Take train tracks out of our towns
In the early 1960s, where the railway tracks once crossed the road near the old Harper’s Metals compound in north Red Deer, a taxi was broadsided by a passenger-carrying Dayliner train.
The driver lived. His passengers, two young moms, one pregnant, and one holding a toddler, were killed instantly.
A mangled baby shoe, a change purse, a soother and a baby bottle, scattered along the tracks for several metres, told the story of one of Red Deer’s most horrific train vs. vehicle fatalities.
A few years later, a freight train derailed just west of that same crossing, some of the cars coming perilously close to homes along that stretch of track.
Last Saturday’s Advocate story into the dangers that trains represent, as they wind their way through communities, dealt with children crossing the tracks as a short-cut to and from school, and motorists who blast across the marked crossings to beat oncoming trains.
In many municipalities in this region, Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway trains present an ominous danger where they one represented prosperity and connectivity.
Central Alberta communities must start seriously questioning if it is time to move rail lines out of their confines.
The rail companies can install chain-link fences to keep people off the tracks, or install flashing lights and arms that come down to block the track at crossings, but that cannot completely remove potential danger. The possibility remains of a derailment in the centre of a community involving tankers carrying deadly chemicals. And there will always be those to take risks around train tracks.
In Blackfalds, the situation is precarious: the track separates residential areas from a school, and it’s a long walk to the controlled railway crossing. Children are tempted to take the shortcut across the tracks.
Mayor Melodie Stol said the rail safety issue was raised at a recent council meeting. “The big push for us is to make sure CPR is providing either education at the school level or information in our welcome packages for new residents.”
But just talking about the problem is not enough.
The City of Lacombe is in an equally precarious situation with a rail line slicing through its east side. Crossings on that line have claimed many lives — mostly people in vehicles.
Some crossing restructuring has taken place, but it too may not be enough.
And in Olds and Sylvan Lake, freight trains have been involved in fatal crashes at crossings. How those problems will be dealt with remains to be seen.
The roots of most Prairie towns are tied to the railroads. A rail line running through a community was considered an asset for passenger service and for hauling grain from the elevators that stood proudly against the Prairie skylines.
But things have changed. Passenger service is no longer and the grain elevators are gone. Our communities are growing at an explosive rate, and rail lines through the centre of towns are not just intrusive, they are dangerous.
In Red Deer, moving the tracks out of city did two things: it reduced risk to citizens and it opened up land for development. The same potential, albeit with the same significant investment, holds true for communities throughout Central Alberta.
The potential for loss of life is too grave. These communities should start examining how they can reroute rail lines.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.