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Empty coal train traffic begins in downtown Abbotsford

The first empty coal train ran through downtown Abbotsford on Monday morning.  - Alex Butler
The first empty coal train ran through downtown Abbotsford on Monday morning.
— image credit: Alex Butler

Traffic in downtown Abbotsford was stopped for about eight minutes today, as an empty coal train – one of many that will pass through Abbotsford this summer – rolled through.

Due to construction in Washington, two or three trains per day, each more than two kilometres long, are making their way through Langley and Abbotsford on the lightly used Southern Railway of B.C. tracks.

Representatives of both Southern Railway (SRY), which owns the former interurban tracks through eastern Langley and Abbotsford, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) confirmed talks between the two companies several weeks ago.

A test run took place on Thursday, and full operations began today (Monday). An empty BNSF coal train entered the west end of the SRY line at about 10 a.m. Monday, and was in the United States before 12 p.m.

“The plan in place will be for BNSF to reroute empty coal traffic from Roberts Bank through Abbotsford down to Sumas,” BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas said. He said the detour plan is expected to last for 65 days.

“Safety is the number one priority,” he said.

BNSF is upgrading tracks and replacing two bridges between the border and Burlington, Wash.

The trains normally run south from Roberts Bank, through White Rock, and enter the United States at the Peace Arch border crossing.

The trains are limited to a maximum of 24 km/h through downtown Abbotsford, and double that in rural areas, according to J. Singh Biln, SRY’s director of community relations.

In an earlier interview, he said the trains should be able to clear Abbotsford’s railroad crossings within the federally mandated five-minute time limit.

Currently, SRY runs one daily train on a return trip through downtown Abbotsford.

BNSF has been hauling an increasing volume of coal from U.S. mines to Roberts Bank, and is involved in a controversial plan to build a coal transloading facility at Fraser Surrey Docks, which has prompted plenty of opposition from neighbouring residents and groups fighting climate change.

The SRY tracks leave the main line to and from Roberts Bank at Livingstone, just east of the new 232 Street overpass, and climb a steep grade to traverse an area of farms, before travelling through the Gloucester Industrial Park, Bradner and Mount Lehman. The tracks then descend a steep grade to the Matsqui Prairie area of Abbotsford. The tracks then pass through an industrial area of Abbotsford and its downtown, before coming to the junction point with another BNSF line at the Canada-U.S. border.

The BNSF route through Sumas is occasionally suggested as an alternative to tracks along the waterfront at White Rock and Ocean Park in South Surrey. The mayors of both White Rock and Surrey have called for removal of the tracks from the waterfront area.

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