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Railway Noise and Vibration: What is Reasonable?

by on February 21, 2012

To those of you familiar with this blog, you will be well acquainted with the views of Mr. Jeff Willsie, President of Ontario Southland Railway, and his opinions regarding the issue of railway noise and vibration.

For those of you new to this site, Mr. Willsie has frequently stated that people affected by this problem should simply just move.

Although we respect Mr. Willsie’s right to his opinion, we feel that this is an untenable position, given the complexity of the problem, compounded by the vast network of railways across Canada, increasing levels of rail traffic, the growing number of Canadians who are being adversely affected, and mounting evidence – which can no longer be ignored – about the impact of noise upon human health.

There are currently no set limits as to how much noise and vibration can be generated by a railway, but rather, only a more ambiguous requirement that levels be contained to “reasonable” levels, pitting the railway’s interests and economic concerns, often at odds, with the disrupted sleep of weary residents denied the ability to secure a basic necessity of life inside of their own homes.

Willsie asks us in a recent comment:

“What exactly is your your (sic) opinion of reasonable noise & vibration for an ongoing busy railway operation. Whistle noise does not count as any municipality can pass a bylaw if they wish.”

Here are our thoughts:

What is Reasonable?

Communication and cooperation are the cornerstones in resolving any railway noise and vibration complaint.

Planning decisions involving the future growth of the community or of the railway should be openly and candidly discussed, with a focus on how the proposed growth or changes will impact the environment, the residents, or the railway’s operations. In our view, all three considerations need to be factored in and balanced before the intended project proceeds, in an atmosphere of complete transparency for all involved parties.

Potentially negative consequences should be considered, along with mitigating measures beforehand, not in the aftermath of an insular decision making process, one that can detrimentally affect the community, the railway, or the environment.

Decisions that involve potentially increased noise and vibration levels by the railway in particular, through increased traffic levels, or changes in operations need to be addressed on a local, civic level, in addition to, and in partnership with, federal agencies, in order to avoid future conflicts.


There needs to be an end to what we call the “Surprise!” mode of rail planning, under which residents find out after the fact that their lives have been drastically and unpleasantly altered by a significant change to rail operations of which they had no idea was even being considered. It’s under these conditions for many residents where a previously reasonable amount of railway noise and vibration, suddenly becomes intolerable and unreasonable to those affected.

Poor land use decisions by cities and municipalities should similarly fall under scrutiny by railways, with the suggestion that the railways advise local authorities involved in the development approval process as well as the general public about the railway’s concerns with the project.

An effective means by which the railway could deter proposed development and residential encroachment in locations of anticipated land use conflicts would be to publish and distribute a range of typical railway noise levels, in decibels, that potential occupants would be faced with. Providing noise measurements would remove any ambiguity about what’s in store before it’s too late…

A Great Report But…

All of this ties into the Railway Association of Canada’s (RAC’s) and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM’s) published report from 2007, entitled “Proximity Guidelines and Best Practices.” Despite the presence of this report, homes continue to be built too close to railways and railways have continued to expand or change operations too close to homes, according to the recommended distances listed in this publication.

It’s a great report, but, from what we’ve seen and heard, it hasn’t done much to deter the kind of development conflict it set out to address and too few people behind land use decisions have even heard of it.

Did the RAC and the FCM forget to distribute their report to the railways and to civic officials?

Existing Proximity Problems are Equally Important

Existing proximity problems, as thorny as they are, also need to be addressed. There is well enough information and studies about the impact of noise on human health, and it’s time to recognize it for what it is – a hazard. It isn’t reasonable to expect people to live with noise levels well in excess of recognized  tolerable limits. Mitigation in severe cases has to be taken seriously, and buyouts for extreme cases.

It’s the railway making the noise and vibration. Why should residents shoulder the burden of a pollution by-product of an entire industry?

In case the thought of all this expense makes any railway executives reading this queasy, we’d like you to know that the single largest complaint that we hear about – the most offensive part of rail operations from the majority of people we hear from – is the astounding amount of time that railway companies leave their diesel locomotives idling, and often, ridiculously close to people’s homes, with no apparent thought about how this might affect the people living in them.

And why do so many locomotives still, for an industry that likes to portray itself as being “green” in this day and age not use any form of idle reduction technology? We’re well aware that the diesel locomotives used in Canadian rail operations can be damaged in sub-zero weather, so are left to run for hours and hours in colder weather, but we received complaints from people during heat waves last summer…

Shut Down Idling Locomotives, Shut Down Many Complaints…

To eliminate a considerable percentage of complaints about railway noise, vibration, and fumes, here’s what it would take: Shut down locomotives whenever possible, better yet, use an automated shutdown system that can further reduce idling and save fuel – and make sure that it is being used effectively.

Cooperate with residents and communities to establish mutually-agreeable locations in which to leave engines idling when “necessary” Failing to do so creates considerable conflict, as too frequently the noise and vibration is often as bad inside homes as outside, and particulate matter from the soot is a known carcinogen.

The majority of the people we’ve heard from are quite reasonable and accepting of normal daytime rail operations.

It’s the “surprises” foisted upon residents by railways, locomotive idling, night time noise permeating the privacy of homes and disrupting sleep, frequently in the form of train whistles that seem to form the core of complaints we’ve received.

A Wake-Up Call on Whistling

And although Mr. Willsie says that, in terms of noise, that “whistling doesn’t count,” we disagree. For the many people who get their sleep woken on a regular basis by blaring train whistles, it really counts. And we further disagree that it is so simple as to have the affected municipality or City pass a bylaw.

There’s the expense of the insurance for the crossing that has to be factored in, as well as outfitting some crossings with flashing lights, bells and gates, which can be extremely costly.

Last we heard, it can be upwards of $300,000.00 for a single crossing…perhaps Mr. Willsie would like to update us on this, as well as to comment as to who pays for this?

We repeatedly hear the public sentiment that railways shouldn’t run at night, and whistling is often cited as a primary reason for a night time ban on rail operations.

Blaring train whistles capable of blasting an astounding 110 decibel warning in residential communities in the middle of the night is completely unreasonable to an increasing numbers of citizens being routinely disrupted from sleep inside of their own homes. A growing number of communities are calling for rail operations to be restricted to daytime hours on this basis while effectively curtailing the prohibitive expense that whistle cessation otherwise burdens taxpayers with.

The use of whistles as warning devices by railways originated over 150 years ago. It’s time to consider some alternative signalling systems that provide the necessary safety at grade level crossings for trains, vehicular traffic, and pedestrians, without disrupting everyone else for an often considerable radius.

A Sustainable Approach is Essential

As communities, cities, and their populations continue to grow, and as rail traffic continues to increase and expand, the ability for both residents and railways to co-exist together will no longer be optional, it will be essential.

We don’t agree that, given the gravity of this problem, the only available option for citizens adversely affected by railway noise and vibration is to move. We think that the majority of the movement required here is rather a shift in attitude by railway executives such as Mr. Willsie in taking a more cooperative and sustainable approach in running railways through communities, rather than over them.

© Copyright 2012

  1. Jen permalink

    This is so true, our neighbourhood was relatively quiet a few years back (no complaints) and then CP decided to put a train switch directly behind my fence so now I have trains that idle for HOURS and HOURS directly in my back yard where my kids play. They never took into consideration the health of our neighbourhood and when confronted and asked why they put it there and not 4 houses over in a spot that has no houses and where it is not directly polluting families they said it’s too bad they won’t even concider moving it (they sure are not considerate). CP has never even considered OUR health before they made CHANGES that directly affect us. Yes the train was here before the house was built, but CP has just made changes to suit them and not to suit everyone. We are not asking for a big change we are only asking that the trains that idle for hours and hours at a time many times a day be moved over a few houses down so they are not directly polluting us and they will not accommodate that simple and human request. Shame on you CP

  2. Jeff Willsie permalink

    Hi Train Jane
    You did not answer what is reasonable!
    I will tell you, reasonable is whatever noise & vibration the train creates in operation of the railways. There is no unreasonable noise or vibration.
    Re Surprise
    The railways do not control traffic offered. It goes up & down with demand & folks buying real estate beside the railway should be smart enough to know that. The railway can hardly be held accountable for folks foolish property investments.When you whine, (the railway should buy you out) it implies you all are looking to improve your wealth because of a situation caused by your own stupidity.

    The Report
    Municipalities ignore the railways recomendations so i guess the new neighbours shall live with the railway issues & suffer or move!

    Existing Propertys
    The Railways & the government are not responsible for investment stupidity by folks buying propety beside the railway. Location Location Location & buyer beware are the governing factors.

    Shut down
    All the newer locos have shut down devices but the only work at temps above 4 deg or so. Engine houses were torn down due to high propety taxes when fuel
    was cheap & now its just too costly to build them again. this issue will go away on electrification. The railways do instruct employees to shut down locos sitting for over a 1/2 hour weather permitting.

    This is done because of Federal law. If you do not like it change the law.
    In Ontario, a municpal employee in insurance issues said it costs next to nothing to put a rider on for a railroad crossing whistle bylaw other than the paper work involved.
    I hope you can eliminate the whistle as it will save the railways some money!

    The simple fact is the railways nor the government are going to build noise or vibration retaining devices for existing adjacent property owners. Buyer beware is the way it is. If you do not like living by the railway you should move.
    Jeff Willsie
    ontario southland railway

    Existing properts

    • trainjane permalink

      Mr. Willsie, we did, in fact, answer to the question as to what is reasonable regarding railway noise and vibration. We went into some detail in this regard.

      We just did not answer in a way in which you are willing to accept or consider, apparently, given your stated opinion that “there is no unreasonable noise and vibration” when it comes to the railway industry.

      There are alot of people who disagree with you, and with that statement in particular, ourselves included.

      One of the reasons why we disagree is due to the fact that, for many of the people we hear from, the issue is that noise and vibration levels have increased. What was previously tolerable has become impossible for many of the people we hear from.

      While you ridicule people for making “foolish investments”, we believe that the rail industry bears some accountability in this problem. Yours is an industry that often does not prepare or notify the public of operational changes before simply just going ahead anyways.

      This short circuits any sort of process to discuss strategies to mitigate the increase in noise or the overall impact that the changes to rail operations can have on the public.

      That’s not reasonable.

      As for the issue of the Proximity Report put together by the Railway Association of Canada and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities; we too are concerned that so much residential development is continuing to occur much too close to the railway.

      However, we are equally concerned that so much rail development is also occurring much too close to homes, a point you ignore.

      Regarding locomotive idling and the use of Smartstart…you seem to be out of touch. You say that “the railways do instruct employees to shut down locos sitting for over a ½ hour weather permitting.”

      That figure has, in fact, been doubled to an hour in some locations before shut down is to occur.

      Also, we’ve had plenty of concerns about Smartstart-equipped locomotives not shutting down at all in temperatures in excess of 4 or 5 Celsius.

      Also, Smartstart initially worked year-round, not like the current version.

      As for your views on whistle cessation, again, we are not sure where your information is coming from. We understand that liability issues are frequently a problem, and the costs for this as well as for flashing lights, bells, and gates can be prohibitive. Whistle cessation can be a complex and expensive issue, and one very frustrating for the public being affected by the used of whistles in urban areas in particular.

      And as for sustainability, the notion that there is no such thing as unreasonable noise and vibration from railway operations, given the widespread concern about this problem, well, in our opinion, that’s just socially unsustainable, Mr. Willsie.

  3. Jeff Willsie permalink

    Hi, Train Jane.
    I would like to point out your credibility is waning.
    You will not identify yourself.
    You do not answer the question of just what is reasonable noise from a busy railway operation. Instead, you have a paragraph espousing your opinion like a politician which is to say nothing at all.
    You try to tie safety issues with annoyance issues but they are totally different issues. Anyone reading your blog can easily see you are trying to elevate annoyance issues to the level of safety issues to justify your position.
    In regard to your question of how many people have to complain about annoyance issues before they are addressed, I would guess 75% of the entire population may do this, however as the NIMBY’s represent less than 1% of the population I doubt annoyance issues are very high on the federal government’s list especially when the healthy expansion of the economy rests in part on a 24/7 transportation system. The fact that the economy is the most important issue facing Canada today seems to fly right between your ears with no absorption whatsoever.
    In regard to your surprise paragraph, I would like to point out that if for example a mining company decided to mine a valuable commodity in northern Ontario and ship 75 or 100 thousand cars a year to the west coast for export, it will happen because this will provide revenue to eliminate the deficit.
    A plebiscite is very unlikely to happen in every municipality that freight is going to travel through. The railway is an existing transportation corridor operating long before NIMBY’s moved in. Furthermore, the railways nor the government are responsible for the people who have moved into the backyard of the railway. The NIMBY’s are responsible for their real estate investment decisions.
    Now that the government is streamlining environmental processes regarding development for the economic well being of the nation, I sincerely doubt that those who choose to live next to the railway (whining and complaining) will receive much attention. The solution for the NIMBYs is to move as the railway cannot and the railways will carry the economic business of the nation whether or not it is an annoyance to you.
    Train Jane, I would think with your superior writing ability you would have a well paying job so you don’t have to live in that cheaper property next to the railway. In any case, the railway will be rumbling along 24/7 long after you and I are dead. The solution to your problem is simple – MOVE!

    Jeff Willsie, President
    Ontario Southland Railway

    • trainjane permalink

      Hello Mr. Willsie,

      We’ve already discussed, at length, some of the issues that you raise here yet again.

      I take your criticisms as a compliment; if my credibility, or that of this blog were, in question in any way, you’d be giving this site much less attention.

      The fact that we do not agree on key issues and yet this blog does not hesitate to publish dissenting views such as your own is one of the ways with which we’ve established our credibility.

      We won’t be railroaded into having it any other way.

      Speaking of dissent, we’ve been closely watching the gathering storm at your former employer and company with whom you hold a lease, CP Rail.

      Given your expressed opinion that “All that matters is money” you must be looking forward to the upcoming vote at CP Rail’s Annual General Meeting on May 17th.

      Mr. Bill Ackerman of Pershing Square Capital Management (the “dissenter”, according to CP Rail ads) is making quite the case to shareholders of CP being an underperforming railway, and one that more profit can be wrung out of.

      As you probably know, Mr. Ackerman proposes a slate of seven nominees to change the face of CP’s Board of Directors, including replacing CP Rail’s Chief Executive, Mr. Fred Green, with former rival CN Rail Chairman, Hunter Harrison.

      Ackerman certainly has received considerable publicity for this proposal, whetting shareholder’s appetite for profit by trotting out Harrison, CN’s retired warhorse, around the ring in what is looking to be, quite possibly an acrimonious shakedown at CP Rail.

      If Harrison becomes the new CP Rail President, we predict the CP Rail that you know and have worked for, will rapidly become a thing of the past.

      Quite possibly, some of the colleagues that you have at CP will find themselves having to adapt to a much different company culture, and perhaps a different quality of life as well.

      Ask CN Rail employees about what it was like to work for CN during Harrison’s reign (I did, and got an earful) or talk to some former BC Rail employees in British Columbia who found themselves in a very different work environment when CN Rail swallowed up BC Rail during Harrison’s tenure.

      Or, is the human element in all this simply an irrelevant issue to you Mr. Willsie, given that your view that economic considerations quash quality of life concerns? (Compared to a balanced approach, which considers both…)

      Will you be at the AGM tomorrow, shaking hands and patting the backs of CP’s ousted Directors if Ackerman succeeds, telling outgoing Directors that their exit is a move in the right direction in the name of profit?

      Given your opinion that “All that matters is money,” have you, as a railway President, put your support behind the existing CP Board, or given your support to Ackerman’s bid?

      Or, have you simply decided to sit on the fence with a wait-and-see attitude as to which way the wind blows on this one?

      Have you, or will you, stand up for your stated principles at this crucial crossroad in Canada’s railway industry?

      As the saying goes, if you don’t stand for something, then you stand for nothing.

      What do you stand for, Mr. Willsie?

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