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Midnight train controversy draws angry crowd to Community Forum

Kyra Hoggan
By Kyra Hoggan
October 8th, 2014

More than 100 people crammed into Castlegar’s Community Forum last night (Oct. 6) to attend a council meeting in which a CP Rail delegate was set to speak to the new nighttime train schedule in the area. There were also quite a few people there to see Communities in Bloom volunteers honoured for their spectacular work and wins in this year’s competition, as well as a group of city workers attending to give council members papers outlining the union’s current issues in regard to their limited strike action.

The majority, though, were there to hear from Mike LoVecchio, director of government affairs for CP Rail, and to share their distress over the new train schedule with CP Rail, with fully 21 residents getting up to offer impassioned responses to the nighttime trains.

Councillor Kevin Chernoff moved that the regular meeting schedule be altered to allow for a question period for residents at the top of the meeting, with the regular agenda and final question period to come after a CP Rail Q-and-A.

The first to speak was LoVecchio himself, as he offered a power-point presentation speaking to the scheduling changes.

“On Sept. 2, we consolidated the daily movement of our trains in the West Kootenay,” he said. “As a result, we were able to redeploy three locomotives elsewhere in our network. Locomotives now idle for less than three hours per day, versus more than 12 hours per day before. A locomotive is an expensive asset. To have it sitting around burning diesel is not good use of our asset.

“Railroading is a 24/7 sport – and trains don’t run on set schedules,” he said, reiterating several times that the company has a responsibility to find efficiencies wherever it can, and that any residents near tracks should be prepared for 24/7 activity without notice.

He also clarified that the conductors have a responsibility, due to safety, to blast the whistle at each of the seven flat crossings in town and the four crossings just outside of city limits – two long bursts, one short one, and a final long one.

Next to speak were the city councillors.

Councillor Kevin Chernoff pointed out that, as a business person, he doesn’t see the cost savings, given the added shifts, and how often he sees just the engine or an engine with empty cars travelling back and forth, burning expensive fuel with no payload. LoVecchio replied that the last trip of the day may be a lone locomotive returning to its home base, but Chernoff said that was not his experience.

“It’s not just at the end of the day – maybe go back and check your records,” he said. Councillor Dan Rye agreed with Chernoff’s confusion over how the new system could be more efficient, but the response they received was arguably vague.

“The reconfiguring … is better reflective of how the cars are coming into the Kootenays,” LoVecchio said, adding the new schedule streamlines the system.

Councillor Deb McIntosh also had some pointed words to offer.

“This recent impact on our community is unacceptable,” she said, using, as an example, a local motel near the tracks that will clearly suffer as a result of the night trains. “Business is hard enough. I think that, corporately, you guys have done us wrong. I think you owe the people who live along the tracks an apology.”

McIntosh also pointed out that, while CP Rail may be 24/7 – so is the community of Castlegar.

Councillor Sue Heaton-Sherstobitoff spoke as well to the lack of communication and consultation around the change.

“Any decision or change that impacts our residents or our environment should be openly and transparently discussed. There needs to be an end to your ‘24/7 business’ line you keep giving us,” she said, adding council hearing about the whole debacle via rumour rather than from CP is unacceptable. She also pointed out that implementing CP’s ‘whistle cessation’ would cost resident taxpayers over $300,000 per crossing for gates and lights, not to mention the cost of accepting all liability for any mishap at the crossing – a cost the would be downloaded to Castlegar without any kind of offset from the profits CP is bringing in. She also brought up similar conflicts CP is experiencing with other communities. “They’re your tracks, not ours. Are you going to do something for us? Because we’re not going to take it.”

LoVecchio replied that, “We’re not fighting with communities.” A member of the audience yelled out, “Well, we’re fighting with you,” to general laughter.

At this point, 21 members of the audience got up to speak – not one of whom was happy with, or even indifferent to, the night train.

Resident and business owner Chris Sykes said he had considered bringing an air horn to the meeting and sneaking up on the CP rep to blast it. “My wife convinced me that would be rude and disrespectful,” he said, adding what CP is doing is, as well, both rude and disrespectful.

Selkirk biology instructor James Nickle also pointed out the Geneva Convention’s definition of types of torture includes sleep deprivation.

Many residents complained about the lack of consultation in advance of the switch, while others spoke to whistle decibels, locals in hazardous jobs who would be sleep-deprived and thus dangerous, children who are being woken repeatedly every night. Many asked why CP Rail couldn’t compromise or at least offer a specific time to expect the whistles to blast.

Even Trail residents came forward to speak in solidarity with the issue – including a Teck employee who said Teck doesn’t need or want the change.

LoVecchio replied with, “This was a deal we made to improve efficiencies. There is going to be a variability to train service.” He said the decision was made locally and implemented corporately, but declined to speak to which local employee(s) were part of the decision-making process. In response to a question about bylaws that prevent people from mowing their lawns after 11 p.m., he said, “CP is federally regulated, so municipal bylaws do not apply to us as they would apply to your lawnmower.”

When told the perception is that disgruntled engineers may be blasting their whistles for longer than at all necessary, LoVecchio said he would look into that, as one of the things a locomotive’s black box records is duration of whistle blasts.

He declined to respond to any questions regarding exactly how much this decision impacts CP’s profit margin, but promised to take back all the suggestions and input received at the meeting to CP management for review.

“These decisions are never made lightly,” LoVecchio said. “Part of the reason I’m here is that, if we are going to do what we do, we’re going to be accountable for it.”

Councillor Dan Rye said he was pleased with many aspects of the meeting, including LoVecchio’s presence and resident turn-out.

“I would say that there were a lot of very good suggestions made to Mike, that maybe he can take back and take a look at – I think the message was made pretty loud and clear to him,” said Rye. “Running locomotives back and forth empty doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Rye said he can’t speak to how hopeful residents can be that CP will come up with a compromise, but he’s glad they sent someone out.

“I’ve got to give the guy a lot of credit for walking into what was really a hornet’s nest, and answering questions for more than an hour-and-a-half. I don’t care how thick-skinned you are, that’s hard,” Rye said. “I’m glad he came out.”

As for whether he thinks the evening’s interaction will bear positive fruit for Castlegar?

“Now we’ll just have to wait and see – time will tell (whether CP will heed the feedback).”

Only five audience members stayed for the regular council meeting that followed.

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