Regina's future rail yard development plan falls short of minimum setback requirements: analysis

For years, thousands of people in Regina have lived close to rail lines and the future tenants of a redevelopment area for the Warehouse District may join them.

Experts say noise and vibrations could be a problem

The Railyard Renewal Project (RRP) will transform 17.5 acres of a former CP rail yard into a mixed-use area in downtown Regina. However, development falls well within the recommended setbacks established by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in 2013. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

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.

The city says its consultant says a 30-metre setback between a future residential hub on former Canadian Pacific railyard land and ongoing rail operations is all that's needed, despite national guidelines that say a 300-metre buffer zone for a rail yard is preferred. The map shows buffer for main line applied, which is 30 metres past the right of way for a total of 45 metres. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

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 Railyard site from Canadian Pacific Railway (CP Rail) in 2012, setting the stage for a redevelopment process that will unfold over the next 10-15 years. As the Railyard site redevelops, the main rail line, an interchange line and a servicing area — all owned by CP Rail — will remain in operation.

Both the city and CP Rail confirmed the company has no plans to cease operations at this site for the foreseeable future.

Manager of current planning for the city says the Federation of Canadian Municipalities' rail setback guidelines are being applied throughout the city as new developments get approved. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

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 Lac-Megantic rail disaster in Quebec— that setback falls short.

The report recommends minimum setback distances between rail lines and residential properties, including:

  • 300 metres for rail yards
  • 30 metres for main lines
  • 15 metres for branch and spur lines

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 Rail.

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.

A draft concept plan for the future redevelopment of CP railyard lands into mixed-use residential properties calls for 30-metre buffer zone between the rail operation and new development. (City of Regina)

Noise is a potential problem

Lulham and another rail transportation expert said noise could potentially be a problem for future residents of the downtown railyard 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 vibrations 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 liveability.- Cynthia Lulham, project manager for the FCM-RAC Proximity Initiative 

"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 liveability."

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.

A CBC News analysis of the rail network in Regina shows nearly 5,000 residential buildings fall within recommended setbacks from rail operations. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

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 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:

  • The Federation of Canadian Municipalities report defines the setback as the distance from the outer-limit of the right-of-way surrounding the rail line. CN and CP did not provide an estimated distance, however Transport Canada confirmed that in general a right-of-way extends about 15.25 metres on either side of the rail. This figure was applied to the rail network for the analysis.
  • The width of the setback applied to each string of rail was determined using the rail-type listed in the National Railway Network map maintained by Natural Resources Canada.
  • The digital building map and land-use classification used in the analysis were provided by the City of Regina.
  • The attribute data for the building map did not contain a zoning field. The zoning category was added to each building using the land-use data provided.
  • Analysis and calculation were performed using QGIS by Jacques Marcoux, CBC news.