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Historic rail collection threatened by redevelopment
A collection of 23 vintage Canadian rail coaches as well as one infamous locomotive stored in a New Westminster warehouse is in danger of being broken up.
Rip Peterman, the president of the B.C. chapter of the National Railways Historical Society, said his group has until April to find a new home for the train cars that date from the 1940s to the 1960s, which have been lovingly restored in a back corner of a giant industrial warehouse next to the Braid SkyTrain station. The warehouse will be demolished by developer Bentall Kennedy to make way for Sapperton Green, a 38-acre mixed-use development including office buildings, retail and residential.
Peterman said many of the rail cars might end up in the United States. Some of the coaches may get dismantled by other collectors for parts.
"This is probably the biggest operable collection in Canada," said Peterman. "We would like to keep it."
But with the clock ticking the group, which is comprised of six active railway buffs plus volunteers who come and go as projects develop, faces some daunting obstacles.
Peterman said the space they've occupied in the warehouse for 28 years is unique because it affords them the room to store the coaches inside, safe from the crowbars and screwdrivers of metal thieves and unscrupulous collectors looking for notable components, as well as access to a main rail line from an unused dead-end spur.
The group finances its acquisitions by booking out the trains for private functions, tours and even movie shoots.
Peterman said efforts to move the collection, even in a pared-down state, to new locations in Coquitlam and Port Moody have fallen through because property in the Lower Mainland is "too valuable" to set aside a chunk large enough to park a long train.
"That's how all our dreams and aspirations get crushed," said Peterman, who noted the group's work to acquire and restore rail cars has pretty much ground to a halt since last September when they rolled out their restoration of the diesel-electric locomotive that was infamously at the head of the VIA Rail passenger train that collided with a freight train outside Hinton, Alberta in 1986, killing 23 people.
Peterman said a proposal by the group to straighten a section of the spur line and set aside a small back corner of Sapperton Green for a historical working museum that includes a covered workshop, a pit for undercarriage repairs and a viewing gallery for the public to see them at work as well as appreciate the collection has so far fallen on deaf ears.
But they're not giving up.
A recent query by councillor Chuck Puchmayr following a presentation to city council by the developer on the progress of its public consultations about the Sapperton Green site has given them renewed hope.
"It's just a beautiful collection they have," said Puchmayr. "We have served notice that we have an interest in preserving it. I think the fact we brought it up will send some amber flags up for the developer."
Puchmayr said an ongoing review of the way railways use and move through New Westminster may also yield a solution to finding a new home for the rail cars.
But, he said, "it's going to take a lot of work.
"Everything is on the table."
Peterman said any glimmer of hope is welcome. "We need a champion at the level that can make it happen. As soon as you accept your fate it's self-fulfilling."