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Airport Takes the Lead in Addressing Community Noise Concerns

by on May 5, 2011

Vancouver International Airport, (YVR) has fielded its share of noise-related complaints over the years from local residents. So, it is encouraging to see what one sector of the transportation industry is capable of doing in order to meet the challenges it faces in balancing its operational requirements against the needs of its residential community living within its footprint.

Anne Murray, YVR’s Vice President of Community and Environmental Affairs, recently announced that the airport would be the first in Canada to build a “Ground Run-Up Enclosure,” a $12 million state-of-the art sound trap designed to reduce noise from aircraft engines being revved up during routine maintenance checks.

The five-storey, three-sided structure has no roof, but will be built with noise-absorbing panels, and is expected to reduce engine noise by 50% for the affected residents south of the facility.

It should also be noted that although some Canadian airports have night flight restrictions, YVR is not one of them.

Late night flights have been a source of concern for some residents living in and around the airport. A further source of noise disruption are the engine revving tests that are conducted at the airport, a mandatory requirement by Transport Canada.

The proposed structure would result in noise being funnelled upward rather than redirecting it over the nearby body of water.

“We have been studying the social, economic, and environmental benefits of a GRE (Ground Run-Up Enclosure) for the past three years as part of our comprehensive noise management plan,” says Murray in the article “Sound trap reduces engine noise” from the April 14, 2011 edition of The Vancouver Sun.

Murray further stated in a community newspaper that “Vancouver Airport Authority is committed to managing airport noise, balancing the community’s desire for safe, convenient, 24 hour travel with urban living.”

Now, Back to Railway Reality…

In the article “Trains leave after days of noise” from The Regina Leader-Post on March 25, 2011, resident Jim Harvey of Qu’Appelle Saskatchewan endured five days of having two unmanned CP Rail locomotives left parked and idling a mere 100 metres from his home.

Harvey first noticed the idling engines around 9:00am the preceding Sunday. According to the article, Harvey’s first concern was for the crew’s safety, so he walked over to check to cab, only to find nobody in it.

His next concern was that the locomotives could be damaged or even driven off by vandals. Harvey then contacted CP Rail, who told him that they would not be moving the locomotives until Tuesday, and that they couldn’t be shut down.

In all, the pervasive drone of the idling engines continued  for “five days, 24 hours a day,” reported Harvey glumly.

In an email to the newspaper covering the story, CPR spokesman Kevin Hrysak explained that the locomotives were “staged” or parked there for “operational reasons.”

“Once we received calls from a couple of the residents in town, we attempted to transport a crew out to the train in Qu’Appelle to move the train; however, the highway closed due to extreme weather and we were unable to get a crew safely out to that location,” said Hrysak.

Fair enough, Mr. Hrysak, if the conditions were not safe enough to send in crew, that’s understandable.

But what isn’t understandable is why, in the first place, the idling locomotives were left running for days so close to nearby homes as to have caused this disruption at all.

Idling Locomotives – Our Number One Complaint Received…

Almost a year has passed since we first launched our Rail and Reason blog. We were very curious when we first launched our site as to the types of concerns about railway noise and vibration that would be brought to our attention.

By far and large, the most frequently-cited complaint that we’ve received has been about idling locomotives, and the resulting noise, vibration, and fumes.

Second place goes to the complaints about railways making operational changes, without any prior consultation to those who then find themselves adversely affected as a result.

Repeatedly, we are hearing from people who are very concerned about their exposure to diesel fumes from locomotives left running, and find themselves subjected to emissions both inside and outside their own homes. The sheer length of time that locomotives spend simply parked and left running in between usage can be astounding, from hours to even days at a time, as the folks in Qu’Appelle recently found out.

The Railway Association of Canada (RAC), in an online FAQ, has this to say about idling locomotives: “Locomotives idle approximately 50% of the time they are running.”

A lengthy explanation follows this statement, in which idle reduction technology is discussed, noting that:  “As part of extensive new idle reduction programs on the part of Canadian railways, most new locomotives are now equipped with an automatic shut-off mechanism that activates when left idling for a period of time with no movement. This device will only work when the outside temperature is in the range of five degrees Celsius or above, depending on the type of engine. When below five degrees Celsius, locomotives remain idling because antifreeze of the type used in regular motor vehicles cannot be used.”

Winter: The Canadian Railways Idling Season?

By the Railway Association of Canada’s description, does this make Canadian winters in many areas, a protracted idling season? Compounding the problem is the fact that there is often no escape for those affected as the noise and vibration can invade the interiors of homes as well. We’re also getting an earful (pagefull?) from fed-up residents being subjected to prolonged bouts of locomotive idling when temperatures are well above the 5 Celsius mark, adding to their misery.

Given these realities, does the 50% figure provided by the RAC seem to be on the high side?  Their explanation concludes with the statement that: “These initiatives are helping to conserve fuel and drastically cut back on environmental emissions from idling locomotives.”  Their statement, at times, can seem to be at odds with the experiences of some of the people and communities that we’ve been hearing from.

We think that more can be done.

Our Suggestions for a Three-Point Solution:

Here’s our own version of a Ground Run-Up Enclosure for the railway industry, a figurative, three-sided approach that we feel could very effectively address or resolve many of the problems associated with idling locomotives:

1)   Determine the cost that railways pay for locomotive fuel based on how it is used. Implement a surcharge for fuel used for idling, and make sure that this surcharge doesn’t get passed down to railway customers. Use the surcharge to help fund noise mitigation strategies in problem areas.

We feel that this would be a much-needed incentive to further reduce overall idling times of locomotives. An example? Getting locomotives shut off when not needed for extended periods of time, when ambient temperatures increase during daytime hours, after being left idling the previous night.  This refers primarily to locomotives without any form of automated shut down technology.

2)   Establish, regulate, and enforce a minimum distance from residential interests to park idling locomotives. The criteria should consider noise pollution and vibration around private homes.  In order to reduce the public’s exposure to toxic diesel fumes and particulate matter, prevailing winds also need to be factored into further consideration.

This would put public health where it belongs in the list of priorities – first. Situations such as what recently transpired in Qu’Appelle could be avoided altogether, and make for better relationships between railways and communities.

3)   Make locomotive idle reduction technology a mandatory requirement throughout the industry, for all locomotives, with a view to examining available technology that works in temperatures less than 5 Celsius.  See the case study from the US Environmental Protection Agency: “The Chicago Locomotive Idle Reduction Project”.

We believe this could benefit the environment through realizing further emission reductions from the present, as well as improving conditions for both communities and railway employees alike in terms of exposure to diesel exhaust and particulate matter. Last but not least, railways themselves would benefit by reducing fuel expenses even further, as idle reduction technology could, over time, more than pay for itself.

We’re in Good Company!

We’re not alone in our views about having railways more effectively tackle and reduce their air pollution problems.

Metro Vancouver recently introduced a bylaw to address diesel emissions from a variety of problem sources – including railway switches. In the article “Bylaw would force diesel engines to reduce soot output” from The Vancouver Sun on February 16, 2011, Metro states that the intention of the bylaw is to reduce the spread of “black carbon” – or soot – into the atmosphere. Eight percent of diesel emissions in Metro Vancouver are attributed to rail locomotives.

The bylaw proposes a series of fees based on horsepower.

But New Westminster City Councillor Lorrie Williams questions how Metro would enforce the bylaw, especially against the rail yards. “They’re a very powerful group of people, but they tend to ignore our bylaws,” said Williams.

However, Metro Vancouver Planning Director Ray Robb notes that the rail switches are within Metro’s jurisdiction and the railways may have to be challenged in court. Robb further stated that Metro would be hiring additional people to set up the registration database and enforce the new bylaw.

For those living downwind of some of Metro Vancouver’s rail yards, this could well be a breath of fresh air in a longstanding problem.

However, it’s a very sad and telling comment that Metro Vancouver seems to almost expect opposition from its railways in its efforts to reduce diesel soot output in the interests of the environment and the protection of public health.

We believe it is ironic that one of the most stubborn conflicts between railways and residents is one of the most avoidable, or at least, one that can be most readily mitigated. 

One thing is for sure though. Locomotives might be idling, but the people who are being subjected to this practice, increasingly, are not.

It’s time for a more integrated approach, one that places public health, safety, and well-being as the core consideration well ahead of all else when it comes to the issue of idling locomotives.

© Copyright 2011 RailandReason.com

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