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New Westminster rail bridge repairs moving fast

Southern Railway of B.C. is aiming to resume shipping goods across the crippled rail bridge between Queensborough and the rail yards next to New Westminster Quay by the end of the month.

Southern Railway of B.C. is aiming to resume shipping goods across the crippled rail bridge between Queensborough and the rail yards next to New Westminster Quay by the end of the month.

Frank Butzelaar, Southern Railway president, said repairs needed for the bridge damaged in the June 28 collision involving a gravel barge, are well underway.

"(Things are) proceeding according to plan. We now are targeting the date of July 29 as the date at which we would return the bridge to rail service," he said.

But in order to make that date, Butzelaar said, there are a number of big jobs to do when it comes to repairing the span, pedestal and protection pier.

The span is currently having a 12-metre steel girder and support beams replaced. Engineers are working the hydraulic gear mechanism on the pedestal the bridge rests on, and Fraser Pile and Dredge is making some temporary repairs to the protection pier that will allow boat traffic to travel both directions on the north arm of the Fraser. Tug traffic is currently only allowed to travel up river, and only small boats may go downstream.

Once the repairs are done, the company will have the gargantuan task of placing the 436-tonne span back in its place.

"It's a very heavy piece of steel, and that's been the biggest challenge we've had to date - just getting it lifted off the concrete pier and placed on a barge. It took an entire day to do that," Butzelaar said.

Meanwhile, Southern Railway has continued shipping service for its customers on Annacis Island by leasing rail lines from other rail companies and ferrying rail cars from Tilburry to Annacis Island.

"We're able to do about 30 cars a day. It's fraction of the total number we need to move, obviously, but we're able to feed cars to customers on a priority basis." Butzelaar said.

Rail cars meant for shipping vehicles, however, are too big to ferry, so Southern has had to set up a temporary unloading depot in its New West rail yard, pave over some tracks, purchase a ramp and drive the vehicles one at a time to the storage yards on Annacis.

"It gets the job done as a short-term solution. It works, but there's a lot of additional costs that are being incurred, and as a result, it's not very efficient. It's not something we could do for an extended period of time," Butzelaar said.

Butzelaar said its still too soon to determine exactly how much the repairs and detours are going to cost.

Transport Canada, which regulates transport on the Fraser River, released a statement Wednesday, stating that Mercury Launch and Tug, the company that owns the barge, was in compliance with federal transportation regulations at the time of the crash.

"Our investigation is complete and all the information available to date indicates that the vessels and crews were in compliance with the (Canada Shipping Act), 2001," the statement reads.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause and contributing factors in the accident. William Dutrizac, a marine investigator with the TSB, said that investigation is nearly complete.

"We're continuing the investigation. We did interviews last week with the crew on board. We have interviews (Thursday) with the captain. It's ongoing. We're still gathering evidence for our investigation," he said.

Dutrizac said investigators would likely decide by early next week what type of report to prepare on the incident.

Residents of New Westminster Quay, meanwhile, continue to enjoy the drop in rail traffic. James Crosty, president of the Quayside Community Board, said his neighbours are still enjoying some of the quietest and most restful nights they've had in years, but added that he understands what a stress this has been on the companies and workers who rely on the bridge.

"It's not about stopping the trains. We need the commerce. We need to have business. We need to move goods. It's just about the nighttime. We're getting a taste of that and it's kind of nice," he said.

Crosty said he still hopes the temporary loss of the rail bridge will force companies that ship goods over it to keep looking for other methods that might, in the end, be more efficient.

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