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‘Frustrated’ Squamish Nation present survey to CN Rail in hope of operational changes

"Not only do we hear the engines humming, but some houses rattle because of the engines."
CN Rail Train
Squamish Nation community member, Keith Nahanee, who has been dealing with the rail issue his whole life, said CN trains were left idling just across from homes routinely at around 11 p.m. each night.

Squamish Nation council has presented a survey of 300 of its community members’ concerns regarding ongoing disruptions from rail operations just metres from their homes to CN Rail this week, in the hope immediate short-term changes will be made.

With three rail tracks just 30 metres from some homes in the community of Eslhá7an, near Mosquito Creek in North Vancouver, residents say they have been putting up with unacceptable levels of noise, pollution and health impacts for far too long.

“Think of a loud muscle car or motorcycle revving up outside your house late at night,” said Keith Nahanee, who lives just 45 metres from the tracks in Eslhá7an.

“Now times that noise by 10. That’s what it’s like.”

Nahanee, who has been dealing with the rail issue his whole life, said CN Rail trains were left idling just across from homes routinely at around 11 p.m. each night.

“Not only do we hear the engines humming, but some houses rattle because of the engines,” the 48-year-old said, adding that he was consistently woken by the loud diesel engines and train cooling systems.

“If they're going by, that's fine but they sit out here and idle. Sometimes the guy ends his shift out here. He’ll leave the train there and he'll go home and it's idling from around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., or midnight, until someone picks it up the next day.”

Nahanee is one of the residents, mostly elders, – from Eslhá7an to Yekwaupsum  – who filled out the survey detailing their concerns regarding the rail operations. But it’s not the first time he or other residents have made their voices heard, saying he had been sending complaints to CN Rail three times a month since he could remember.  

He said the response, if received, from CN Rail was the same each time, which explained idling was necessary for most of its locomotives, which are not designed to be easily turned on and off.

Nahanee said the first thing the community really wanted was for the trains to idle somewhere else during the middle of the night, further from homes.

“I mean, that’s all we want,” he said. “Between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., just let us sleep.”

Khelsilem, Dustin Rivers, spokesperson for Squamish Nation, said the nation conducted the survey after a virtual meeting was held with CN Rail on Oct. 3, 2020, between nation council members and CN senior executives to reopen discussions on how to solve the ongoing disturbances to residents in the communities of Eslhá7an and Yekwaupsum.

“The Squamish Nation has been dealing with these issues over many, many, many years and it seems like every so often we get some progress and then after a number of years the issues come up again,” he said, adding it was “frustrating” to be back at this stage.

“Our leadership is really upset with CN and how they are treating our residents of our community, and while the Oct. 3 meeting was diplomatic and a point to sort of re-establish a relationship, we're still not seeing the kind of action that we would like to see on the ground to respect our residents and our elders in our community.”

Khelsilem said leadership was hoping that would change and communications would become more fluid again with CN, after presenting the results of the survey on March 3.

He said community members provided “a lot of explicit and specific feedback regarding issues around shunting, whistling, and idling which is basically directly in front of a lot of people's houses.”

“The biggest issue, of course, for our members, is that there's a significant amount of activity, noise, pollution, and disruption happening during the evening and late into the night,” he said.

“We have a number of families with young children, we have families who work and are trying to make a living for their families to provide for them, we have elders who are recovering from significant health issues … all of whom are being severely impacted.”

While CN Rail has progressed on various initiatives over the past several years to reduce noise, such as train whistling cessation, rail lubrication, and installing automated gates at at-grade crossings, Khelsilem said more operational changes were needed.

“There needs to be a change and a moratorium on when some of their operations are happening around our reserves,” he said, adding that the nation was calling for an end to locomotive idling adjacent to residential properties as a short term solution.

Khelsilem said the issue dates back to the colonial history of the railways within Canada and how they were developed.

“If you were to apply contemporary standards to rail lines, they would never allow rail lines to be built that close to a residential area like ours is,” he said.

“If you look at the rest of the North Shore, there's not a lot of areas where there are rail lines in that close proximity, but because of the colonial history of governments unilaterally deciding and making these decisions, including the expropriation of reserve lands to suit the rail line expansions, we have this sort of horrible legacy of racist decisions that today we're feeling the impacts of in our community.”

He said future long-term goals would be to see some of the rail lines near the community of Eslhá7an decommissioned and the idea to move the railway underground or below grade be explored.

In response to complaints in July last year, CN Rail issued a statement saying the whistles are required by law for safety reasons and that idling is necessary for almost half of its fleet of locomotives, which are not designed to be easily turned on and off.

“As a backbone of the Canadian and British Columbian economy, we operate our railroad 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; therefore, there will always be some noise associated with these operations,” the statement read.

“CN is aware of the fact that it operates in close proximity to the communities through which we travel and is committed to make every effort to minimize the effects that may occur as a result of these operations.”

CN Rail is now reviewing the results of the nation’s community complaints survey. Khelsilem said the nation would continue communications with CN Rail on short-term and long-term solutions.

"They're open to potential changes, but no commitments have been made," he said. 

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.