East-Side Railway Woes: Is There a Light at the End of the Tunnel?

A rail line comes back to life in an east-side neighbourhood—and residents are none too pleased.

After a decade of quiet, the rail line that runs through Strathcona rumbled to life again in January of 2017. With little warning, slow-moving trains began snaking along the previously dormant tracks, causing traffic jams for commuters and noise-related headaches for nearby residents. The tracks, which for years had contributed to the area’s industrial feel—and made for excellent blackberry picking in summer—were suddenly alive.

Between six and 12 trains a day, some in the middle of the night, began screeching and rumbling along the stretch of tracks between the Port of Vancouver and the Glen rail yard on the False Creek flats. Drivers and cyclists travelling to and from downtown suddenly found themselves stopped in their own tracks as trains sluggishly crossed Venables, Union and other streets.

Now, more than a year after the line was reactivated by CN Rail, the trains continue, on no apparent schedule and with no end in sight. Safety and noise have become major concerns for those living near the tracks, as well as for city officials, who were as surprised as anyone by the dramatic increase in train traffic.

Rush Hour

With trains blocking major thoroughfares at peak times, drivers will race the train and try to beat it to the crossing, says Winston Chou, Vancouver’s manager of transportation and data management. Meanwhile, cyclists and pedestrians have been reported climbing between train cars, particularly when a train has stopped on the tracks.

“People think, ‘Either I can rush and beat the train, or I’m going to be waiting here for 20 minutes,’” Chou says. “That’s a problem. From a safety standpoint, people start to do crazy things.”

But while all this traffic disruption and noise might seem unjust, it is all perfectly legal. CN controls the track and has the right to use it. As for why CN decided to ramp up activity on the line, the answer is less clear. The rail company did not respond to VanMag’s request for comment, but representatives have previously said the change was made to restore service to Vancouver’s intermodal terminals.

Pete Fry, a Strathcona resident and community advocate, says he’s heard it has to do with a falling-out between CP and CN, but, said it could also be a by-product of the growth of the Port of Vancouver’s Centerm container terminal. “We’re going through massive expansion at the port, and it could be as much about preparing us for the inevitability of ,” Fry says.

Brayden Dyczkowski has another theory. He lives with his wife and baby in a Strathcona house about 10 metres from the tracks. He thinks the increase in trains has to do with the 15-year battle over the unused Arbutus tracks, which ended with CP Rail getting about half of the $100 million it was demanding from the city for the sale of the land. The battle came to an end less than a year before CN resumed activity on the Strathcona tracks.

“It just seems like too much of a coincidence,” he says.

Safety First

Regardless of the reason, the trains are here to stay. But while Dyczkowski recognizes CN’s right to use the line, he also has expectations about respect from his neighbours—including industrial neighbours valued at tens of billions of dollars. His primary complaints have to do with CN’s poor maintenance of the fence between his house and the track, and the middle-of-the-night shunting.

“The whole train goes bang bang bang all the way down, almost like a jackhammer in your ear if you’re anywhere within 20 feet of it. It shakes our whole house,” Dyczkowski says.

“It’s funny. They don’t seem to do that during the day, but they usually do it between two and four in the morning.”

Dyczkowski, Chou, Fry and others are also concerned about drivers who speed north on Campbell Avenue—past a social housing complex and community centre—when traffic on Prior is stopped by a train.

“There’s not a whole lot of thought to the sheer amount of children who live along that street. It’s kind of scary,” Dyczkowski says. “It feels like it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hit.”

The city has applied for federal funding so it can install early warning message boards, which would allow drivers heading in and out of downtown on Prior and Venables to choose an alternate route if there is a train coming. This could greatly reduce the amount of traffic that runs through Strathcona.

But other than the warning boards and ongoing talks with CN, says Chou, “there are limitations” to what the city can do. “We are trying to encourage CN to be a good neighbour,” Chou says. “ are operating rail in an urban environment. It’s not the same as operating it out in the Prairies.”

What do you think of the railway? Let us know in the comments below!