New rail overpasses are a good start, but more are needed in Langley

It was a 35-year challenge to get  decision-makers to understand the problems caused by longer and longer trains travelling through the heart of Langley.

Coal trains started running through Langley in 1970, when the new Roberts Bank port first opened. The numbers were steady — about six to eight trains a day. While traffic was tied up when they passed, Langley was much smaller in 1970, and the fact that there were two municipal jurisdictions along the line in Langley meant there was little political harmony to push for overpasses.

Both Surrey and Mission got overpasses soon after the coal trains started running.

Container trains started running in the 1990s, and by then Langley had grown substantially. The Langley Bypass was no longer a fast route on the outskirts of town — it was part of the commercial district.

Traffic on Fraser Highway, 200 Street and Highway 10 (the bypass) was held up for significantly longer periods by a growing number of trains. Those trains, particularly the container trains, were much longer than they used to be.

Despite the obvious problem, politicians at all levels said nothing about it until about 1999 or so. Curiously, federal candidates were first to devote some attention to the problem, rather than councils or  MLAs.

When an environmental assessment process for expansion of Deltaport commenced in early 2005, the area being studied did not include the rail corridor to the port. This omission was strongly protested by many Langley residents, who attended a hearing in Delta in force to point out the problems created by additional rail traffic to the port.

This finally seemed to get through to the politicians. The environmental assessment period was extended, and Langley’s concerns were heard at a public meeting here.

This was about the time that the federal Liberal government made funds available for a Pacific Gateway program, a program expanded significantly by the Conservative government. The current Roberts Bank Rail Corridor program is funding nine overpasses and several other improvement projects.

However, it is important that this not be the end, but simply the end of the beginning. One longtime observer of the situation told me at Friday’s official opening of three overpasses that the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked, but work must  continue. He said there needs to be overpasses at 200 Street and at Crush Crescent in Milner, where passing trains combine with an inefficient traffic signal and continuing growth in Willoughby to make for exceptionally long lines of traffic.

All levels of government, including TransLink and Port Metro Vancouver, have put time and money into the overpass projects, as have the railways that profit mightily from port access. The 196 Street, 54 Avenue and 192 Street overpasses will combine to make it easier to bypass congestion — particularly when advance train warning signs go up.

There will still be congestion at Langley’s three busiest rail crossings though, and that must be addressed. The fundamental problem is not yet solved.

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