Kingston City Council stifles ‘train whistle cessation’ option

A Westbound CN Train whistles through a crossing in Kingston. Photo by Logan Cadue/Kingstonist.

For many, the Doppler effect brings to mind the shifting sound of a train whistle approaching and passing by. Within Kingston City Council Chambers on the evening of Tuesday, Jun.18, 2024, a similar effect was experienced – that is, one standing in Chambers could hear the sounds and tones shift as a report on the possible “nighttime whistle cessation” for trains in Kingston approached on the agenda, was debated intensely, and then carried on down the line.

The option to move forward with the banning of train whistles at night was one of two options in a report to Council for consideration from Brad Joyce, the City’s Commissioner of Infrastructure, Transportation & Emergency Services, entitled Review of Nighttime Whistle Cessation. The report came as a result of a motion passed by City Council on September 7, 2021, which saw Council direct City staff to “ask Transport Canada what their requirement would be for a night-time (11 p.m. to 5 a.m.) whistle cessation at the Counter St. bridge and at the Division St. bridge, which have been deemed Trespass Locations by Transport Canada and consequently, currently require whistling.”

The motion also directed that if Transport Canada “deems that the tracks need to be double fenced, that staff prepare for council a new cost estimate to double fence the corridor from Coronation Blvd. in the west to the required location as outlined by Transport Canada in the east.”

It should be noted that the last time such a cost estimate was prepared for Council was in 2014. Cost estimations in the new report have been “updated to 2024 dollars.”

The report, which can be read in full on the City of Kingston website, explains that while a few areas throughout the city “meet the requirements” for whistle cessation through Transport Canada, some of those are in one direction only. The remaining parts of the railway’s corridor will require further information and a study by Canadian National Rail (CN). Double fencing would be required along the corridor, and “trespass areas” may require further infrastructure before meeting CN’s requirements. It will cost an “estimated” $150,000 to $200,000 for CN to carry out the survey it requires. But the costs associated with installing the necessary infrastructure, such as double fencing, and its subsequent annual maintenance are far greater, according to the report.

While City staff were not certain if the requirements laid out by CN that the City’s 2014 study sought to meet would be the same today, “it is reasonable to assume that most or all would still be required to ensure safety of the rail corridor,” the report noted.

“Costs determined in the 2014 report, updated to 2024 dollars, estimate a capital cost of up to $3.9M with annual operating costs of up to $130K, however certainty around these figures is low given the time that has elapsed since the detailed work was last completed,” according to the report.

The report offered two options to Council. Option one would see the cost for the CN Survey approved by Council (to come from the Municipal Capital Reserve Fund), and see City staff continue the conversation with CN to work towards meeting CN’s requirements for nighttime whistle cessation, with a goal of reporting back to Council in the first quarter (Q1) of 2025.

Option two would see the push for whistle cessation throughout the Kingston corridor as a whole ended, but it wouldn’t take all areas off the table for the whistle ban.

“Option two would direct staff not to proceed with further study of whistle cessation in areas west of John Counter Boulevard to Coronation Boulevard,” the report stated.

“Staff would also continue working with CN and Via Rail staff to expand whistle cessation in the vicinity of the John Counter Boulevard overpass and the westbound direction at the Division Street overpass in both options.”

Councillor Lisa Osanic of Collins-Bayridge District immediately moved Option 1 onto the table.

“So, having a nighttime train whistle ban is a pretty important thing for residents in the west end, because that’s where we have three crossings really close together,” she began, indicating the Coronation Boulevard crossing, the Collins Bay Road crossing, and the crossing in front of Frontenac Secondary School on the north side of Bath Road.

Osanic went on to say that the issue affects the districts of many of the councillors around the horseshoe, as most of Kingston’s districts have rail crossings within them. Further, she said that when the matter of nighttime whistle cessation was before Council in 2014, CN required fencing on both the south side and north side of the tracks from Coronation Boulevard to the Via Rail station. Having been an active councillor at that time as well, Osanic recalled that the price tag associated with that fencing was $1.3 million in 2014.

Osanic then pointed out that “all of the big cities” have nighttime whistle cessation in place, including Oshawa, Markham, Barrie, Brockville, and even Belleville.

“We need to update the safety study,” she said, noting that during the last election she had “doors slammed” in her face because the previous Council had been unable to implement the nighttime whistle cessation.

“It is important for quality of life,” Osanic concluded.

“Some people are light sleepers… They can’t stay asleep with the train whistles that go on at two in the morning, three in the morning… We also have a lot of trains; I think there’s like 80 freight trains that go through… the main line… each day. And this will at least stop the whistling for some of those trains.”

Councillor Brandon Tozzo spoke next, immediately focusing on the costs associated with the concept and the number of constituents demanding it.

“Do we have any stats or any data on how many complaints we’ve gotten about train whistles?” the Kingscourt-Rideau District councillor asked.

Ian Semple, Director of Transportation & Transit for the City of Kingston responded.

“So, over the past six-year period, within our customer service system, we have 15 recorded complaints,” said Semple. “That’s not to suggest that there may not have been other complaints that have come in through other means… but that is the number of complaints… within our customer service system.”

“Thank you — and it’s $200,000 and an estimated capital cost of $3.9 million on, you said, 15 complaints that we’ve gotten,” Tozzo asked almost rhetorically.

Semple went over the fact the costs in the report were estimates based on the 2014 study adjusted for 2024, and Tozzo continued.

“I certainly am sympathetic to people who do complain and find this annoying,” he said, noting that he feels the current City Council gets accused “rightly and wrongly” of spending money on things that aren’t impactful issues.

“I just, I can’t sleep at night, go back to my constituents, saying we spent $4.1 million on 15 recorded complaints that we’ve had over six years. We’d be further ahead giving each constituent who complained $100,000 to ignore the whistles.”

A “whistle post” along the train tracks indicates when an engineer should blow the train’s whistle due to crossings or known safety issues. Photo via Wikicommons.

Councillor Wendy Stephen of Lakeside District said she had to echo Tozzo, noting she has had no complaints about train whistles and that there is no supporting documentation of complaints in the report before them. “In fact,” she said, “I’ve had two people reach out to me to say specifically that this doesn’t bother them.” She also pointed out that a number of trees would have to be cut to create the infrastructure necessary to meet requirements for nighttime whistle cessation.

“And I think that, in terms of spending money, we have other priorities that are important to us. So while I can appreciate that this is a concern, at this time, I can’t support it,” Stephen concluded.

Conversely, Meadowbrook-Strathcona Councillor Jeff McLaren voiced support of the option on the table. “Just to be clear, this is a request for more information and go to the next step,” he said. “We don’t have that data, because we haven’t asked for it yet.” McLaren reiterated Osanic’s concerns about quality of life and added that he believes train whistles may have an adverse effect on wildlife, noting that he had observed bull frogs stop making noise when trains whistled.

All present councillors and Mayor Bryan Paterson took the opportunity to speak to option one. Councillor Conny Glenn of Sydenham District said she viewed the matter as more of a railway safety issue than a quality of life issue. Councillor Paul Chaves of Loyalist-Cataraqui District asked if the costs presented would involve a new pedestrian overpass at the Via station and was told it would not. Chaves then voiced concern about spending the money, with so many other issues at hand. Deputy Mayor Gary Oosterhof of Countryside District voiced support of taking the next step, and suggested the project be expanded to the east to the Kingston Mills area. Councillor Jimmy Hassan of Trillium District shared strong words against the concept, noting that there are people without homes in the community. “I remember those who have no roof over their head, forget the sleep.”

Mayor Paterson, having passed the chair to Oosterhof, said, “I’m struggling with this,” noting that although he is sympathetic to those disturbed by train whistles, he agrees with others around the horseshoe who had pointed out that people purchase their homes knowing full well where the train tracks are. He also pointed out that the City is not “in the driver’s seat” in terms of the nighttime whistle cessation, and that even if CN carries out the survey, that doesn’t mean infrastructure additions would necessarily move forward as per the report.

Councillor Vincent Cinanni of Williamsville District asked if all the costs of the work needed to meet a potential survey’s requirements would fall to the City, or if Transport Canda or CN might chip in. Semple responded, “We should presume that the costs would be borne by the City and there would be operating costs associated with those changes.”

Finally, Osanic spoke again, this time pointing to the new housing going up in in her district and how close those homes are to the train tracks, apparently ignoring other members of Council having pointed out the train track locations are known to those who purchase homes in those areas. She also pointed out that the project would only see the end of train whistles in some areas at nighttime. “Our level crossings will still have the bells and the whistles and the gates.”

Mayor Paterson called the vote, and the motion was rejected by a vote of seven to five with Hassan, Osanic, Oosterhof, McLaren, and Glenn voting to move forward with option one and the remaining councillors voting against (Portsmouth District Councillor Don Amos was absent). It should be noted that the votes in favour of option one were stated aloud by Paterson; it is unclear why Hassan voted in favour of option one after voicing opposition to it.

After a few bumps in the meeting’s road that saw Mayor Paterson push forward in the agenda out of turn – and Councillor Tozzo call two points of order as a result – Council then voted on option two, which carried by a vote of seven to five.

Members of the public can view the full agenda from the meeting on the City of Kingston’s City Council meetings webpage, and the meeting can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.

2 thoughts on “Kingston City Council stifles ‘train whistle cessation’ option

  • 15 complaints in 6 years?? And developers building homes close to train tracks?? And people buying them, knowing they are close to train tracks?? And the fix will cost the rest of us taxpayer several million dollars?? My, my!! If they want to know what real noise disturbance day and night is like, they should live on lower Bay Street now that the LaSalle Causeway is closed. I bought my ear plugs for only a few dollars.

  • We live north of Princess and Gardiner and hear the whistles all the time. They can be disruptive. If there is an overpass why are they making noise? If it is unsafe for pedestrians for some reason then CN should fix it. There are also directional train whistles that might help but not if there are curves. Also why 3 whistles and why long ones?

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