Every morning of every day — including weekends — a cacophony of horns from the GO Train blares into his home and wakes Joseph Ficker up.
The first horn blasts at 5:55 a.m., as the train makes its way south past his home in Holland Landing, taking commuters from Barrie to Union Station. And some nights, he hears train horns sound well past midnight, waking the retiree from his deep slumber as it goes north towards Lake Simcoe.
“Sometimes it’s four horns, but sometimes it’s eight,” he said, comparing the sound to a blow horn in your ear. “But when I hear it in the morning, I have to get up whether I want to or not.”
Ficker moved into his home in East Gwillimbury in the ’70s, well aware that there were train tracks right behind his home. “At first, I actually enjoyed the occasional freight train as it went by, and most times we didn’t even notice it,” he said.
But three years ago, the GO train service became all day, more frequent and on weekends too — turning the noise of the horns into a never-ending nuisance.
Over the past six years, Ficker has been trying to get his town to make a case to silence the horns, but his efforts have gained little traction with local politicians. In 2019, East Gwillimbury council said designing and implementing the safety upgrades would cost them $1.5-million and decided not to go ahead “due to safety, liability and potential implementation costs.”
He was almost about to give up, until he heard this week that the city of Markham had successfully become an anti-horn zone.
On Monday, Markham announced that after more than a decade of effort, it has ended mandatory train horns at 13 rail crossings in the urban part of the city, implementing alternative safety measures instead.
Markham now joins a host of other cities in the GTA with “whistle cessation” policies including: Toronto, Milton, Mississauga, Oakville, Pickering and Brampton and at some of the train crossings in places like Newmarket and Whitchurch-Stouffville — many of which had federally approved whistle prohibitions “grandfathered” into place.
“This was a quality of life issue for our residents,” said Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti. “We have silenced the horns in Markham … and people will now be able to enjoy that peace and quiet for generations to come.”
Scarpitti said that the policy had effectively silenced 1,600 horns that sounded at stops between Steeles Ave., and Major Mackenzie Rd., along the Stouffville GO line every day.
But the sound of silence in Markham has residents in communities across the GTA, such as King City, East Gwillimbury, and Aurora — where the horns still blast hundreds of times a day — wondering what it will take for them to get some peace and quiet too.
And with GO train service set to increase in the next few years, there is growing concern among residents and politicians alike that the sound of horns will become increasingly intolerable.
Laura Spano said she knowingly bought her King City house near the GO train station. That was when most of the commuter traffic was confined to working hours.
“But now it’s late at night, on weekends, and basically all the time,” she said.
“It wakes up my son at night and we hear it when we are out in the backyard in the summer,” she said.
Spano said she emailed her local councillor this week. “It got done in Markham, when is it going to happen here?” she asked.
King City Coun. Debbie Schaefer said the Township supports whistle cessation and has been in talks with Metrolinx for the past few years.
But with upgrades expected on the Barrie line, the Township feels “with limited funds available … it would be wasteful to spend the money today knowing that the safety measures could be obsolete,” said Schaefer.
According to Metrolinx, Transport Canada’s Canadian Rail Operating Rules require the sounding of whistles whenever a train approaches a public grade crossing. The rules say the whistles must be sounded at least a quarter-mile before each crossing, even if it’s equipped with flashing lights, bells and crossing gates. Moreover, the rules apply 24/7.
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However, municipalities have the option of eliminating whistling at specific crossings by undertaking an extensive and costly eight-step process outlined in Transport Canada’s whistle cessation program. Metrolinx said it works collaboratively with municipalities interested in the process.
In Markham, irate residents first got the wheels turning more than a decade ago, demanding the city make the issue a priority. City council passed a resolution in favour of whistle cessation in 2008, and put money towards it in the budget. It also conducted extensive safety audits and sought expert advice on what measures were needed.
City council also went to York Region to ensure regional streets would also be included in the cessation program. The project cost more than $6 million — the city put in $2.3 million and $3.8 million came from the Region.
But even with municipal buy-in and money on the table, the project took years to come to fruition — frustrating residents hoping for a quick resolution.
“This was not an easy project,” said Scarpitti. “There was a lot of back and forth with Metrolinx, and we didn’t want anyone to say that we compromised on any safety element at the expense of getting it done quicker.”
He added that a lot of work was specialized and had to be constantly certified and verified.
Metrolinx said an additional challenge was that the line was an active rail corridor and the safety upgrades needed in place of whistling had to be done “during restricted times” to minimize disruption and ensure the safety of passengers and construction crews.
Those new safety measures included maze barriers and extensive signage, in addition to the bells, flashing lights and gates already in place.
Scarpitti said the new safety systems are equipped to handle the increased service expected in coming years.
Municipalities who have yet to get on board with whistle cessation not only cite the high cost — each barrier can range from $200,000 to half a million dollars — but also a fear of increased liability.
Some refer to an 2015 Ottawa crash between a commuter bus and Via train that killed six people. It was found that the train did not sound its horn because a city regulation bans whistles between 8 p.m. and noon.
However, a spokeswoman for Markham said the city’s liability premiums were unaffected by the cessation program.
Holland Landing’s Ficker points out that in a region where hundreds of trains pass through crossings without blowing a whistle, such accidents are few and far between. And conductors always have the discretion to sound the horn in case of an emergency or to clear the tracks.
Ficker believes the new Transport Canada requirements have put whistle cessation out of reach of smaller municipalities who don’t have the political will or capital to fund an extensive process.
He said he plans to reach out to higher levels of government to see if they will make the process more equitable — such as taking away the fear of liability from smaller municipalities, like his.
“Big cities can afford it, but smaller municipalities simply cannot,” he said. “So basically us residents are out of luck.”
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