Traffic volume at Barrhaven crossings more than double industry threshold

The City of Ottawa and Via Rail knew for more than a year that at least four rail crossings in Barrhaven had traffic levels well over — and in some cases more than double — the recommended level at which turning level crossings into overpasses or underpasses should be considered.

City waits 14 months before acting on its own report that recommended grade-separation studies

A report from engineering firm CIMA shows heavy volume at rail crossings in Barrhaven. (CBC)

The City of Ottawa and Via Rail knew for more than a year that at least four rail crossings in Barrhaven had traffic levels well over — and in some cases more than double — the recommended level at which turning level crossings into overpasses or underpasses should be considered, before triggering a study to take action.

Increase in traffic volumes ... will increase the risk of collisions.- CIMA

The city and Via ordered a detailed safety assessment report of seven rail crossings from engineering firm CIMA. The 300-page report, delivered in December 2014, made a number of recommendations that the city has acted on. But the recommendation that the city conduct "engineering and feasibility studies" for building underpasses or overpasses at the busy crossings went unheeded for more than a year. 

Three crossings more than double recommended threshold

When experts assess rail crossings, they multiply the average number of vehicles that cross a railway every day with the number of trains that pass that same intersection. Engineers call this measure a "cross product indicator." When the cross product is more than 200,000, the accepted rail industry response — in the words of the CIMA report — is to conduct "a detailed study for consideration of grade separation."

The cross products of the Barrhaven crossings were well above the 200,000 level as of 2014.

This CIMA report shows that the traffic volume in 2014 at most of the Barrhaven rail crossings was well above — and sometimes double — the threshold for which separated grade crossings should be considered.

The busiest of the crossings, according to the report, is Greenbank where the cross product was 169,905 in 2010 and skyrocketed up to 845,388 in 2014. However, this was not of concern to the engineering consulting company because the city is spending $58 million to build an underpass, which is expected to be fully completed in 2017. 

The 2014 cross products for three other intersections, all at-grade, were more than double the 200,000 threshold: Merivale was 415,875; Fallowfield was 442,566; and Woodroffe was 518,825. 

The Strandherd crossing was above the 200,000 level in 2014, clocking in at 253,080. And while the Jockvale crossing was just under the 200,000 threshold in 2014, it almost certainly is above that level today considering the fact that the CIMA report found that "due to planned developments in the area, it is expected that the road traffic volumes and potentially train volumes will increase in the future."

According to CIMA, "the increase in traffic volumes do not necessarily make the crossings unsafe but will increase the risk of collisions."

Report not secret, but not released either

When you don't give the report to council — you don't actually inform anyone.- College Coun. Rick Chiarelli

CBC Ottawa obtained a copy of the report from the city, which voluntarily released a copy two weeks after the initial request. However, councillors were never provided with a copy of the report, or a summary, although it was sent to the Transportation Safety Board and Transport Canada.

According to an emailed statement from John Moser, acting deputy city manager, the CIMA report is "an operational and technical document meant to assist City staff and Via Rail Canada on operational issues." Moser added that city staff produce and commission these types of studies all the time that are "not typically proactively released simply because they are so technical and operational in nature."

But College Coun. Rick Chiarelli doesn't buy that explanation. 

"That argument he's making is an argument you make in court when someone is challenging you for withholding information," said Chiarelli. "The purpose of this report is to inform council. And there's a little technicality that you miss when you don't give the report to council — you don't actually inform anyone."

He added that the city would be far better off "just putting reports out to members of council. Yes, there will be controversy, yes there will be people upset on both sides of each issue, but that's democracy."

New feasibility study not expected until 2017

The level of traffic at the Barrhaven crossings was always considered to be high, but the CIMA report was the first time in years that the data was officially documented. 

Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder is well aware of the issue.

"I think that the numbers are alarming," she said. "And that`s why we`re doing this extra study."

Level crossings in Barrhaven have been in the spotlight since a fatal crash between a bus and a train in September 2013. (CBC)
It wasn't until February of this year that the city and VIA officially launched a feasibility study for separated grade crossings, which will examine engineering challenges and costs. That was after the TSB called for such action in its December 2015 final report on the deadly Sept. 18, 2013 crash between an OC Transpo bus and a train on the Transitway crossing in Barrhaven.

But Harder said she isn't "hopeful that anything is going to really happen" for more than a year.

"It's going to take until Q1 of 2017," said the councillor of the current feasibility study. "And then they're going to have to look at what it says and decide where we want to go with it. And probably there will be other players that have to have a look at it … And then you're going to have to figure who's going to pay for it."

Grade separations were originally planned for  Woodroffe Avenue, the Transitway, and Fallowfield Road more than a decade ago. However, the estimated cost of building overpasses was well over $100 million due to poor soil conditions, and the city convinced CN Rail (which owned the railway at the time) to drop its requirement for a separated grade crossing.

Under the current rules, Via is not technically required to pay for any part of the overpass or underpass, as it is the city that wants to cross the railway tracks.

No federal regulations on when underpasses or overpasses required

Although Transport Canada regulates rail safety, it has "no regulations, standards or guidelines that identify when grade separation is mandatory — or even when it must be considered," according to the TSB. Instead, it is left up to rail companies to work out with municipalities when traffic volumes require underpasses or overpasses at crossings.

Construction began on a Greenbank Road underpass in early 2015. It's scheduled to be complete by 2017. (CBC)
As part of its report on the OC Transpo-train crash, the TSB recommended that the federal department provide specific guidance as to when grade separation should be considered. According to an emailed statement from Transport Canada spokesman Dan Savoie, "the department remains committed to working with provinces and railways to develop guidelines which would assist road authorities and railways in determining when grade separation should be considered."

However, no timeline has been set for coming up with the guidelines — something the TSB has criticized.

"The regulator needs to be the one saying, 'This is what must happen,' so that we understand what we need to do to play our part in it," said Harder. "Because they control the funding mechanism as well."

She suspects that the federal government may be reluctant to set requirements for grade separations as that may come with expectations to fund the overpasses and underpasses.

"And that's a sad statement if it`s true and I don`t know that it's true but it could be, it could very well be," said Harder.