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Railway Noise and Vibration: Background of a Serious Problem

Railway noise pollution and vibration-based disturbances are generally referred to being proximity issues, or nearness of rail operations to residential areas.

Although noise and vibration from passing trains can sometimes lead to problems for residents along the rail corridor, more severe disturbances are frequently noted in around rail yards, especially in terms of overall duration of noise and vibration incidents.  Diesel locomotives, often left idling for hours at a time, can result in an annoying drone that resonates through homes in proximity. This is often compounded by exposure to hazardous diesel fumes wafting out of the rail yard, in the vicinity of nearby residents, as many CN neighbours are all too familiar. Some even have noted a sooty residue around their homes at times.

Whistling often tops the list of rail industry noise concerns, and frequently affects the health of people living in the footprint of rail operations by disrupting sleep patterns, or causing overall sleep deprivation.  Locomotive whistles can exceed 90 decibels.  The issue of whistling is made more challenging as it is a regulatory requirement at each and every road crossing, unless an approved agreement to cease whistling otherwise exists between the rail company, Transport Canada, and the City or Municipality involved.


Changes Over Time: Residential Development and Railway Operations Expand

The development of residential homes too close to rail facilities is frequently pinpointed as the source of noise and vibration conflicts.  As land, particularly in urban centres, becomes scarce, and increasingly valuable, land use conflicts can arise from growing residential housing needs, pushing development closer to railways.

However, the other side of this problem is when railways change or expand their operations, which can severely impact longstanding residential developments. Changes and expansion of railway operations can frequently result in dramatically increased noise and vibration, either in terms overall frequency, levels, or, often both.

Changes initiated by railways that can negatively affect resident communities may include scheduling conflicts, particularly so in the case of late night work, without the presence of noise limits or mitigation, and equipment changes, in terms of the type or number of locomotives used.  Often these changes take place without consultation with the people and communities who will be most adversely affected. It is simply expected that the community will simply absorb changes in rail operations and accept reductions in the quality of their lives in order to accommodate the railroad.

In addition to scheduling conflicts, the trend towards using increased “power” – a term referring to locomotives – can negatively impact residents living in proximity to rail operations. Increasing the actual number of locomotives required to perform rail operations, or the trend towards using  much larger, higher-horse powered engines in aspects of rail operations can result in an overall increase in noise and vibrational disturbances in and around nearby homes.

As train lengths increase, so does the requirement for more power to move them. Caught in the middle between the efficiencies and economies of scale of this evolving trend are the residential communities through which railways operate.

“I’m going off the rails on a crazy train.”  – Ozzy Osbourne, 1980

The most severe noise and vibration conflicts for residents are those that occur in the middle of the night, affecting health and sleep.  We’re pleased that the Railway Association of Canada, in its Proximity Guidelines and Best Practices report, in 2007, determined that new residential development should take place no closer than 300 metres to rail yards and 100 metres to mainline rail corridors. That’s a positive step in the right direction.  However, we would equally like to see set limits to the level of late-night noise that the railways expose their existing resident neighbours to as well.

Also of concern is the degree of inconsistency on how rail operations can be performed. Ask anyone who has been living in around a rail facility for a length of time and they will tell you that frequently the amount of noise and vibration varies dramatically, depending on the crew performing the work in question.  That’s where we believe a clear opportunity exists for CN to set some standards to reduce the severity of many noise and vibration concerns.


Changes in the Law: Accountability Removed

From late 2000 to 2007, quite literally, the sky has been the limit for rail noise levels that many communities have been expected to absorb and endure.  These dates are significant to this issue, and tell the rest of the story as to why living conditions deteriorated for so many residents living in the footprint of rail operation during these years, across the country.

A decade ago, the Canadian Transportation Agency investigated a complaint about excessive noise brought forward by citizens in Oakville, Ontario, concerned about the level of noise emanating from CN Rail’s nearby facility.  Oakville residents were successful in their complaint regarding CN Rail’s operations. CN Rail was ordered to make changes to its operations to reduce the level of noise its resident neighbours were being subjected to, and to monitor those levels. (Agency Order 1999-R-123, Decision No. 87-R-1999)

CN responded by mounting a court challenge not only of the unfavourable decision made against its operations, but of the existing law itself in place at the time, and the regulatory jurisdiction of  The Canadian Transportation Agency to oversee noise and vibration complaints.  CN Rail  fought to not just overturn the ruling, but the law itself, and the authority of the Agency to investigate legitimate noise and vibration concerns about its operations – and won.

After this court challenge, CN then had prior rulings unfavourable to its operations overturned as well, such as the Taylor decision,which addressed noise, vibration, and referenced air pollution from idling locomotives.(Agency Order 1999-R-308, Decision No. 391-R-1999).  CN created a regulatory void for itself,  drowning out voices of concern about its operations with its noise, and frequently ignoring the plight of those affected, while elected Canadian Members of Parliament grappled with the issue of re-regulation.

The Railway Association of Canada – of which, CN Rail is a member – urged self-regulation, to avoid being legislated into compliance.  However, conditions in numerous communities continued to deteriorate, and it became very clear that this was an industry that needed to be once again made accountable to the public.


Changes in the Law: Accountability Restored

On a third attempt by Canadian Parliament over a span of 7 years, and after hearing accounts of deplorable conditions and conduct towards affected communities, particularly by CN Rail, Parliament voted for the following amendments to be made to The Canada Transportation Act:

95.1 When constructing or operating a railway, a railway company shall cause only such noise and vibration as reasonable, taking into account

(a) its obligations under sections 113 and 114, if applicable;

(b) its operational requirements; and

(c) the area where the construction or operation takes place

On June 22, 2007, these Amendments were given Royal Assent and passed into law.  See the full text of The Canada Transportation Act.

The bill originally contained an additional clause that the powerful railway industry successfully appealed to Canadian Senators to have removed, citing concerns about how it would affect the railway’s economic viability:

(d) the potential impact on persons residing in properties adjacent to the railway

Thusly, profits were put before health and quality of life concerns once again by big rail and our unelected Canadian Senate overrode a significant aspect of the proposed protection that left many citizens shocked by its removal.  Frankly, the determination to have this clause abolished by the railway industry speaks volumes about its priorities, and the level of regard given for people its operations had been long been affecting.

Accordingly, jurisdiction was restored to The Canadian Transportation Agency to once again oversee railway noise and vibration complaints, with emphasis being made on a collaborative approach in resolving railway noise and vibration disputes. This includes a formal mediation process, in which participation is now mandatory – not optional – by rail companies, as was the case prior to the amendments.  To this effect, the amended act states:

95.3 (1) On receipt of a complaint made by any person that a railway company is not complying with section 95.1, the Agency may order the railway company to undertake any changes in its railway construction or operation that the Agency considers reasonable to ensure compliance with that section.


It’s Time For Good Corporate Citizenship

“It is no good saying “We are doing our best.” You have to succeed in doing what is necessary.” – Winston Churchill 1874-1965

During the debating of the new regulations, elected officials in Parliament considered the accounts of deteriorating living conditions that affected citizens were being subjected to by an industry that had clearly lost consideration for them as being legitimate stakeholders in the course of  their operations.  This was an industry that needed to become accountable once again for its actions and establish a social contract with its affected resident neighbours, and was either unable or unwilling to do so, on its own.

CN’s actions and treatment of various communities, and infrequent co-operation with those impacted by its operations, derailed opportunities to foster healthy relationships with many of its resident neighbours, opting instead to be legislated into compliance.  We believe that CN Rail lost a golden opportunity, one in which it could have set an example, a standard, in regulating  itself, and partnering with communities in resolving legitimate noise, vibration, and air pollution problems.

The fact that this company directed its efforts to remove accountability, and replace it with indifference until being re-regulated is a disturbing, defining chapter in its history.

“How you do anything is how you do everything” – Anon. 

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