Opinion: Only idiots would move next to SkyTrain then complain about noise

Sep 24 2016, 8:10 am

The busiest span for ridership on SkyTrain’s Expo Line is between Commercial-Broadway Station and Waterfront Station, and for the tens of thousands of passengers that ride through this area on a daily basis over the years they might have noticed an unusually slow section of track immediately west of Main Street-Science World Station.

On some occasions, I have overheard passengers passing through this span ponder why the trains slow down to a crawling speed just before the station.

Some wonder whether it has anything to do with providing passengers more time to enjoy the view of the downtown skyline from False Creek. This is certainly not the case. There is, however, a turn on the tracks just beyond the station that generates more noise when trains pass by.

The northward turn of the SkyTrain guideway just west of Main Street-Science World Station.

Image: Wally Barber / Flickr

Image: Wally Barber / Flickr

But approximately 20 years ago, residents in the three-tower Citygate condominium complex along Quebec Street, immediately north of the station, took their SkyTrain noise complaints to TransLink and got their way. They were able to force the public transit authority’s hand in significantly lowering the speeds of the trains as they passed through the area.

Bear in mind that this section of the Expo Line opened in 1986 in time for the World’s Fair at False Creek and the first Citygate tower was not completed until 1992.

This is equivalent to:

  • moving to an area in Richmond near Sea Island and complaining about the noise that planes make as they land and take off from Vancouver International Airport;
  • complaining about ambulances that turn on their sirens in their approach to St. Paul’s Hospital;
  • moving next to a major arterial road, then complaining about the traffic, noise, and air pollution and demanding for traffic calming;
  • residents in the Coal Harbour neighbourhood complaining about the noise from float planes;
  • moving into a new condo tower at UBC then complaining about the noise from the thousands of people that attend the now-canceled UBC Arts County Fair at the nearby UBC Thunderbird Stadium;
  • and moving to a new downtown condominium tower then complaining about the nightclub and bar noise just down the street, even though the establishments have been around for a decade.

Sadly, these are all real complaints.

And now, some residents in the Northeast False Creek area are at it again as TransLink recently received new complaints from residents over the noise from trains passing through the area.

During Friday’s TransLink open board meeting, local resident Paul Altilia claimed that noise levels are increasing and reach 90 decibels inside his apartment when his balcony windows are open. He also lamented the issue of not being able to watch television with the window open or have a conversation on the balcony due to the noise from the trains.

The Citygate towers at Northeast False Creek are just across the street from the SkyTrain tracks. Some residents have installed green coloured light bulbs to show their support for the Creekside Park extension.

Image: Ted McGrath / Flickr

Image: Ted McGrath / Flickr

A senior executive with TransLink told media shortly after that they are taking the issue seriously.

“We are very aware of our neighbours along the alignment,” said Vivienne King, President & General Manager of BC Rapid Transit Company (BCRTC), the TransLink subsidiary that operates and maintains the Expo, Millennium, and future Evergreen lines.

“Just after the delegation spoke, I arranged for my senior officers to meet with them and to talk to them about what we’re doing to contain noise on the system and also what we understand to be the causes of noise. We have a railway, and the railway will have some noise associated with it.”

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King said the click-clack noise described by the residents are caused by trains rolling over major track switches, and she noted that this particular switch would be examined soon.

BCRTC already performs track maintenance work that is targeted at reducing noise, and it will be acquiring a grinder machine that cuts down the noise on switches. Other ways to mitigate noise include performing rail profiling – a maintenance procedure that ensures the shape of the train wheels perfectly match the rails.

She brought up the idea of installing noise barriers along the side of the guideway, similar to the noise barriers seen on freeways, but there are high costs associated with construction and maintenance.

“We are very special as our railways are up in the sky so to put those type of mitigations would have to be really well researched and the price understood and the ongoing maintenance required to keep them in good condition,” King added. “We haven’t completed all of the assessments to see whether that would be a good investment or not.”

As Northeast False Creek and neighbourhoods around other elevated SkyTrain stations elsewhere in the region continue to densify with new residents, complaints over train noise could rise in the coming years.

But at the end of the day, the onus should be on prospective residents for fully acknowledging that they are considering living next to a noisy, busy railway. They also need to realize that the lifestyle of downtown living is associated with excessive noise and light – key attributes of an active economic and entertainment centre where people congregate. This is not a quiet vertical suburbia.

Residents in the Citygate complex are most infamously known for having a big hand in the cancellation of Vancouver’s Molson Indy Champ Car Race in False Creek, which had its run in the city from 1990 to 2004. Their noise complaints over the annual three-day event was one of the factors that led to the race’s demise in the city.

Developers have a role in this too as new buildings near SkyTrain tracks should be built with a sufficient standard of acoustic installation, and real estate agents have the responsibility to inform buyers of the noise that can be expected.

Similarly, the City of Richmond’s Aircraft Noise Sensitive Development Policy requires developers to sign a restrictive covenant that acknowledges that they are fully aware the property is within an aircraft noise sensitive area. Additionally, they are required to design adequate noise proofing measures against aircraft noise before receiving rezoning and development permits, and forfeit the right to sue the municipal government and YVR over any nuisance, inconvenience or loss due to aircraft traffic.

For TransLink (and for that matter Vancouver Airport Authority as well), it is imperative that the organization steers clear away from making any decisions that could potentially set a dangerous precedent.

Infrastructure is first and foremost functional, it can’t always be pretty and pleasant. Far too often in decision making in Metro Vancouver, the big picture is ignored.


Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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