be reopened until the hill above the tracks has been given time to drain and the slope has been surveyed by an independent geotechnical engineer to ascertain its stability.
Rail lines under slopes that are landslide prone should be closed during periods of torrential downpours and subsequent soil saturation when slides can be expected.
Rail lines currently running through a hazardous area with a history of landslides, washouts, or derailments should be moved if a safer route could be found away from the threat. This is especially important if the current location is next to an environmentally sensitive area including any body of water.
Landslide detector fences should be mandatory for all slopes which have experienced slides. If new slides happen outside of the protected area, the fence should be immediately extended to cover these hillsides.
Practices that threaten rail line safety such as homeowners draining water onto hills above tracks or cutting down of trees for views undermining slope stability, should be stopped when they become known to Transport Canada or the Railway.
Rail lines that run through a historically hazardous corridor next to populated area should have a warning system similar to air raid sirens so that in the event of a train crash, residents can be quickly alerted to any danger or evacuation order. This is imperative if inhalation hazardous cargo is regularly carried on the line.
Transport Canada needs to dictate the maximum length of trains through hazardous corridors where extreme lengths and weight might contribute to increased derailment risk, especially where environment damage would result.
Railways should be made to keep records of the amount and variety of HAZMAT that is being shipped on their lines and make this information known to Transport Canada or the general public upon request. The manifest of any train carrying HAZMAT that is involved in any incident or accident should also be recorded.
A 1-800 telephone line and email address should be instituted by Transport Canada so that people or railway employees who know of unsafe railway practices threatening the environment can call to report their concerns.
The Railway Safety Act should be reviewed at a set duration so that changes could be more readily instituted. The thirteen years that have passed since the last review is excessive. A five-year interval would be more appropriate.
By making these revisions to the Railway Safety Act, I believe rail transportation in Canada would be made safer for the public, railway employees, and the environment. I would appreciate your consideration for the adoption of any or all of these proposed changes.