Regina Saskatchewan - A future $500 million residential development being planned in downtown Regina may not follow proper rail yard distance guidelines, a CBC analysis has found.
Although city officials say the Regina Renewal Project will follow recommended setback advice from rail operations, other transportation experts question the location of the development, as well as potential problems around noise.
"I don't think from my opinion it's a suitable piece of land to be building residential developments," said Cynthia Lulham, project manager for developing the national distance guidelines.
In May, the city unveiled a draft concept plan for transforming seven hectares of former Canadian Pacific rail yard off Dewdney Avenue into a mainly residential and mixed use area.
City council is set to approve the plan sometime later this year.
In 2012, the city purchased the former Canadian Pacific Rail Yards land, with the plan for the intermodal yards to be relocated to the Global Transportation Hub on the outskirts of the city.
Since then, the city's website says, rail tracks and intermodal infrastructure have been removed.
Trains Still Rolling
However, CP still owns and operates land next to the future development.
According to the city, "The City of Regina acquired the rail yard site from Canadian Pacific Railway in 2012, setting the stage for a redevelopment process that will unfold over the next 10-15 years.
As the rail yard site redevelops, the main rail line, an interchange line, and a servicing area, all owned by CP, will remain in operation.
Both the city and CP confirmed the company has no plans to cease operations at this site for the foreseeable future.
30 Metres or 300 Metres?
The city plans to ensure there is a 30 metre setback between the rail corridor and any future development on the site.
Fred Searle, the city's manager of current planning, believes that distance is sufficient.
He said besides the setback, there will be a berm wall with an additional sound barrier and fence around rail property.
However, according to the recommendations outlined in a report by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and Rail Association of Canada, published in 2013, months before the Lake Megantic rail disaster in Quebec, that setback falls short.
The report recommends minimum setback distances between rail lines and residential properties, including:
Searle said although the city has not formally adopted these recommendations, they are employed when new developments are approved.
For example, he pointed to the Westerra subdivision, being built between Sakimay First Nation and the RCMP Training Centre.
Rail companies and the regulator Transport Canada point to the FCM guidelines to address issues of noise, vibration, and safety.
However, CBC's analysis shows the location of the rail redevelopment project falls well within the 300 metre distance the guidelines suggest for housing to be placed from a rail yard.
Yard or Not a Yard?
To ensure the rail operations on the remaining site were indeed a yard, CBC sought clarification from CP.
Jeremy Berry, a media relations officer, said the company considers the rail operations on the remaining land to qualify it as part of its yard.
He added the company supports the city's use of employing appropriate setback guidelines, but said the classification of rail operations is ultimately up to civic officials.
Asked as to why the city was not employing a 300 metre setback distance given that more than one main line would remain in operation next to the redevelopment area as a yard, civic spokesperson Desirae Bernreuther wrote in an email, "Based on the consultant's interpretation and professional opinion, a 30 metre setback was used."
She added the layout of the draft concept allows for future redevelopment of the remaining rail site if it is ever sold.
Noise is a Potential Problem
Lulham and another rail transportation expert said noise could potentially be a problem for future residents of the downtown rail yard renewal initiative, saying it would have been "optimal" to use the larger setback.
"Rail yards are extremely noisy and to build sustainable housing in proximity, that's the amount of space you need in order to achieve that, and even with that you need to use noise and vibration testing. The whole idea of the guidelines is not to freeze land, but to make it useable, but built in a way that provides safety and live ability."
She added that Regina's situation is special because the site has both a yard and main line.
Gord Lovegrove, a rail transportation expert and engineer who teaches at the University of British Columbia, agreed and said for him, "awesome acoustic barriers" are a must-have for this development.
Both he and Lulham hope officials do additional sound testing and assessments, as well as think carefully about the configuration of buildings and construction materials in order to block noise.
Ward 6 councillor Joel Murray, whose ward the project falls under, did not respond to CBC's requests for an interview.
Life by the Rails
A CBC News analysis of the city's rail network reveals more than 4,990 residential properties throughout the city currently fall either partially or completely within the minimum recommended distance from rail lines.
The guidelines are not intended to retroactively apply to existing properties, but the analysis demonstrates how many residents currently live in close proximity to railway operations.
Lulham said they were introduced because of the recent influx of people looking to live downtown.
"Land left to development is generally in proximity to railway operations," she said.
Regina resident Dave Riffel says it took upwards of a year to stop noticing he was living down the street from a rail yard.
"It would be like thunder," he said of the near-constant rumbling of rail cars and machinery, which was especially noticeable at night.
"After a while you get used to it."
Methodology and notes
Stephanie Taylor and Jacques Marcoux.