No risk, no whistle: Nuttall

Councillor says quality-of-life concerns must be addressed, and aren’t limited to a few thousand residents near the tracks

A lot of noise has been generated since councillors Alex Nuttall and Andrew Prince first raised the issue of perhaps silencing the train whistles that annoy so many Barrie residents, forced awake sooner than they’d rather be.

Ward 10 Coun. Alex Nuttall was an early proponent of silencing the train whistles. Although the issue has changed from an outright ban to one where whistles are sounded only when a train engineer perceives a risk, the issue remains a valid quality-of-life matter for many Barrie residents, he says.

Whistle cessation, as it is now called, has become one of Barrie’s contentious and controversial issues – a hot-button item. While Nuttall says the debate has matured somewhat from a straight ban of the whistles to one that would quiet them, he remains solidly in favour of municipal action to address residents’ quality-of-life concerns.
“At the end of the day we’re not completely stopping the whistles. What we are doing is giving the engineers who are trained and qualified, the decision of whether to blow the whistle or not.”
When there is no risk, there is no need for a train whistle to go off at 5:15, or 5:45, or whenever the trains are rolling through intersections in the morning.
“Giving the engineers, who are qualified to make the decisions (about sounding the whistle) is not a huge risk. It’s giving them the leeway to decide if there is a risk or if there isn’t a risk.
“If there is fog, or too much snow, if you can’t see the track, or if a child is too close, then they should be using the whistles, and they will continue to.”
Much has been made about the cost involved in silencing the whistles – the figure of $200,000 has been bandied about. Nuttall says there is confusion about how that money has been allocated, including the initial $10,000 study, part of the original push to review the whistling.
“The $10,000 study was something that had to be done by the City of Barrie, whether there was a whistle cessation or not. It was actually a study that was done to decide whether we had met the standards for railway safety, whether there is or isn’t a whistle.
“So, you can’t (lump) that into the costs, because that happened … whether we were looking at whistle cessation or not.”
Part of the $200,000 was $80,000 spent to clear sightlines in the St. Paul’s area. Nuttall says when asked about it, staff said it would have to be done sooner or later; council decided on sooner, he says.
Funds directly attributable to the whistle cessation include $80,000 to install and maintain pedestrian barriers.
“There were actually a few members of council who wanted them from the beginning. When you look at that you say, ‘well, if $80,000 is the cost, then that’s something we are willing to do or not willing to do.’ And the reality is that there are seven members of council who said yes to it.”
Another contentious part of the debate is the safety question – opponents say the potential risk in silencing the whistle is too great to take. In an earlier interview with City Scene Barrie, Ward 7 councillor John Brassard said getting rid of the whistles would put the city at risk, from safety, liability and financial points of view.
“Is the cost to the city, both financial and from a safety and liability standpoint, worth the risk? In my view, it is not,” he told us.”
Nuttall says that letting the train engineer make the call as to whether a whistle is needed, addresses the safety concerns.
“It isn’t a safety issue because those whistles are still going to be there. If we said, ‘you couldn’t use the whistle,’ that would be a safety issue as far as I’m concerned. But to say that they need to be blown at every intersection every time, four times, is over the top.
“When we drive down the street, we don’t have to use our horn every time we go through an intersection. In fact, it’s probably less safe if we use it every time, because then when you need to use it because there is a risk, people aren’t paying attention.”
As far as the quality-of-life component of the debate, Nuttall says it is a valid concern requiring a solution, and it doesn’t just impact a few thousand disgruntled residents near the train tracks.
“The reality is that it’s not a small group of people. Recently, I was knocking on doors and I spoke to a gentleman on Birkhall, which is probably a kilometre and a half away from any railway crossing. The person had recently moved to Barrie and the first question he asked was, ‘what’s going on with the train whistles?’
“So, I think there is a cost either way. The cost is in terms of real estate – those real estate values affect the tax that comes to the City of Barrie. Therefore, by having that whistle there, and affecting real estate values, we’re losing tax revenue to the City of Barrie.
“On the other side of it, you have $80,000 that I attribute to the whistle cessation. Those dollars, to me, affect more than 35,000 people. When you are talking about $2 a person, and their tax bills are, on average, more than $3,000, I don’t think it’s an exorbitant amount.”
Some, including former mayor Janice Laking, maintain the issue wouldn’t even have left the station had the trains been parked at St. Paul’s, the site of the existing GO station on Yonge Street.
If that had been the plan, additional land for a train yard would need to be obtained; Nutall estimated the existing yard in Allandale to be about 10 areas.
“Where’s the money for the land over there? The land is worth $500,000 an acre. Who has the $5 or $6 million for that land?
“Look at how big the rail yard is right now, and try to put that into the footprint over on Yonge Street.”
And besides, he says, a station in Allandale is part and parcel of downtown revitalization.
“We’ve been working on building investment in downtown Barrie, and this is one of the ways we can do it, through the revitalization of old Allandale, which is certainly on track and ready to explode at any time.
“I think (the second station) was necessary and a good decision.”
It’s difficult to find an ideal situation that pleases everyone, he says.
“You have to look at a decision, and say ‘what’s best for the city, how can we most effectively move the city’s plans forward?’ We did that, and now we have a second train station for Barrie. Having the trains there was part of a plan to put a station in downtown Barrie.”
While he says bringing the GO Train to Barrie is good for the city, the concerns of those negatively impacted can’t be ignored.
“It’s all about the fact we have a senior’s residence in front of one crossing, a senior’s residence in front of another crossing. We have an additional 5,000 homes, maybe closer to 7,000 homes, that have been built on either side of the railway tracks since the train left Barrie.
“Those tracks were dead, they were used once a year, and now you have it all the time. The GO Train is a great thing for Barrie. At the same time, we need to accommodate those people who live near the tracks, to make sure their quality of life is upheld at the same time as the quality of life of others is increased with the trains coming to Barrie.”

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