The tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que. in July 2013 in which 47 people were killed when a train loaded with crude oil derailed and created a series of explosions, has put a renewed focus on proximity issues between railways and new development.
Just two months before the accident, a series of guidelineswere published by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and the Railway Association of Canada (RAC). The goal of the guidelines is to "promote a higher level of consistency nationwide with respect to new development approval processes as well as the design of new development projects in proximity to railways operations," say the associations. Since the derailment, the City of Montreal has already moved to adopt the recommendations.
"It's unfortunate that it comes in light of Lac-Méganic, but at least maybe we can learn some lessons from it," Cote-St-Luc city councillor Dida Berku told the Montreal Gazette. She said the accident was a "huge wake-up call" to municipalities.
The City of Edmonton is also considering new proximity regulations.
The guidelines from FCM and RAC are intended only for new developments and not as retrofits for existing neighbourhoods. They call for standards for minimum setbacks and berms, noise barriers and safety fencing.
The associations say that railways have been pushing for standard setback and berm requirements since the early 1980s. "Most jurisdictions across Canada have yet to establish a formal requirement for rail corridor building setbacks," say the guidelines. "In some cases, minimum setback requirements are considered to be too onerous, and are either ignored or subjectively reduced. Ontario, which mandates the involvement of railways on any development proposal in proximity to railway facilities, is the only province where standard setbacks are typically achieved."
A paper presented at the Rail Issues Forum in Halifax in 2011 by Barnet H. Kussner and Tiffany Tsun of Weirfoulds addressed the regulatory issues. "While railways and rights-of-way are federally regulated, land-use planning and development falls within provincial and municipal responsibility. Conflicts often arise between the land uses associated with rail corridors (such as transportation of dangerous goods) and sensitive land uses within proximity (such as residential development). This fragmented jurisdictional framework essentially means that no one level of government has the sole ability to address development issues along the rail corridor."
The guidelines say the proposed proximity measures work best "only if they are implemented together as part of the entire package of standard mitigation measures. For example, the setback contributes to mitigation against the potential impact of a railway incident as well as noise and vibration, through distance separation. The earthen berm, in turn, can protect against the physical components of a derailment (in conjunction with the setback) and provides mitigation of wheel and rail noise, reduces the masonry or wood component (and cost) of the overall noise barrier height, and offers an opportunity for the productive use of foundation excavations."
The report says that just over 10 per cent of rail accidents are collisions or derailments that happen on track between stations or terminals. The number of accidents involving the transportation of dangerous goods has fallen steadily since 1996, while the amount of rail transport of dangerous goods has grown by as much as 60 per cent, says the report. Before the Lac-Méganic accident, "by far the greatest number of annual fatalities resulting from railways accidents involves trespassers or vehicle occupants or pedestrians being struck at crossings. As a result, trespassing is at least as great, if not greater a safety concern than is derailment," say the guidelines.
"Successful solutions to trespassing control have been shown to be those that involve combinations of public awareness, enforcement and engineering," says the FCM/RAC.
The most common complaints from people who live near railways are noise and vibration.
"Beyond the obvious annoyance, some studies have found that the sleep disturbance induced by adverse levels of noise can affect cardiovascular, physiological and mental health and physical performance. However, there is no clear consensus as the real affects of adverse levels of noise on health," say the guidelines.
The report says that vibration is more difficult to predict and mitigate than noise. "There is no universally accepted method of measurement or applicable guidelines. Vibration evaluation methods are generally based on the human response to vibration. The effects of vibration on occupants include fear of damage to the occupied structure and interference with sleep, conversation and other activities."
Studies have found that the closer a home is to a railway, the greater its loss in value compared to similar homes in the community. However, thousands of people happily live right beside the tracks in all sorts of house styles. If the tracks are used for commuter trains and the station is nearby, sometimes it's marketed as a positive factor.