Empty coal trains will continue to run through downtown Abbotsford for at least another month, as construction on a Washington rail corridor continues.
An average of two trains a day have been running throughout the summer and were expected to stop in the middle of October.
The trains are operated by BNSF, and have been running from the Roberts Bank unloading terminal to Abbotsford, where they turn south, travel through the city’s downtown and cross the border into Sumas.
The trains run through Abbotsford on tracks operated by the Southern Railway of British Columbia (SRY).
SRY spokesperson Singh Biln said the rerouting is necessary as BNSF continues to upgrade tracks and replace bridges between the border and Burlington, Wash.
While the new extended contract is set to end Nov. 30, BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas said the rerouting may extend into December. “That’s under evaluation and discussion,” he said.
Biln said SRY was open to take “as much as we can get,” and that future rail traffic will depend on whether BNSF can come to an agreement with CPR to use that company’s more-heavily used rail line through Langley.
“The track is in very good shape right now for what we’re doing, running empties,” he said.
But he said more work might be needed in the event of a long-term deal. That work, though, probably wouldn’t extend to train crossings in the city’s downtown core.
“The seven or eight minutes it would take for the trains to go across [downtown], I think that would still be there.”
The trains are limited to a maximum of 24 km/h through downtown Abbotsford, and double that in rural areas.
BNSF has been hauling an increasing volume of coal from U.S. mines to Roberts Bank. It is also involved in a controversial plan to build a coal transloading facility at Fraser Surrey Docks. The plan, which would bring one additional coal train per day to BNSF tracks, has prompted opposition from area residents and groups fighting climate change.
The BNSF route through Abbotsford and Sumas is also occasionally suggested as an alternative to tracks along the waterfront at White Rock and Ocean Park in South Surrey, where mayors have called for the removal of tracks.
A separate proposal to build a coal terminal near Bellingham has also elicited concerns about increased train traffic from Washington residents and citizen groups.
Asked whether Abbotsford would see more trains if a Bellingham terminal is built, BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace wrote in an email: “Currently, there are no plans to route traffic along our Sumas Line into the Lower Mainland.”
She added: “We regularly evaluate our traffic flows and routes for all the freight we carry to ensure we are meeting customer demand. Our multiple routes in Washington give us flexibility to meet traffic demand and we invest accordingly not only in this part of the state, but across our network.”