The closure of the Frank St. level rail crossing last week is a very public sign of a dispute between CN, the city and the province dating back years.
At stake is not only the safety of the crossing, the reason Transport Canada ordered its closing, but the role it plays in the City of Terrace’s ultimate goal – a second overpass spanning CN’s increasingly-busy rail lines running through the centre of town.
Correspondence between all parties, according to city files, dates back to at least 1994 when a Transport Canada official first suggested to CN and the province that traffic lights be installed both at the Kenney St. level crossing and at Frank St.
The concern then as now is that long-length trucks block the tracks when stopped at the Frank St. intersection with Hwy16 until it is safe to turn on to the highway.
That’s because there isn’t enough space between the tracks and the intersection of Frank St. with the highway to contain a long vehicle without a portion of that vehicle sitting on the tracks.
Correspondence continued into 1995 and 1996 with the issue expanding beyond highway traffic lights to include track warning lights and gates such as those now installed on the Kenney St. level crossing.
CN does tell Transport Canada it will install flashing light signals but also tells the city it will not install gate arms because the city objects to gates until the province installs traffic lights.
For its part, the province says it has no money for traffic lights, a position that remains consistent as the years go on.
At one point, the city offers to pay for warning devices “provided that gate arms will not be attached until such time as the traffic lights are installed” by the province.
In November 1998, the city agrees to restrict long vehicle traffic from crossing the tracks to come to the intersection of Frank St. and the highway until a longer term solution can be found.
But it reverses that decision the next month because of subsequent traffic problems created at other crossings in the city.
In 1999, Transport Canada warns it will itself issue an order restricting long vehicle traffic should improvements not be made.
The city’s Frank St. file jumps to 2007, the year the federal government made available $4.5 million for a second overpass projected to cost $9 million.
But in 2010, the city file indicates, CN decides a second overpass isn’t needed.
And in 2012, when the city revived the second overpass effort, its file says the grant application to the federal government was denied because neither CN nor the provincial government would make a financial commitment.
“We confirm that this project is not required for railway purposes,” writes CN in a letter to the federal government.
But it acknowledges that a second overpass would reduce vehicle travel time and congestion and lower vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.
“CN would not oppose the city’s project provided that CN is not required to provide any financial contribution to its realization,” the letter ends.
Concern about Frank St. accelerated in 2012 after a CN train went into an emergency stop to prevent an accident with a 25-metre tractor trailer on Aug. 15, 2012.
Long vehicles “are hanging over CN railway tracks while trying to engage provincial Highway 16, losing awareness that they may be hit by CN freight or passenger services,” writes a Transport Canada official on Sept. 20, 2012.
The same official seeks “both immediate short and long-term commitments to remedy this situation” and asks CN, the city and the province what they intend to do.
CN tells Transport Canada its track warning lights already in place can work in harmony with highway traffic lights. That’s the case now at the Kenney St. level crossing.
The province repeats its position that it has no plans for traffic lights.
“The signalized intersection at Kenney St. and the Sande Overpass provide the travelling public a safe and efficient means of accessing our highway network,” says a provincial official.
An October 12, 2012 conference call between the city, CN and the province fails to come up with an answer for Transport Canada.
The city rejects any notion of restricting long vehicle traffic.
“Terrace says no interim measures unless CN and B.C. are willing to discuss an overpass,” reads the city file.
The city responds more fully on May 6, 2013, asking Transport Canada to “keep the road open until significant progress has been made on addressing the broader concerns of safe reliable access for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians crossing the railway in the city as a whole.”
A note adds, “Kenney Street is far more dangerous, Sande Overpass is congested.”
Transport Canada follows through on its warning that it will block vehicle access following a June 4, 2013 incident.
“At approximately 11:30 p.m. local time on June 4 , a CN train was required to be put into emergency as it approached the Frank St. crossing as there was a log truck that went through the crossing after the lights and barriers initiated on the train’s approach. We were unable to locate that truck. There were no injuries,” reads a statement from CN.
The event constituted “moving the threat level to immediate at this location,” read a Transport Canada June 6, 2013 letter to CN ordering the closure.
A CN statement on June 11 describes the city as the “local road authority” with responsibility to deal with the situation, suggesting “signs limiting the length of trucks at the crossing and enhanced policing” be put in place.
CN crews place orange spray-painted concrete barriers on both sides of the tracks on Frank St. the afternoon of June 11. They’re supplemented by free-standing orange traffic warning lights.
“Whether or not the current barriers will be modified depends on the length of the mandated closure, and we are not in a position to speak to that,” indicates a followup CN statement on June 13.