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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

CN to remove staff from Second Narrows rail bridge

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The Burnaby News Leader reports on Burnaby Council worrying about safety on swing/lift bridges

A plan by CN Rail to monitor and operate the Second Narrows rail bridge remotely from New Westminster isn’t sitting too well with Burnaby council.

Recent media reports have stated CN plans to eliminate the three staff at each of the Second Narrows and Lulu Island rail bridges and centralize their lifting and lowering at its New Westminster bridge.

Actually that is the first I had heard about that but then I have been away for a couple of weeks, and this would, I am sure, have caught my interest. As you may know up until recently I was occasionally employed as a swing bridge operator. Not by CN, and not, I might add, at anything like the rate CN pays

The nine people working on the three bridges each earn a gross income of $52,000 a year, he said.

Each of the three bridges mentioned are open all the time unless a train wants to use it. Then the operator announces (over the FM radio channel that controls marine traffic) that the bridge is closing.  The bridge operator is located in a cabin over the tracks, so has a good view of railway operation, but much less of what is happening on the water. These days it is possible to track ship and other marine traffic on the internet and here is a quick glimpse on what is going on in the Burrard Inlet as I write this.

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 4.23.17 PM

Marine Traffic is managed by two way radio by the Coast Guard and they rely on a radar plot very similar to this one. In fact, for the Fraser River, the traffic controllers are actually sitting in Victoria.

It seems the Councillors do not actually understand very much about railways or marine traffic, let alone swing bridges.

“What is CN thinking in eliminating the human factor in the rail bridge over Second Narrows?”

Well, actually they are not eliminating it. Although if that were possible it might well be much safer. For instance, the only time there has been a collision on SkyTrain – normally operated by computers – is when a train has been under manual control. It is the human factor that is most often cited in accident reports. The recent Spanish rail tragedy for instance, the Lac Megantic incident or the crash of a Korean airliner or the “Queen of the North“. Google is convinced that driverless cars are going to be much safer than what we have now, and I am prepared to believe them. Computers do not get drunk, or indulge in road rage.

What CN is proposing is to close the bridge to marine traffic remotely. That does not eliminate the human factor at all, it simply relocates it. From my experience I would say that the New Westminster Bridge operator is already the busiest on the river. It carries trains from CN, BNSF and SRY. There is not much ship traffic in that stretch of the river these days, but considerable numbers of tugs and barges, many of which have considerable air draft requirements – scrap barges are the biggest, but also woodchip barges and paper barges. About the only ones that slip through when the bridge is closed are log tows. If you listen to Channel 74 you will hear more calls to the “Westminister Bridge (sic)” than any other. And you will also hear the bridge operator asking the tug captains to let him know when they are through. He cannot see them from where he is sitting.

So will a remote operator be at any great disadvantage if he (or she) is not actually on the bridge? Frankly, I doubt it. In fact, given the working conditions of a swing bridge cabin, the operator will probably be better off. Not the ones who lose their jobs, of course. But, as with lighthouse keepers, there is a lot more emotional attachment to the occupation than genuine need to be concerned about their elimination.

Second Narrows bridges Vancouver BC 2006_0217

Written by Stephen Rees

July 25, 2013 at 5:02 pm

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