Relationship building

Developing land in close proximity to railway operations can result in unintended safety risks, among other issues. As Cynthia Lulham, Project Manager of the FCM-RAC Proximity Initiative, explains, proper approaches to railway-community proximity issues can help prevent problems and, most importantly, increase rail safety.

Striking a harmonious, safe balance between rail lines and the communities they pass through is of fundamental interest to municipalities and railways alike. That’s a key message that the Railway Association of Canada (RAC) and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) have been promoting since 2003 through the joint Proximity Initiative.

The overarching goal of the initiative is to prevent problems from arising between railways and residents. The initiative is led by a committee of elected officials and senior railway representatives from across Canada, who work together to develop strategies to reduce misunderstanding, increase safety, and avoid unnecessary conflict arising from railway-community proximity. By promoting its Guidelines for New Development in Proximity to Railway Operations, a municipal planning document featuring best practices and more, the initiative helps to bridge gaps between railways and residents, and achieve common goals that will benefit stakeholders.

In 2003, the FCM asked Westmount, Que. city councillor Cynthia Lulham to represent the group as its first co-chair of the Proximity Initiative Steering Committee. The success and growth of the initiative led to Lulham becoming Project Manager, a role she has held for the last 10 years. As project manager, Lulham meets with municipal planners and associations to discuss proximity issues, and to promote the importance of good relationships between municipalities and railways, among other responsibilities.

Lulham sat down with Interchange to discuss railway-community proximity issues, the Proximity Initiative’s recent activities and more.

Interchange: First and foremost, what are the FCM-RAC proximity guidelines and how are they used?

Lulham: The FCM-RAC Proximity Initiative developed the revised Guidelines for New Development in Proximity to Railway Operations in May 2013, which built upon an earlier version of Best Practices and Guidelines issued in 2003. They are meant to assist municipal governments and railways in reviewing and determining general planning policies when developing on lands in proximity to railway facilities. They also establish a process for making site-specific recommendations and decisions aimed at reducing land-use incompatibilities for developments in proximity to railway operations. A key component of the revision is a model review process for new residential development, infill and
conversions in proximity to railways.

Interchange: Why is it necessary to have guidelines defining safe distances between active railway tracks and development?

Lulham: We need planning systems that more effectively anticipate and manage proximity issues, and better facilitate municipal and railway growth. Good planning supports effective transportation systems and avoids safety, noise and vibration problems. Among many Canadian municipal governments, there is an absence of comprehensive or consistent development review policies. Regulations, and approaches for dealing with land-use decisions involving rail proximity issues, vary greatly from municipality to municipality and are lacking in detail in most cases. In particular, there is a need for a new development process that deals specifically with residential development proposals, especially those involving a conversion from commercial or industrial uses or which are to be located on tight infill sites.

Interchange: What are the standard mitigation measures that are used to manage proximity between railways,
buildings and people?

Lulham: Setbacks provide a buffer from railway operations. They permit dissipation of rail emissions, vibrations, and noise, and can accommodate a safety barrier. Residential separation distances from freight yards are intended to address the fundamental land-use incompatibilities. Standard mitigation measures are desired as a minimum requirement in order to reduce incompatibility issues associated with locating new development in proximity to railway corridors. The setback contributes to the mitigation against potential impact of railway incidents as well as noise and vibration through distance separation. The earthen berm [a raised bank of compressed earth] can protect against the physical components of a derailment – in conjunction with the setback – and provides mitigation of wheel and rail noise. It also reduces the overall noise barrier height and cost, and offers a productive use of foundation excavations.

Interchange: What role does good design play in noise reduction?

Lulham: Many of the adverse impacts of railway noise can be avoided or minimized through good design practices. Careful consideration of the location and orientation of buildings, as well as their internal layout, can minimize exposure of sensitive spaces to railway noise. In an infill or conversion development, the noisesensitive rooms such as bedrooms should be located on the “quiet side” of the building. Building on a podium and locating gym/garage spaces on the ground floors moves the residents further from the noise source. The use of appropriate windows, doors, ventilation and façade materials can all minimize the acoustic impact of railway operations.

Interchange: How can creative infill projects and construction help?

Lulham: Today, we see many conversion and infill projects in urban areas that are located next to railway corridors without crash walls or any noise or vibration mitigation. This
results in safety issues and more proximity complaints for the municipalities and railways. Conversions and infill projects are a good way to intensify and bring residents back to city centres, but the constructions must address safety, noise, vibration and other proximity issues.

Interchange: How serious an issue is vibration and how can it be mitigated?

Lulham: Like sound, the effects of vibration are specific and are dependent on many factors.

They include the types of soil and sub-surface conditions, the frequency of trains and their speed, and the quantity and type of goods they are transporting. Vibration mitigation is very costly and therefore more suited to larger developments which exhibit greater economies of scale. Using setbacks is the most cost-efficient tool.

Interchange: What roles can municipal and provincial governments play in ensuring rail safety through land-use planning?

Lulham: There is an absence of comprehensive or consistent development review policies, regulations, and approaches for dealing with land-use decisions involving rail proximity issues. Land-use planning is a provincial jurisdiction. There should be consistency in safety, sustainability and livability across Canada. Adopting the FCM-RAC guidelines into provincial land-use plans, and ultimately municipal land-use plans, can provide the framework to effectively anticipate and manage proximity issues, and to better facilitate municipal and railway growth. Good planning supports effective transportation systems and avoids safety, noise and vibration problems.

Interchange: Overall, how well have the FCM-RAC proximity guidelines been accepted and implemented?

Lulham: The City of Montreal was the first major urban area in Canada to adopt the Guidelines for New Development in Proximity to Railway Operations into its island-wide development plan in January 2015. Ten other major cities across Canada are reviewing the guidelines and more than 175 other municipalities have adopted, or are using, the guidelines in their permitted process. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Government Relations is undertaking consultations with stakeholders to obtain feedback for potential amendments to its Planning and Development Act, 2007. Development near rail lines is one of the four areas being reviewed. We have given presentations and made a submission to the ministry. Potential amendments to this act offers an opportunity for Saskatchewan to be a national leader on rail safety and land-use planning by adopting the guidelines under the act to consistently improve safety and quality of life in all communities across Saskatchewan. The Proximity Initiative has also participated in the Alberta Municipal Government Act review, promoting the addition of the guidelines in the amendments.

Interchange: What remains to be done?

Lulham: We are focusing our efforts in 2017 and beyond on achieving provincial changes in land-use policies, to continue to work with the governments in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and to initiate discussions with governments in Manitoba, Quebec and British Columbia. It was agreed that the guidelines be reviewed in 2017. Submissions were requested from Montreal, Calgary and the FCM Rail Safety Group on areas in the guidelines that required clarification or elaboration. The Proximity Guidelines Working Group is reviewing the submissions and will recommend proposed edits to the steering committee this fall.