Proximity ambassadors

By championing the FCM-RAC Proximity Guidelines, mayor and city councillors across Canada are helping to foster healthy railway-community relationships for the future.

When it comes to addressing railway community proximity issues, it’s better to be proactive than reactive.

That’s a basic message that the Railway Association of Canada (RAC) and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) have been communicating since 2003 through their joint Proximity Initiative. For nearly 15 years, the initiative’s goal has been to strike a safe and harmonious balance between railways and the communities through which they operate, to the benefit of both parties.

The initiative’s steering committee is made up of representatives from both organizations and is supported by dedicated mayors and city councillors from across Canada who recognize the importance of fostering healthy railway-community relationships.

The efforts of these ambassadors are a big part of the initiative’s success. By championing the guidelines across the country, they’ve supplied municipal land-use planners with the information they need to help people and railways live safely and comfortably together.

The initiative’s go-to reference document is the Guidelines for New Development in Proximity to Railway Operations – or Proximity Guidelines – which the initiative launched in May 2013. The guidelines provide specific engineering measures to ensure that

“From the beginning, the goal of the FCM and the RAC has been to develop guidelines that were a win-win for everyone involved, and they are.”

cities and land planners understand the right way to develop property near rail property. They cover everything from trespassing determents to noise abatement and more.

For the last four years, representatives of the Proximity Initiative have promoted the guidelines by giving presentations, publishing articles and participating in conferences hosted by provincial and municipal associations.

“From the beginning, the goal of the FCM and the RAC has been to develop guidelines that were a winwin for everyone involved, and they are,” says longtime steering committee member and FCM co-chair Bob Long, who serves as a councillor in the Township of Langley, B.C.

“When a municipality adopts the Proximity Initiative guidelines, they are solving serious public safety issues by managing landuse development effectively.”

In January 2015, the City of Montreal became the first major urban area in Canada to adopt the guidelines into its long-term development plan. Since then, dozens of municipal governments across Canada have done the same, and more than 100 municipalities have sought comments from railways about setbacks and safety barriers as potential conditions of approval.

Ambassadors point to this record of popularity when they promote the guidelines, says Montreal city councillor Alan DeSousa.

“It’s all about using what we now know about allowing railways and built-up areas to live together safely, and then requiring developers to use construction techniques and building designs that make this most likely,” says DeSousa, who’s also the mayor of St. Laurent, Que., and was the driving force behind Montreal’s adoption and implementation of the guidelines.

“The guidelines we have issued take all this data and offer it as a simple set of proposals for municipal land-use planners. This allows municipalities to modify their existing land-use policies to ensure that new developments and infills don’t put the public at risk from nearby rail lines.”

The initiative’s steering committee works year-round to make sure developers are taking proper approaches to proximity issues. Its members hold monthly conference calls, set up meetings and roundtables between stakeholders, and work with municipalities to formalize and implement the guidelines.

Overall, the steering committee’s members are seeing “a cultural change in the way land-use planners are regarding proximity to rail lines, and the need for them to take a strong role in ensuring public safety through effective regulations,” says DeSousa.

“Our hope is that eventually this form of thinking will be so engrained in Canadian land-use planning, that protecting the public through railway proximity planning will become second nature to municipal governments – just as requiring proper sewage and water provision to each new building is accepted by everyone today.”

In addition to mitigating issues related to noise and vibration from trains, municipalities are more focused on safety than ever before, says Mississauga City Councillor Chris Fonseca. Proper building setbacks are a good start, but in discussing proximity issues, municipalities also want to ensure first responders are properly equipped and trained to deal with a full range of potential railway incidents. They also would like all levels of government to be involved with the railway industry during the emergency planning process.

“This has been very successful with municipalities across the country passing resolutions and agreeing to continue to focus on many priority areas,” says Fonseca, referring to safety areas such as trespassing prevention and emergency response.

“All of these outcomes underscore the importance of the unprecedented level of collaboration and partnership and communication between RAC and FCM, Canada’s railways, municipal government and Transport Canada in developing new measures for rail safety.”