It took months of repeated emails and phone calls, the advent of health concerns including breathing difficulties that required a prescription for two inhalers, and the intervention of local politicians, but Philip Kashap has finally gotten the attention of CN Railway.
Kashap is the director of the Huntsville Suzuki School of Music, which rents space in Huntsville’s former CN train station. He began lodging complaints with CN last October about a locomotive idling almost non-stop in the adjacent yard. Kashap and parents of Suzuki students were concerned about the health effects of the exhaust fumes seeping into the building. On some particularly cold days, a layer of exhaust would hover at ground level, which made taking a full breath near impossible.
It’s been an ongoing problem but the arrival of a different locomotive recently, combined with extreme cold, has made matters worse.
And then near the end of February, Kashap became quite sick. “I didn’t really realize I was getting that bad,” he said, noting that a student also became ill during a lesson. “It’s too strong.”
The lingering exhaust was bad enough on March 1 that a parent of one of Kashap’s students insisted that he teach lessons from her home for the day. On March 5, “we had to move over to Riverside Baptist Church today as we got smoked out by the engine,” Kashap told Doppler via email.
It’s not the first time the Huntsville Suzuki School has had to deal with air quality issues. In 2016, the station was closed because of mould in the building and the school was temporarily relocated to the Waterloo building while the Town resolved the underlying issues.
The train station is a heritage building that was constructed in 1924. The Town of Huntsville took ownership in 2003 and sold it to private owners in 2017. There’s no longer passenger service to the station, but CN maintains a train shed on the property and uses a locomotive for switching cars in the train yard.
It’s that locomotive that’s the source of the problem.
“They are always idling trains at the station but since this [new] one’s been there it’s been much, much worse,” said Jennifer Daynard, who has three family members who take lessons at the school. “We live directly across from the station and with the cold temperatures in the morning you can see the exhaust from the train hanging in the air right by the train station and floating toward the homes and other offices that are there as well. The first day I saw it, it looked like there was a fire over there. I couldn’t believe it. On cold days, it’s particularly noticeable, but it doesn’t have to be visible for it to be a problem. You can smell it.”
On one of the particularly bad days, Daynard was at the station for about half an hour, dropping off and picking up kids. “In that time just being in the train station, it took the rest of the evening to be able to feel like I was breathing normally again,” she said.
She was the one who suggested Kashap teach elsewhere. “He just needs to not be in that building,” she said. “I was really concerned for his health. He’s on two different ventilator, asthma-type puffers. He looks horrible. His eyes have huge circles and are really puffy and his breathing is really shallow…And the kids! This is children having lessons there, and there are some seniors too that take lessons there. It’s just not healthy.”
And she said she’s concerned about the environmental effects, as well. “I don’t want them to be idling at all, I don’t believe any of us should be idling. I have an electric car and I believe really strongly in this. We are at a crisis point in our environment and people aren’t doing enough. It affects people’s health and we have all this crazy weather, and ups and downs in temperatures and fires…The particulate is going to be a real problem, it’s going to fall into the lake too, it could affect water quality, it’s definitely affecting our air quality, and I’m sure it’s affecting the health of people around it.”
But getting CN to take notice has been a challenge.
Kashap said his early contact to the company wasn’t given priority. “I would call and call and call, and they would say, ‘yeah, the station master hasn’t gotten back to us.'” That went on for several months. After he became ill, Kashap said he got angry. “I said this is my case number, I don’t care what you need to do, you need to get someone on this. And then I called the CN police—that’s their emergency number and the lady said ‘this is not an emergency’, and I said, ‘for me it is.'”
He finally got an email response on March 1 from CN’s public inquiries department, though one that he said is inadequate.
“Following your call last Monday, February 25th at 12:47 EST, a notice was sent out the the local Operations Manager,” reads the email. It goes on to say that the locomotive was moved away from the building, but that it is typically in the yard from Monday to Friday and that there will be noise associated with its operation. The email also notes that locomotives “are not designed to be turned on and off in the same way as an automobile. Because locomotive engines use water rather than antifreeze as the coolant, engines cannot be shut down when temperatures are expected to reach 5 degrees Celsius or lower. Engines are left idling in order to maintain important safety functions such as engine temperature, air pressure for the brake system, battery power, the electrical system, and to provide heating or cooling for the crew. In many cases, it is not feasible to shut down the engine given the time it would take to restart the engine, build up brake pressure, and resume operating, such as the instance you have noted. While we understand that idling can be disturbing, CN strives to be a considerate neighbor and does its best to minimize the inconvenience to its neighbours.”
Doppler received a similar reply from CN media relations advisor, Alexandre Boulé, who also noted, “Most of CN’s locomotives are equipped with an Automatic Engine Start Stop (AESS) system for locomotives. This system turns the locomotive engine on and off to maintain levels of the above safety functions (such as brake pressure and battery power) within specific parameters.”
Which begs the question, why isn’t this particular locomotive equipped with such a system, or if it is, why isn’t it being used? And if temperature is a concern, why was the engine turned off on the morning of March 4 when the outside temperature hovered near -20C?
In a subsequent email response, Boulé said that they would have to “make additional verification in order to be able to give you more precise information.” As of publication time, Doppler had not received additional information regarding the locomotive.
Boulé also said that, regarding emissions concerns, “CN continuously invests in efficiency and sustainability. Our implemented measures include the use of low emission and high fuel combustion efficiency engines in our non-road equipment; Best Management Practices for planning, selection of equipment, and terminal design – all measures that are designed to reduce emissions that would contribute to reduced air quality. In fact, since 1997, CN has reduced its locomotive GHG emission intensity by 39%.”
Like Daynard, Kashap wonders why the company can’t find a better solution.
“CN needs to think about the fact that a lot of people live and work around there and they can’t be idling 24/7 in a populated place like that. Something has to give on their part,” he said, his frustration evident. “I don’t see why CN can’t find some engine that idles very little in the winter. As soon as the warm weather hits, they turn them off when it’s past freezing danger. They need to shut those things off when they aren’t in use…this is Canada for goodness’ sake, figure it out so you don’t have to run on diesel 24 hours a day.”
Locomotive Emissions Regulations within Canada’s Railway Safety Act do prohibit idling of locomotives in an active fleet for more than 30 minutes at a time, but allows for exceptions when required to “(a) prevent locomotive engine damage, such as damage resulting from the freezing of the engine coolant; (b) maintain air pressure for the brakes or the starter system; (c) recharge the locomotive battery; (d) heat or cool the cab, if the heating or cooling is necessary for reasons of health and safety; (e) provide head end power, if necessary for reasons of passenger health and safety; (f) perform diagnostic testing and necessary maintenance; or (g) respond to an emergency.”
And while Huntsville does have an anti-idling bylaw, it doesn’t apply “to Federally-owned or Municipally-owned lands upon which cars or electric, steam or diesel electric railways run exclusively upon rails.”
But intervention by local politicians—Kashap and Daynard contacted the Mayor as well as the offices of MPP Norm Miller and MP Tony Clement—appears to finally be getting things moving. Kashap says he heard from a higher-level official at CN just this week that the company would be speaking with the mayor and MP regarding the issue.
Whether that will result in a more health- and environment-friendly solution remains to be seen.
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