Grinding to a halt: a look inside the Fraser Valley’s rail system

A storm knocked out the valley's rail system for weeks. Things are starting to move again, but a return to normal is still a long way away.

By Grace Kennedy | December 2, 2021 |6:15 am

The Fraser Valley we know today was built on the tracks of railways. Small communities grew around rail stations; burgeoning farm towns found new markets for their products just a train-ride away. Cities grew, and railways evolved. Trains carrying goods from across the country began passing through the Fraser Valley, destined for ports across the sea.

Then, on Nov. 14, it all came to a grinding halt.

Washouts on both the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National lines in the Fraser Canyon stopped train traffic for more than a week. Neither railway was able to get trains from Vancouver to Kamloops, and from there to the rest of the country. CP faced significant repair challenges at Tank Hill near Spences Bridge, where a landslide into the river had swept away the highway and some of the rail line. CN saw one of its locomotives derailed by a landslide south of Boston Bar.

For a time, train crossings were quiet in the valley—although not entirely deserted. The Southern Railway of British Columbia’s little blue engines were still moving cars in some parts of the Fraser Valley, and CN sent a passenger train on its line through Chilliwack to Hope to help rescue stranded travelers in the community.

That passenger train trip was a rarity, and not just because it was a rescue operation: trains don’t normally run east on the south side of the river.

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How it usually works

Normally, in the eastern Fraser Valley, train traffic only runs one way on one set of tracks. Trains north of the Fraser River travel east. Trains south of the river travel west. CP and CN share their tracks to make travel more orderly: trains heading to Vancouver travel on the CN line through Chilliwack, while trains heading to Kamloops travel on the CP line through Agassiz. This agreement, called “directional running,” helps make scheduling more efficient through the Fraser Canyon and keeps train crews safer.

A map of the Fraser Valley’s rail line: Canadian Pacific Railway, Canadian National Railway, and Southern Railway of British Columbia. 📸 Railway Association of Canada

At the Mission train bridge over the Fraser River, directional running ends. Instead, trains begin moving both ways on each set of tracks, depending on which terminal they are travelling to or leaving from. Trains leaving Vancouver’s CP terminals stay on the CP tracks north of the river past Mission; those leaving Vancouver on the southern CN tracks have to cross over the river to join the eastbound CP line on the north side of the valley.

Sound confusing? Here’s the recap: you only need to look both ways for trains if you live west of the Mission bridge.

Of course, the big Canadian Pacific and Canadian National locomotives aren’t the only ones moving goods through the Fraser Valley. The little blue engines owned and operated by the Southern Railway of British Columbia (SRY) also play an important part in the Fraser Valley’s rail ecosystem.

SRY is a short-line freight railway that is largely responsible for taking train cars off the main line and moving them to and from businesses in the Lower Mainland. (Think of it like the taxicab to CP and CN’s airline: it gets you from the airport to your hotel, while the big companies get you across the country.) The railway has tracks in Surrey and Delta, but also runs through Langley, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack.

A history of SRY

Of course, many Fraser Valley residents may know the SRY rail system better as the old BC Electric Railway, which operated passenger trains between downtown Vancouver and Chilliwack in the early 20th century.

BCER was started in Vancouver in 1897 with a goal of making a railway that ran on electricity rather than steam. It began to make its way out to the Fraser Valley after the construction of the Fraser River Bridge in June of 1904; six years later, the track was completed between Vancouver and Chilliwack, creating a stable connection for passengers, freight, and mail.

The line crossed over the Fraser River at what is now the Patullo Bridge, then travelled east through Surrey, Langley, and Abbotsford. At Clayburn, it went straight south to Huntingdon, then across Sumas Prairie to the Five Corners intersection in Chilliwack. (This map gives a detailed tour of BCER’s many interurban and city lines.)

Of course, in 1910 when the line was built, Sumas Prairie wasn’t entirely a prairie yet. Sumas Lake was still around, it’s ever-changing shoreline perplexing engineers who preferred that things stay put. The BCER line was built on a dike—and still is—through the flats; it inches up into Vedder Mountain to skirt around the edge of Sumas Lake.

In the 1950s, the railway switched to freight rather than passenger trains. The province took over the railway in 1961 after BC Hydro was established. (The railway was actually renamed BC Hydro Railway.) In 1988 it was sold and became SRY. The company is now owned by Washington Company, which also owns an American rail line, the ship builder Seaspan, and both copper and diamond mines.

At 6:50am on Nov. 10, 1990, the Nooksack River spilled over its banks and sent water flooding into Sumas Prairie—much as it did this November. The flood water collected in ditches, and flowed into culverts underneath the raised SRY line. Those culverts were unable to handle the water; the track was overtopped and washed out by that afternoon.

SRY made an insurance claim of more than $110,000 for damage to the embankment and track.

Disrupted by flooding

With the flood of 1990 under its belt, the City of Abbotsford worked on a flood mitigation plan to analyze what the impacts of another flood could be to the region—including SRY. That report was published in February of this year. Nine months later, the railway was under water again.

Early aerial images from the City of Abbotsford showed water reaching to the top of SRY’s diked tracks, with washouts in several spots along the line. The railway said it was “working with authorities on safely assessing the condition of the track through this region” and would develop a plan to make repairs and restore service when the evacuation order is lifted.

Water is pouring over a section of the SRY line in Sumas Prairie. 📸 City of Abbotsford

The closure of this section of line won’t have major operational impacts for the railway—an average of five trains a week travel through Sumas Prairie on the SRY line. Although damage on other parts of the line initially stopped service to feed mills in Abbotsford, SRY repaired those sections and started bringing cars back to those businesses.

Some positive news came last Monday (Nov. 22), when CP said it had repaired enough of its track that it could start resuming normal operations by the following evening. There had been 30 locations that had sustained damage, including the Tank Hill washout. SRY called the news a “cause for optimism” that train traffic could be getting back to normal.

Normal, however, is still a long ways away. Although CN had initially hoped to get its line up and running by last Wednesday, only seven trains made it through before the railway closed ahead of last weekend’s rain. CN is continuing to repair at least one part of its track, and one CN work train went eastbound through Chilliwack, likely bringing equipment to damage further up the line.

Directional running is also out the window, at least for now. Both CN and CP trains are running in both directions on CP’s line: at least two trains were travelling west into Vancouver on the CP line past Hatzic Tuesday, and an empty coal train was waiting in Agassiz to travel eastbound.

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Other parts of the valley’s train system are also compromised. CP has a track that runs south from Mission, over the Fraser River and down to Huntingdon near Highway 11. It is one of five rail border crossings in British Columbia and was severely affected by Nooksack River flood waters on the American side of the border. Images from the City of Sumas show derailed trains and flooded tracks. Although The Current asked about CP’s Huntingdon line north of the border, they did not respond to those questions and instead referred to the general press release.

Pictures taken by the City of Sumas of the rail line near the border. 📸 City of Sumas/Facebook

(On Saturday, sandbags were placed on the SRY track in Huntingdon to help protect homes from the impending Nooksack flood waters. The tracks run east-west along a 500m stretch of the border before heading north-east into Sumas Prairie. The CP tracks run directly south across the border on the other side of Highway 11.)

Getting containers moving

With the first CP trains heading into Vancouver carrying grain and fuel last week, there was some hope that the supply chain challenges would ease. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said that once railways were operational, they would be running “24/7” to relieve the backlog of train cars. But the number of cars waiting to leave the city is immense—especially with CN’s line still out of commission.

Last Wednesday, the second day CP was open, there were nearly 333,000 feet of containers waiting to leave Vancouver terminals, more than two-thirds of which were set to travel on CN trains. If you placed those containers end to end on CN’s line, they would stretch from the Port Mann Bridge to the Agassiz Rosedale Bridge. On Dec. 1, just one week later, that fictional line of containers would have reached Hope. (Although the number of CP containers had decreased by Dec. 1, the CN containers continued to increase.) Most of these containers had been at terminals for more than a week.

It will take a long time for trains to begin moving normally again, and perhaps longer for the backlog of containers to clear from the Port of Vancouver. What has already been done to repair the lines was a “tremendous accomplishment,” Port of Vancouver CEO Robin Silver said in an address to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. But it also shows how the province needs to adapt for a future already affected by climate change.

“The extraordinary flooding we’ve just experienced, as a province, underlines one of two critical takeaways for the Port of Vancouver over the past 20 months,” Silver said. “That takeaway is the urgent challenge of climate change, and with that, the imperative for better adaptation, and more fundamentally, for climate action.”

More of our in-depth coverage of the 2021 Fraser Valley floods:

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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