'It's just unbearable': Markham residents blow the whistle on noisy GO train horns

The City of Markham introduced an anti-whistling program aimed at eliminating the need for engineers to blow whistles at crossings. But residents say the program has seen too many delays and claim that years later little has changed when it comes to the noise pollution.

City has launched an anti-whistling program and is working with Metrolinx, Transport Canada

Shanta Sundarason has been pushing the City of Markham to silence horns at crossings but says despite years of work little has changed. (Farrah Merali )

Norma Gauld's weekday wake-up call — whether she likes it or not — is at 5:45 a.m these days. That's when the first GO train passes and blows its whistle by her window.

"It now goes to 12:15 at night and it's throughout the day … Really, it's quite dreadful," Gauld told CBC News Toronto.

While GO trains have always passed Wynwood Gardens — the Markham seniors building where she lives —  there's been an increase in trains in recent months as the province steps up commuter service.

"I knew the tracks were there, I knew the trains were there, but I wouldn't have moved into this building had I known it would be this much of a racket." 

Gauld is not the only one in her building — or in Markham — who is sounding the alarm about train whistles. Residents have been flagging the issue to city officials for years.

A GO train pictured crossing Highway 7. The city installed train arms and signage intended to meet the safety requirements for the crossing. (Farrah Merali)

The blowing of a train whistle is a safety measure mandated by Transport Canada at crossings where there isn't infrastructure — like train arms — to alert drivers and pedestrians of a coming train.

The city of Markham has introduced an anti-whistling program aimed at building that infrastructure and, in turn, eliminating the need for engineers to blow whistles at crossings. But residents say the program has seen too many delays, and they claim that despite the work little has changed when it comes to the noise pollution in the city.

The waiting game

Shanta Sundarason started a petition four years ago to silence trains in her city. She said while she supports the increase in train service for commuters who live in the city, the noise has been affecting people's lives.

"Nobody has been able to sleep with their windows open, nobody that lives along the tracks or close to it," Sundarason said. 

"It's just unbearable." 

Sundarason said it's particularly bad In the evenings and at midnight.

"Many kids are very light sleepers. They get woken up. It really has impacted the quality of life of many, many people."

Signs like these — near Wyndam Gardens —have been installed by the city as part of its anti-whistling program. (Farrah Merali)

The City of Markham began preliminary work on its anti-whistling program as early as 2015. It's now working with Metrolinx and Transport Canada to install infrastructure at 13 train crossings that would satisfy safety requirements so there would be no need for train whistles. 

Years later, some residents feel the city is dragging its heels.

Jocey de La Fontaine, who estimates her backyard is about 60 metres from the tracks, said the horns are "excruciatingly loud."

"[The project] is at least one year ... overdue," she said.

"We've been continually told by our mayor for the past almost five years, 'Don't worry; the plan is in place. We have a project team on it,' ... and then silence," said Tom Owen, another Markham resident who has flagged his concerns to council.

In a statement to CBC News, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said: "A project of this magnitude — a first of its kind in the GTA — must be done correctly and any deficiency to the crossing will be inspected, corrected and tested before any implementation is to take place." 

The City of Markham identified 13 crossings where horns should be silenced. This map shows where it's been bringing in infrastructure, such as train arms and signage, to meet safety requirements (The City of Markham)

Scarpitti added that the city formally requested that Metrolinx postpone bringing in additional train service until its work is complete. 

"Our request was denied by Metrolinx. As well, the City of Markham was not consulted on the most recent weekend service additions to the Stouffville Line," Scarpitti's statement says.

More trains expected next week

"Metrolinx is delivering on its promise to expand transit in Ontario by offering more service, more trains and more choice for GO customers in Toronto, Unionville and Markham on the Stouffville corridor," a statement from the province's regional transit agency says.

The statement says Metrolinx is actively working with the City of Markham on the issue.

"Seven municipal crossings have been completed to date with the six remaining already undergoing their respective upgrades. We fully expect the work to be completed in the coming months. Signs were erected in anticipation of trains being able to stop whistling," the Metrolinx statement reads.

In the meantime, residents will have to brace for more horns in the coming weeks. On Nov. 2, Metrolinx is increasing train service on weekends, adding hourly trains.