Last month we published a letter that Former BC Premier Bill Vander Zalm sent to Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun setting the record straight on the public interurban rail rights, the 99 km rail line that connects Surrey to Chilliwack.
It was under Bill Vander Zalm’s direction that the public rights to this line were preserved for the future use by the people of BC (via BC Hydro) when the freight division was sold in 1988.
Many have raised questions about the nature of Abbtosford’s Mayor’s ongoing obstruction of the consideration of public use of the rail line, given his own history and ties to the private rail industry that has benefitted from their exclusive use of it.
We have since obtained a copy of Mayor Braun’s reply to Vander Zalm’s open letter, as well as the Former Premier’s response, which we have attached below.
As Bill Vander Zalm asks Henry Braun, WHY would the provincial government of the day publicly and legally, with all their lawyers, announce the protection of the rail corridor for future passenger use as a condition of the sale of freight rights to then Itel of Chicago (now CP Rail), but leave out the critical joint section?
Answer: They didn’t. We, and others, have had legal opinions that support our interpretation of the Master Agreement, which guarantees the right of public rail usage, as originally agreed.
Is it going to take a court to force CP to live up to its purchase obligations?
Full text of the reply and response:
March 24, 2020
Dear Mr. Vander Zalm:
Re: Proposed South Fraser Community Rail
Thank you for your letter of March 6th in regards to the proposed South Fraser Community Rail (SFCR) (formerly the BC Hydro/Southern Rail/interurban Rail).
I apologize for the delay in getting back to you, but the world has rapidly changed in the last few weeks, and as a City we’re working hard to respond appropriately to these events. Thank you for your patience.
Like you, I fully respect the work of the SFCR volunteer group and commend them for their efforts in seeking alternative, green transit in the Fraser Valley. However, I honestly feel that there are some challenges that will make this railway line unworkable as a commuter rail line.
As you are aware, one of my companies, back in 1987/1988, was one of the bidders to purchase the line, which at that time was one of the most successful short-line railroad in North America. As a result, I am very familiar with the agreements that were created and exist today.
I have specific concerns related to the “Master Agreement” between BC Hydro and CP Rail. Although the right of way (or land) is still owned by the province, the trackage above the subgrade (ballast, ties, tie-plates and rail) is owned and managed by CP Rail. Please note the following from the Master Agreement:
• There is a joint section of rail (7miles), also known as the Pratt Livingstone Corridor, of which: “CP Rail shall have the sole control, management and administration of the Joint Section.” (Annexure V Section 2.1, 1988 Master Agreement); and
• “This agreement does not contemplate the operation of passenger trains upon the Joint Section by any railway company other than Hydro.” (Annexure V Section 2.7, 1988 Master Agreement)
Based on this agreement, CP Rail is free to operate on the joint section in a way that maximizes their benefit. They can, indeed, double track the joint section, as you have mentioned, but their priority would be for freight use. There are already dozens of freight trains currently running along this 7-mile line daily, thus the viability of running a regular passenger transit service is not feasible, particularly as freight traffic continues to Delta Port through the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor. In fact, TransLink’s 2019 Report on Interurban Passenger Rail estimates that freight service would increase by “up to 28-38 trains per day by 2021, with some train lengths up to 3,660 metres.”
Furthermore, this agreement between BC Hydro and CP Rail is granted in perpetuity and would require the two parties to re-open this agreement.
TransLink’s 2019 Report also indicates concerns that I share related to directness and connection to population centres, travel times, the substantial infrastructure investment that would be required in order to meet standards for passenger safety and other construction challenges, and environmental risks as the line travels through the Agricultural Land Reserve. I understand, however, that Translink is recommending that the concept of interurban rail will be further examined through the Transport 2050 process.
I think that it is important to emphasize that the line flows through a number of agricultural communities that do not have the densification to sustain a viable rail transit system. Municipal plans would have to be made to increase density in these areas within the Agricultural Land Reserve and would require significant infrastructure investment. The City of Abbotsford is focused on building “up” and not “out” to create a sustainable community within our urban core.
I appreciate the work done by South Fraser Community Rail. However, with the challenges this concept presents, I believe it is necessary to find other options so we can create the best long-term plan, based on current and forecasted population growth, that will link our region in a sustainable way. A very important regional investment like this would continue to build a thriving region with a strong economy and quality of life for all of our residents.
Response from Bill Vander Zalm:
April 6, 2020
Dear Mr. Mayor:
Thank you for the detailed response to my letter of March 6 th, re: the proposed South Fraser Community Rail. I respect your opinion, but we can only agree to disagree.
We’ve had several legal opinions on the Master Agreement, and those opinions concur with the interpretation we have held from the beginning. We hope a Court of Law will not be necessary to confirm this. Even when considered from a practical perspective, it is logical that an agreement designed to protect the right of use for public transportation in the Fraser Valley along this corridor would not be concluded, leaving a key section, the joint section required, completely out of long term planning.
I understand your desire for Abbotsford “to go up, not out”, but if we agree with the need to provide affordable housing for young people today and in future, there are good locations near old time Station locations perfect for this. Locations such as Kennedy, Sullivan, Newton/S. Surrey, Cloverdale, Langley City, Township of Langley, Fort Langley/Trinity, Gloucester/Aldergrove, Bradner, Mt. Lehman/Abbotsford Airport, City of Abbotsford/Downtown, Huntington, Sumas, Yarrow, Sardis and City of Chilliwack that would allow for higher density use and still allow space for young families.
I will continue to oppose spending a huge amount of taxpayer money on a short 7 km stretch of Sky-Train from Surrey Centre, through Green Timbers, to Fleetwood, when about the same amount of money could be responsibly spent, using a pollution free Hydrogen (LRT) train, on existing rail all the way from “the Vancouver Hook-up” at the Pattullo Bridge Sky-train station to Chilliwack.
So, the facts are, contrary to the 7 Km. Fleetwood Sky-train population catchment, the 99 Km South Fraser Community Rail will serve 10 times more taxpayers/residents, industrial parks, 14 Post Secondary Institutions and the Abbotsford International Airport at the same cost.
Mr. Mayor, the dedicated tax paying volunteers, that give freely of their time and resources, are not prepared to see well over 1,200,000 South of Fraser, Fraser Valley residents, and tax payers, wait until 2050 before the Vancouver Regional District and the Fraser Valley Regional District decide if they have the time and resources to consider transit for the Valley. Many I am sure, are your taxpayers.
Bill Vander Zalm