PHOTOS: Rail patrols through South Surrey/White Rock aim to keep safety on track

BNSF Special Agent Darrell Ell chats with two pedestrians who dodged no-trespassing signage with their dog Thursday (Aug. 20) in an effort to access White Rock’s west beach, ending up on restricted land. Ell explained the rules and the safety reasoning behind them, and let the pair off with a warning. (Tracy Holmes photo)
BNSF Special Agent Darrell Ell advises two people found walking alongside the East Beach tracks Thursday (Aug. 20) that the practice is both illegal and dangerous. (Tracy Holmes photo)
BNSF Special Agent Dan Ritchie watches to ensure a trespasser – who was picking blackberries on the railway right-of-way – returns to a safer path on the beach west of White Rock, during a hi-rail patrol of the tracks Thursday (Aug. 20). (Tracy Holmes photo)
BNSF track inspector Ernie Arneson pauses at a path that runs alongside fencing on the west side of White Rock’s Bayview Park, which beachgoers routinely use to access the waterfront – despite strategically placed signage advising of no beach access and no trespassing. (Tracy Holmes photo)
White Rock’s skyline, as seen from the cab of the BNSF hi-rail truck as it headed east Thursday (Aug. 20). (Tracy Holmes photo)
A couple walk alongside the BNSF line in East Beach Thursday (Aug. 20), seemingly oblivious to an hi-rail truck approaching them from behind. Railway officials say the practice of walking on the BNSF right-of-way is both illegal and extremely dangerous. (Tracy Holmes photo)
BNSF Special Agents Dan Ritchie (centre) and Darrell Ell chat with a waterfront visitor Thursday (Aug. 20). (Tracy Holmes photo)

It’s a timeless message that those who patrol the rail line that runs along the White Rock and South Surrey waterfront endeavour to share: hanging out on or around the tracks can be a fatal decision.

“Probably 10 times in my career I’ve been called to go out with the coroner and pick up a body,” track inspector Ernie Arneson said, as he piloted a BNSF hi-rail truck along the East Beach tracks last Thursday (Aug. 20) afternoon.

And those images – at least one of which included amputations – can’t be unseen, Arneson said.

Tragic “every time they happen,” injuries and fatalities are precisely what BNSF officers and representatives hope to prevent through ongoing education and enforcement efforts, company spokesperson Courtney Wallace said.

“People just think they’re going to be able to hear the train and get out of the way. It just takes that one time.”

Lives lost on the Semiahmoo Peninsula lines in recent years have included 42-year-old Anita Lewis in July 2013, 32-year-old Gerry Foss in May 2015 and, most recently, 15-year-old Jack Stroud in July 2018.

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Wallace, Arneson and BNSF Special Agents Dan Ritchie and Darrell Ell want the track record to stay clean moving forward.

To that end, the officers have been continuing a routine of patrols in the hi-rail, including several in partnership with RCMP. Ell said so far this summer, nine of those partnered patrols – which run from the U.S. border to Crescent Beach and back – have taken place, resulting in 115 trespass warnings and 45 trespass charges. The team has also issued 24 liquor-control tickets and put out 22 fires along the waterfront.

A further 20 patrols by BNSF since June resulted in 170 trespass warnings, he said.

Regarding fires – which are banned in both Surrey and White Rock – Ell said they are particularly concerning due to the fact there is no fire-suppression along the track line. That means if a blaze were to get out of control in Crescent Beach, for example, the only way to fight it would be from the air.

The fine for trespassing is $115, however, Ell and Ritchie have discretion when it comes to imposing the penalty.

“It’s a lot of discretion, but it’s also a lot of teaching as well,” Ell said. “We don’t want accidents.”

Many of those encountered breaking the law profess to not be aware of it, Ell said. Others, however, are hard-pressed to make that argument – as was the case with two young women last week who scooted through brambles and under a strategically placed ‘no-trespassing’ sign with their dog in an effort to access the waterfront.

“We had a conversation,” Ell said, after intercepting the pair.

Information shared typically includes that freight trains don’t run on a schedule, can’t stop on a dime and often aren’t heard in time for someone who is on the tracks to get out of the way.

“They got it, they understood the risks they were taking, and that they were getting a warning. Most people take it well.”

Ell – a South Surrey resident who joined the BNSF team after retiring from the Vancouver Police Department – said one of the things he’s found “shocking” in his six months on the job is the mindset that people have when it comes to the railway. Many, he said, “treat it kind of like a sidewalk.”

During last week’s tour – which, over the course of about two hours, went east from the Bay Street crossing to the border, then west to the Beecher Street crossing in Crescent Beach before returning to Bay Street – Arneson stopped the truck twice more for Ell to deal with trespassers. Two were seemingly using the line as a jogging trail; another ventured dangerously close on a quest for blackberries, telling Ell he’d lived in the area for a number of years and had a good idea of when the trains run.

It’s a claim Arneson has heard many times over his 46 years with BNSF, and his thoughts on the statement are blunt: those individuals have simply “dodged the bullet.”

Wallace said BNSF has seen an increase in unsafe behaviour on and along the rail line during the pandemic, as more and more people want to venture out. It was noticeable in particular while the pier and promenade were closed and blue fencing was erected to block that access, Ell noted.

“People are getting antsy and they want to get out of the house. We get that,” Wallace said.

“Being on the railroad tracks is never a good idea.”

According to Operation Lifesaver statistics, more than 100 Canadians are seriously injured or killed every year as a result of railway crossing or trespassing incidents. The non-profit organization, funded by the Railway Association of Canada and Transport Canada, is dedicated to decreasing deaths and serious injuries on and around the railway by increasing awareness of rail safety.

June 2020 was the first decrease in rail deaths and injuries that has been logged in months, according to the statistics.

Ell is optimistic that the conversations he and Ritchie have with people during patrols is resonating, and that the information is being shared.

“I think the message is getting across,” he said.

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