Anyone wanting access in or out of Crescent Beach was out of luck for nearly three hours on Saturday (Jan. 21).
A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train was stopped from shortly after 10 a.m. until just after 1 p.m., blocking the two access points for nearly 400 properties in the waterfront neighbourhood.
Members of the Surrey Fire Service attended the scene, as their dispatch is notified if a train has been stopped and blocking access for 10 minutes, said Greg McRobbie, Surrey Fire Service assistant chief of operations.
They also reached out to the RCMP and BC Ambulance Service and sent a fire truck to the scene.
“We send the crews down there to do an assessment and come up with a plan should a medical emergency occur,” McRobbie noted.
Fortunately, there were no medical emergencies during the time the train was blocking access on Saturday, he said.
“We were notified of it at 10:24 a.m. and the train was cleared at 13:04.”
McRobbie said BNSF told firefighters that the train had gone into an emergency stop procedure that caused a mechanical issue with the train.
Residents in the area weren’t too surprised by the hours-long stoppage.
“It generally happens about once a year,” said South Surrey resident Don Pitcairn on Sunday, noting that an Amtrak (passenger) train was stuck behind the BNSF train as well.
“My wife’s friend (who lives in Crescent Beach) was supposed to come over for brunch and she couldn’t.
“What if you were going on vacation yesterday and had to get to the airport?”
He and other area residents are concerned about the lack of emergency access as well.
“Maybe BNSF should be the ones building a tunnel or another access,” Pitcairn said.
He said he has even found broken knuckles – parts of the train that can break when the train goes too fast around a curve – on the beach on more than one occasion.
He and South Surrey resident Erik Seiz both noted the train has to slow down to 10 miles an hour for the trestle, something that can be difficult for long trains, like coal trains that are often 140-plus cars, on a track that curves so much like it does in the Crescent Beach area.
With such long trains, there’s often an engine in the front, in the middle and at the back, Seiz said, but the signal between the engines can get mixed or lost because of the terrain, and while a repeater tower was built to help, he suspected a signal interruption may have been the cause.
“I’m not sure what happened on Saturday but that has happened in the past,” he said.
“The outsized number of failures in Crescent Beach are all the result of the need for the train to slow down to the 10 mph limit required by the marina trestle. Because of this, there is a unique opportunity to reduce failures and increase safety for almost no cost,” Seiz said.
“If trains slowed to the trestle speed before the curve into Crescent Beach, all brake-related failures would happen before the trains reached the crossings.
“This would add only two minutes of travel time, but greatly increase safety for residents and visitors. It would also increase reliable service for the railway,” Seiz said.
The Peace Arch News requested an interview with a BNSF spokesperson.
BNSF general director of public affairs Lena Kent sent a prepared statement via email that reads “It was a mechanical issues associated with the knuckle. Yes all modes of transportation including trains can encounter a mechanical issue. I don’t know if there has ever been one (train stoppage) specifically at Crescent Beach.”
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Surrey mayor Brenda Locke said the latest stoppage is concerning, and not only because of the safety aspect.
While she credited Surrey Fire Rescue and other first responders for getting to the scene so quickly, “If there was a medical emergency this would’ve been a tragedy,” she said.
“The problem is Burlington Northern Santa Fe didn’t follow the rules,” she said.
“They’re not supposed to be blocking roads for more than five minutes but they continue to do that, so we’re going to be talking to the federal minister responsible for transportation about that.”
Continuing to have such stoppages is unacceptable, she said.
“We have to get more aggressive with BNSF. Transport Canada is just going to have to get tougher on them.”