Thousands of residents in New Westminster's Quayside condo development could be trapped if there is ever a major railway accident involving dangerous goods at the neighbouring rail yards, the mayor and fire chief say.

New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright told CBC News this week that he fears a disaster on the scale of what occurred in Lac Megantic, Que. Forty-seven people were killed when a train carrying petroleum products exploded in the downtown core in July.

Wright is concerned about the transportation and storage of hazardous materials in the his city's rail yard, and says that railroad companies need to be more forthcoming with key information about potentially dangerous shipments.

New West rail yard cars

The mayor and fire chief of New Westminster say they are concerned about the proximity of a rail yard containing hazardous materials to an increasingly populated neighbourhood called Quayside. (CBC)

His concern comes from the fact that the rail yard in New Westminster — which is one of the largest in B.C. and used by four rail companies — borders a condominium development called Quayside, the crowning jewel of the city's plan to rebrand its formerly industrial waterfront.

Quayside, which consists of eight high-rise towers and other condo buildings laid out across a one-kilometre stretch of the Fraser River just south of Front Street, is home to about 8,000 residents.

Hazardous rail car

A CBC News investigation found that cars capable of holding a wide range of hazardous and toxic substances are left idle in the New Westminster rail yard for days or more at a time. City officials want railroad companies to be more upfront about what their trains are carrying through town. (CBC)

The people living in Quayside would be extremely vulnerable if there was a large scale accident at the rail yard and emergency response crews may be under-prepared to deal with the fallout, Wright says.

"It would be a disaster that they've never seen before. There are 8,000 people down there. And the method, where they're living, would not give them very much access to get out," says Wright, who is a resident of Quayside.

"I don't think you'll find anything that could be worse than that."

No escape plan

There are only two ways out of the densely populated neighbourhood: overpasses that cross over the rail yard at either end that could become inaccessible in the case of an emergency.

Wright says there has been discussion of building a pedestrian footbridge to neighbouring Queensborough.

Nevertheless residents are acutely aware of their potentially precarious proximity to the rail yard.

"The tracks separate us from the rest of New Westminster, so if there's a spill or an accident I'm really not sure what the evacuation plan might be for the citizens here," says Carolyn Butula, a resident of Quayside.

'You can't get out. In Lac Mégantic they could spread, but you know here you can't — you're trapped.' - Carolyn Butula, resident of Quayside

The catastrophic disaster in Lac Megantic, and the recent derailment of five train cars loaded with petroleum products west of Edmonton, Alta., which subsequently exploded and displaced more than 100 people from their homes, has some people thinking about moving out of Quayside.

Anne Heavenor has lived in Quayside for 11 years, but she might not live there for much longer.

"I'm considering moving out of the area because of it really, finding another condo or house somewhere because I just don't like the idea, and after what happened in Lac Megantic... it was a horrible, horrible tragedy there and it could easily happen here," she says.

"You can't get out. In Lac Megantic they could spread, but you know here you can't. You're trapped."

Lack of communication

New Westminster Fire Chief Tim Armstrong says there is the possibility of a situation in which Quayside residents are unable to evacuate the waterfront, particularly if there is a leak of heavier-than-air gases in the area.

Armstrong's primary frustration, he says, is that rail companies are not obliged to provide his department with specific details of the materials hauled by their trains, or provide the times that any hazardous shipments might roll through town, unless he requests the information.

Even then, Armstrong says he is bound not to disclose the information to anyone else.

Tim Armstrong

New Westminster Fire Chief Tim Armstrong says he does not want to alarm residents in Quayside, but he would like to know specific details about the materials stored and transported through the rail yard that sits adjacent to the high-density development. (CBC)

The four rail companies that operate in the yard — long-haulers CN, CP, BNSF and local short-haul delivery line Southern Railway of BC — say that non-disclosure is for public safety and prevents potential terrorists or thieves from knowing when certain substances are stored in the rail yard.

In separate statements to CBC News, CN said that all of their cars in this rail yard are handled "in full compliance with Transport Canada regulations," while CP said that they do not "store or stage cars carrying [hazardous] commodities in New Westminster."

BNSF told CBC News that beginning this summer, the company has provided Chief Armstrong with "train lists as far as the commodities and train flows" through the community.

Below is an email statement that Transport Canada sent to CBC News regarding federal regulation of dangerous goods transportation and the department's ongoing talks with the Canadian Federation of Municipalities over the safety of residential rail tracks and yards.

With files from the CBC's Eric Rankin