Empty coal trains have started rumbling through rural Langley and into downtown Abbotsford, 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 on Monday. An empty BNSF coal train entered the west end of the SRY line at 232 Street 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.
Melonas said the trains would be around two kilometres long. They 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.
Biln 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. In rural Langley, there is usually one return trip a day as well.
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 to 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.
— with files from Tyler Olsen, Abbotsford News