Park users and area residents are calling for the city to do something to increase rail safety in the Delta Nature Reserve after a dog was killed by a passing train last week.
The incident happened at about 11 a.m. on Thursday, July 26 at an unsanctioned ground-level crossing near the Monroe Drive entrance to the North Delta Greenway.
Alexandra Gust lives a few blocks from the park and takes her dogs for daily walks in the nature reserve, rain or shine, often using the Monroe Drive crossing. She was there when a man whom she had just met earlier that morning lost his dog to a passing train.
“I don’t know his name,” Gust said. “I know he’d only had the dog for about six months, he adopted her. We came to the bridge and I said to him, ‘I’m crossing here.’ So he followed me.”
Running roughly north-south and parallel to the BNSF tracks, the greenway is mirrored by a walking path in the Delta Nature Reserve. The two popular trails are linked by official crossings at Nordel Way and at 72nd Avenue, however midway between them exists a well-travelled route that, though not sanctioned by the city, does feature wood-and-earth stairs on one side of the tracks and a wooden boardwalk and footbridge on the other.
| A well-used trail complete with wood-and-earth stairs leads from the North Delta Greenway down to the unsanctioned rail crossing.
James Smith photo
When Gust and the man emerged from the bush on the nature reserve side of the tracks, Gust took hold of her dog’s collar before beginning to cross the tracks, but the man’s dog trotted out ahead of them both.
“She was right near the track, and I said to him, ‘It’s about time for the train.’ And so he called her and she looked at him and then we heard the train.”
Gust said she and the man frantically called to his dog as he made a move to grab her, but the train came up too quickly and in a moment was over top the canine.
“Had she stayed where she was she would have been fine, but she was trying to get away and she went over the actual rail of the train and the train split her right in two,” Gust said, her voice cracking as she fought back tears. “It was horrible. He’s screaming and I’m screaming, we were both — I mean, I can’t even imagine what he’s feeling but I was hysterical.”
Other people came to their aid from both sides of the tracks, but there was little that could be done. Gust said the man, who appeared to be deeply in shock, picked up his dog’s remains and walked back into the nature reserve.
“He took off in towards the bog saying he had to go find something to put her in,” she said. “I said, ‘Where are you going?’ and he just kept walking, he was just too much in shock. So I don’t know where he went. I waited for about 10, 15 minutes and he didn’t come back.”
Gust posted about her experience on the North Delta Community Corner Facebook group, imploring park users to leash their dogs before crossing the tracks and asking for advice on how to go about petitioning the city for improved signage to warn others of the danger posed by the trains.
| A wooden boardwalk leads from the north-south walking path in the Delta Nature Reserve to the unsanctioned rail crossing. Visibility is limited until one steps into the rail right-of-way.
James Smith photo
“When you come off the bridge [in the nature reserve] there’s bush on either side of you and then the tracks are right in front of you,” Gust said. “You have to be pretty close to the tracks to look down both ways to see whether the train is coming. And I’ve been there with my dogs and seen the light of the train but still haven’t heard it until it’s right beside me. It just goes so fast.”
Gust said the trails and the crossing are popular with dog walkers and area residents and are used frequently, especially during the summer.
“There’s lots of dogs and although they’re supposed to be leashed in the bog, I would say 95 per cent have their dogs off leash in there, including me,” she said. “And there’s lots of people in there. I’ve seen people standing on the tracks and I’ve said to them, ‘You can’t stand on here, you won’t hear that train coming.’”
Alexandra Gust shot and posted this video of a passenger train travelling past the unsanctioned crossing to show just how quickly and quietly the train can come up on people. (Alexandra Gust/Facebook video)
Her concern is that all that activity on or near the tracks may have even more tragic consequences, as it did earlier this month when 15-year-old Jack Stroud was struck and killed by a passenger train near Crescent Beach in South Surrey.
“There’s lots of kids and families, and that’s the other thing. I’ve seen people crossing with their little kids and they’re holding the baby but they’re not holding their child’s hand,” Gust said. “There’s people with strollers in there that are sometimes trying to navigate crossing the tracks. In the summertime, obviously, there’s lots of kids.”
“I’ve seen lots of families in there picking the salmon berries … and picking the blackberries in late August. And that’s what scares me.”
Several people commented on Gust’s post to share their own experiences losing pets to passing trains, even some close calls involving people.
“My friend’s daughter almost got killed by the train. She stepped out because, same thing, they didn’t hear it. She stepped and her mom grabbed her from the back and pulled her off and the train flew right past. So it’s not uncommon,” Gust said. “I’ve heard stories from at least six people who have lost their dogs down there.”
In an email to the Reporter, director of parks, recreation and culture Ken Kuntz, said the City of Delta does not have statistics on train safety, noting incidents between dogs and trains may not be reported to the city.
A number of commenters on Gust’s post suggested the city should install an overhead crossing to replace the ground-level one, however Kuntz said the city has no plans to do so as the North Delta Area Plan identifies other locations where pedestrian and cycling improvements would be a higher priority.
“The pathways that have been established by repeated trespass are not sanctioned by the city and there is signage posted by BNSF at these locations that it is unlawful to cross the tracks,” Kuntz said.
But to casual park users, the crossing hardly looks like an improvised path cut by repeated trespass. As Gust points out, there are stairs built into the hillside leading up to the greenway, and a well-maintained boardwalk and footbridge leading into the nature reserve.
“These are not just, you know, a dirt trail. People have put steps in the trail,” she said. “There is a sign there saying that it’s private property, but there are bridges built specifically so you can get across [to] the tracks.”
The city will be taking a look at the signage on site “to reinforce or renew signage where appropriate,” however Kuntz said there isn’t much more that can be done to stop people from using the crossing.
“In terms of closing off the trespass pathways, that is very difficult to do. A fence would only partially help as we have found in other areas those that want to trespass just cut holes in the fence material,” he said.
Kuntz said the city is in discussion with Metro Vancouver to have the entire area managed by the district as part of the South Surrey Greenway and as a supporting area to the Burns Bog Conservation Area. Part of that discussion, he said involves some rights of way for utilities.
“Once those discussions are complete there may be some solutions to better separate the rail line from the pathway,” he said.