COLUMN: Imagining New Westminster without train whistles

A 'maze barrier' was installed last month at Port Royal Community Garden, as part of whistle cessation measures.
— image credit: Chris Bryan/NewsLeader

Five rail crossings.

That's what you'll find in Queensborough between the railway bridge in Port Royal and the corner of Derwent Avenue and Salter Street about 1,000 feet down the road.

And at each crossing—each one—Transport Canada rules require the operator to blow the whistle for 20 seconds as they approach.

"When you have to listen to it, it's a long time," Singh Biln, director of community relations with Southern Railway of B.C. (SRY) told me during a tour of their operations last week. "When you have to blow 20 seconds, it's just about continuous, and very disruptive to our neighbourhood."

So it will come as good news to residents of Port Royal and beyond that work is already underway to address the problem.

As part of the deal reached between SRY and the City of New Westminster in January, several level crossings are being upgraded so that whistling won't be required.

Noise and locomotive vibration has been an issue in New West for several years, particularly in Quayside where residents Brian Allen and James Crosty have led a court battle with the major railways.

MAP: This map shows the level crossings in Downtown, Quayside and Queensborough. All but one are slated for whistle cessation. Mobile users click here for interactive social page.

The City of New Westminster committed to city-wide whistle cessation in 2011, and is poised to make major progress towards that goal.

In 2012, the city established a railway advisory committee, chaired by city Coun. Chuck Puchmayr, to address noise and related concerns.

At Port Royal earlier this month, a small work crew was installing railings called "maze barriers" on either side of the rail line where a path crosses between the community garden and the sidewalk.

The barriers would force a cyclist, skateboarder, or running child to slow down and ideally look both ways before crossing the tracks. Southern Railway will also adjust the speed limit of their trains there, to ensure there's enough time to stop should anyone get stuck on the tracks. And they'll notify neighbours that a warning whistle will no longer be blown. All this must be done to satisfy WorkSafeBC.

SRY and the city will each contribute $500,000 for the whistle cessation project, which will include other crossings in Queensborough and on the New Westminster mainland.

But that's not all.

In a separate deal reached with BNSF, CN and CP, the crossing at Begbie Street and Quayside Drive is also on its way toward signalization, which may be met with noisy celebration by residents of the InterUrban building next door. That arrangement will also address the crossing on Front Street at the east end of the parkade.

"Those ones are a go," Puchmayr told me, adding that the city's already done the engineering work and the railways are in the process of sourcing the equipment.

"It's just a matter of getting the equipment and getting it installed.".

LEFT: Hansen's Group of Companies operates a 13-acre yard in Annacis Island where vehicles are offloaded from Southern Railway rail cars to await delivery to dealerships. This yard is one of two such yards on Annacis, the only two such vehicle transfer yards in B.C. The other yard is much larger, at 106 acres.
Chris Bryan/NewsLeader

As part of the arrangement, though, the city will assume responsibility for upgraded crossings, by creating a bylaw and underwriting the crossings.

"It's not hugely onerous, but we'll have to hold liability on those crossings," Puchmayr said. "The railways don't."

Meantime, Biln says the "quick wins" for SRY are the crossings in Queensborough, and at 20th Street and River Drive, just across the bridge. They will be done soon. The River Drive crossing, which provides vehicle access to the Fraser River Pile & Dredge facilities, will be closed at night with a gate.

Quayside Drive, where the rail line slices at an angle at Laguna Court before heading over the rail bridge to Port Royal, is a high priority fix, Biln said. It will require expensive signalization, but the plan is to have this done by the end of the year.

Back in Queensborough, other changes to level crossings will include installation of signal arms at each of the crossings along Ewen Avenue at Furness, Mercer and Stanley streets. The final crossing at Salter Street and Derwent Avenue hasn't been discussed yet, Biln says, adding they haven't received any complaints in that area.

"We consider ourselves the little railway that's trying," Biln said.

Puchmayr has heard from residents in Sapperton wondering when whistle cessation will come to their neighbourhood. He says the plan has been to focus on the densely populated areas of Quayside and Downtown first, then move onto the rest of the city.

"Eventually, within the next couple of years, there will be no whistling on any major thoroughfares. The only whistling would be if someone was on the track."

Some people may find it hard to imagine life in New Westminster with no routine train whistles.

Puchmayr says it's time to start believing.

"I would say it will be less than three years."

• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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