Skip to content

It’s Time to Stop Building Too Close to the Tracks

by on December 4, 2016


Cities just aren’t getting it.

The buzzword of the day in civic circles is undoubtedly “densification.”

On that premise, in numerous cities across the country, rapid development has been taking place, packing people into tighter confines, and in areas previously considered unfit or undesirable for housing.

Many people see the onslaught as little more than the destruction of entire neighbourhoods previously filled with homes of character, gardens, yards, and historical landmarks. Yes, I am one of those people.

I’m not a fan, for various reasons, of this approach to community development, especially when it comes to cities and developers making poor choices in converting industrial land over to housing.

I’m particularly against it when the area being developed is too close to a railway, where proximity problems with railway noise and vibration for new residents can all be anticipated before the first shovel of sod is even turned over.

That’s just irresponsible, and makes a complete oxymoron out of the term “urban planning.”

To address such new development challenges, The Railway Association of Canada, along with The Canadian Federation of Municipalities published an updated version of their original “Proximity Guide and Best Practices” report from 2007.

In May 2013, they jointly published an updated version, “Guidelines for New Development in Proximity to Railway Operations.” (see link below)

Click to access 2013_05_29_guidelines_newdevelopment_e.pdf

Here are some excerpts:

“As cities in Canada continue to urbanize, and as they place a greater emphasis on curbing urban sprawl, demand for new forms of infill development is growing, including on sites in proximity to railway corridors.

In particular, commercial and industrial properties in proximity to railway operations, and in some cases the buildings situated on those properties, are increasingly being converted to residential uses. At the same time, both the passenger and freight operations of railways are growing steadily, leading to an increasing potential for conflicts between rail operations and adjacent land uses.” 

“The intention of these guidelines is to provide a level of consistency in the approach to the design of buildings and their context in proximity to railway corridors, and the type of mitigation that is provided across the country.”

Many of the specifications remain the same as the 2007 report, but they bear out repeating.

“The standard recommended building setbacks for new residential development in proximity to railway operations are as follows:

Freight Rail Yards:                   300 metres

Principle Main Line:                30 metres

Secondary Main Line:             30 metres

Principle Branch Line:             15 metres

Secondary Branch Line:         15 metres

Spur Line:                                 15 metres”

In all, this comprehensive report details every aspect that cities and developers should heed over 122 pages of information in order to avoid potential future noise and vibration conflicts between residents and railways.

Personally, I’d like to see The Railway Association of Canada and The Federation of Canadian Municipalities go one step further, and come up with a specific building designation for developments that meet their detailed criteria in areas with a rail presence, an award of sorts.

Any developments lacking this designation could therefore give pause to potential buyers or renters, and hopefully at least raise awareness and encourage discussion, and, to some extent at least, be a factor in the consideration as to whether or not a person decides to even move in.

And lastly, in a perfect world, any housing development that does not meet criteria when built in proximity to railways, which then experiences a noise and vibration conflict with the railway, should not be immune for costs to mitigate the problem it created in the first place.

Any such case whereby a city and possibly the developer were held to account and ordered to pay for mitigative measures to remedy a rail noise and vibration problem that could have been easily avoided during the planning and design stages would see the “Guidelines for New Development in Proximity to Railway Operations” become a standard reference manual at every city hall across the country.

And that’s exactly what’s needed.


  1. Lara permalink

    Yes yes yes! Well said

  2. What about the opposite problem of an existing community with a CPR line that is getting increasingly busy?
    This is on the South Shore of Burrard Inlet (Vancouver) where they keep increasing the container handling capacity.
    Thanks, John

    • trainjane permalink

      John Hawthorne, thank you for your comment, you’ve raised an important point.

      Increases in rail volume are not so much a proximity issue as detailed in my blog post, but are more categorized as a problem that has led to an increase in railway noise and vibration.

      It’s not the distance you are questioning and having difficulty with, rather, it’s the frequency which has become the problem, in terms of whether or not the situation remains tolerable.

      And therein lies the problem.

      Existing provisions for the resolution of disputes for railway noise and vibration tend not to favour the complainant as the railway can, and will point to its operational requirements and its obligations to its customers being the primary considerations in the assessment of the complaint.

      That is where it was such a grave disservice by the Canadian Senate to Canadian citizens, when it removed a vital clause from the amended Bill intended to address these issues back roughly a decade ago that specifically stated that the railway also had to consider its operational impact on persons living adjacent the railway. Our Senators eliminated that clause.

      That clause, again in my opinion, could have addressed situations such as yours.

      It would have been possible then to have consideration for the railway to install noise mitigation to protect residents from the impact of its increased activity.

      When CN Rail purchased the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern Railway that ran through communities in around Chicago, Illinois in 2009, part of the deal included the installation of noise mitigation as CN planned to increase traffic through several suburban communities.

      Yes, that’s something that took place over the border but is completely relevant to similar situations here.

      It has also long been my opinion that if rail activity changes significantly, resulting in an increase in noise and vibration, that once a set threshold is exceeded, then mitigation must be put in place to protect the public.

      Currently, there are no set limits, and that, I believe, must change.

  3. gary prokovich permalink

    train jane sorry for the language but you have no idea around here concerning southern railway bc in new west’t. the rail company have been at odds for about 10 years including being arrested 3 times and put on a peace bond, this stems from deliberate harassment by their employees.even the judge would like to know why these clowns think they can get away with everything. it is pretty frustrating your told to go through proper procedures to help resolve problems such as whistles and bells all night. 120 employees and we have 2 or3 IDIOTS i’ll save the real comments that are deliberate in this unnecessary noise all night and almost zero during the day. we have had gates put in but these couple of moron’s continue their b/s. we have had I think you know several meetings with city hall and rail road company’s.we’re still fighting them to resolve these problems. also we live on a dead end street. where are the bells and whistles during the day when we have a lot of traffic down here ???.train jane check that out.director of southern rail bc biln singh email: I welcomemore of your input and discussions. gary prokovich

    • trainjane permalink

      Actually, yes I do, Mr. Prokovich. I spent some time in around New Westminster observing the overall situation there as it has definitely been a hotspot nationally, with increased density in housing occurring all the while, which I found astounding.

  4. Andrea permalink

    “Personally, I’d like to see The Railway Association of Canada and The Federation of Canadian Municipalities go one step further, and come up with a specific building designation for developments that meet their detailed criteria in areas with a rail presence, an award of sorts.”


    Plus I would like to see that freight rail yards aren’t built north of communities. Therefore locomotive diesel exhaust doesn’t blow south towards the community.

    • trainjane permalink

      Agreed, progress is slow, but hopefully will not only continue, but expand in scope in terms of addressing core issues of concern.

  5. Dave Anderson permalink

    Railways are not moving into your neighbourhood. The opposite is true. Don’t buy next to a transcontinental rail line 135 years old and then complain about noise. Canada needs to export resources. We have a resource based economy. Any way the railroads can increase business, they will, and will be supported by the government .

    • trainjane permalink

      Asbestos makes great insulation, and Canada has plenty, given our resource-based economy.

      Thankfully, we know that the potential health threat outweighs any economic benefit.

      Railways have been expanding within communities. These changes, all too often, in my opinion at least, have been without due consideration of the detrimental impact that the resulting increased noise, and sleep disruption, that these changes have resulted in for many resident neighbours.

      As noise exposure (and diesel fumes) become increasingly recognized as health risks, the challenge is to balance economic benefits while mitigating health concerns to people living in proximity to rail interests.

      I’m not in favour of the money-before-health approach.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: