Living next to the screech
A near-constant high-pitch steel-on-steel grind has some people's teeth on edge - and worried about property values
By KERRY GOLD
Friday, October 11, 2019 Print Edition, Page H11
VANCOUVER -- Vancouver residents who live between the Commercial-Broadway and Nanaimo SkyTrain stations, near the track, say increasingly disruptive metal-on-metal noise is making their lives a misery.
For the past year or so, residents living near the SkyTrain in various locations have complained about a screeching noise that is disrupting their lives and is likely the result of an aging infrastructure that needs upgrading. TransLink is in the process of addressing complaints from those who live along the older Expo and Millennium lines with a SkyTrain noise study that was done a year ago. It found that the biggest contributor to noise is the condition of the track, amplified by faster trains. The study says that the accepted noise level for urban environments used by the World Health Organization is a decibel level of 75. A grinding steel sound registers at 110 dBA, the study says.
Until it is fixed, realtors say the screech is bad enough that it would likely affect property values, if owners tried to sell. In the meantime, residents are growing increasingly angry and frustrated as they lose sleep.
Residents don't have a problem with the usual rumbling of the trains - they say they knew what they were getting when they bought their homes near the light rapid transit line. But they hadn't counted on the rumbling to turn into a maddening prolonged high-pitched screech that can occur for days at a time, every few minutes from 5:30 a.m.
to 1 a.m., says Daina Lawrence, who lives a block away from the SkyTrain track that runs by Stainsbury Avenue in the Trout Lake area. She's complained several times to TransLink, but has yet to receive an explanation or promise of a fix.
"I'm just getting blown off.
They are thanking me for my time and forwarding my request to someone else. And I'm banging my head against the wall," she says.
When it first started in May, she was told that there was repair being done to the line and equipment was being stored on a diversion track. It meant the cars had to switch tracks and go slowly around the equipment, thereby causing the screeching.
"I have lived by the SkyTrain for almost two years and I find the sound of the train to be soothing. It doesn't bother me," Ms. Lawrence says. "The train comes by every five minutes. It becomes white noise after a while. But this was not white noise. This was grinding, screeching metal on metal. It is just awful. We're talking 20 hours a day, every four to seven minutes."
She was told the work would be done by July, so she had an end date to look forward to. However, instead of stopping, the sound only became less constant. She lives on edge and she's at home with a new baby.
They've renovated their arts and crafts house, so they have no desire to leave, but she also wonders how the price of their home would be affected by the new noise pollution if they did decide to give up and relocate.
"If this was going on when we were looking at buying this house, it would have been a deal breaker because it's so disruptive," Ms. Lawrence says.
Matthew Kowalyk, a speech pathologist who also lives on Stainsbury Avenue says the trains are getting louder. He and his wife have lived in a suite in her parents' house for the past 12 years.
"You can tell when the older trains come along because they are louder than the new ones," he says. "If you move to the airport you shouldn't complain about the planes, but if the planes are getting old and screechy you might have a thing or two to say."
The area is slated for many high-density developments and he wonders how those new residents will respond to the highpitch screech.
"I'm all for densification and making the city more livable, but I have a feeling those folks might not know what they are getting into," he says.
Mike Avery and Mark Henderson are across the street from Mr.
Kowalyk and they are only a few metres from the track, which they can see from their bedroom window.
Their biggest concern is related to the maintenance crews that work sporadically from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and talk loudly, shine bright lights and play music. All residents interviewed for this story say they, too, can hear the crews at work in the middle of the night. They question why they can't work during the day on Sundays or work quietly in consideration of the neighbours.
"It's super bright and super noisy," says Mr. Avery, who works in construction. "Not only does it affect my property values, but it affects my sleep. I have to be up at 5 a.m.
"I'm sure if this was the west side it would be a huge deal and somebody would do something about it."
Mr. Avery and his husband purchased the property a decade ago and knew what they were getting into, living right along the track.
"We understood this would be a thing we would have to deal with. But it's getting worse," Mr.
Henderson says. "They are doing more maintenance and they are out there constantly. Is it going to get better? Maybe not."
He worries that because the 30-year-old Expo line is going to need continuing repair and the disruption will become the new normal. They are thinking about leaving.
"We bought this 110-year-old, neglected, practically abandoned property and we spent the last eight years restoring it into a beautiful home and now we are wondering, 'Is anybody going to be wanting to buy this one day, with this in our backyard? Are we going to lose a significant amount of money because of this?' "But at the end of the day, it is our home," he adds. "And we have learned to co-exist as best we can with the noise that goes on. But yeah, we have considered just dropping it all and finding something somewhere else. We spent a lot of time and money making this our home, so it's tough. But there is a lot of development going on around us and because we are so close to the SkyTrain stations it's prime real estate. A bunch of condo developments are happening down the street, so part of us wonders what we'd do if some developer knocked on the door some day and made the decision really easy - which is not ideal, but is a consideration."
Realtor Jerome Deis, who was the buying agent for Ms.
Lawrence's house, says living near the SkyTrain does not usually affect property values. In fact, there is almost always someone willing to pay for a property that may look undesirable to others, he says, including houses next door to brightly lit gas stations, or houses on busy arterials.
Some cultures, he says, prefer to be on busy streets so they can show off their big houses. He's seen a condo in Mount Pleasant sell at the market price two years ago, even though a badly decomposed body that had been there for many months that required remediation of the unit He didn't want to disclose the address to protect the other condo owners, but it sold above asking, for $615,000.
But when it comes to major noise pollution, such as an occasional high-pitched screech, that's where most people would draw the line.
"I think it would [be a deal breaker] because anybody coming to look would go, 'What the hell is that noise? How often do you hear it?' Yes, that would probably affect the price."
A spokesperson for TransLink said that the B.C. Rapid Transit Company, which maintains and operates the Expo and Millennium lines, said that grinding of the rails had been performed in both directions through that stretch in late September. Rail grinding helps to reduce noise by smoothing the rail, "preventing friction between rail and train car wheels," the spokesperson said.
TransLink is implementing its findings of the noise study, the spokesperson said. That study acknowledges that, "a key indicator of noise impacting community livability is its potential to cause sleep disturbance." Potential fixes include maintaining worn out switches, using harder types of steel in the rails, the use of lubricants to calm vibrations, affixing dampers to the sides of the track to absorb noise and grinding the rails to smooth out rough spots. The spokesperson did not say when the Stainsbury Avenue residents could expect relief from the noise.
"It is important to keep in mind SkyTrain has been a working railway for over 30 years and there will always be some noise associated with operations," the spokesperson added.
Ms. Lawrence had also made a noise complaint to the City of Vancouver. But a City spokesperson responded that they would refer such a matter to TransLink.
Realtor Sedi Minachi is one Vancouver resident who got relief from the awful screech. She lives near Royal Oak station where residents adjacent to the SkyTrain Expo line mounted a petition to stop the noise. It seemed to have had an effect. On Sept. 23, she says, the deafening noise finally stopped, after more than a year and a slew of complaints from residents. The sound had been happening in the two blocks between Dunblane and Marlborough, just west of Royal Oak station. Despite their initial complaints, she says, nothing was done.
"We were suffering," Ms. Minachi says. "When I was collecting signatures for the petition a few of my neighbours said they had individually approached TransLink but TransLink didn't care and didn't listen to them. I told them if we act together it would be better and it worked."
TransLink had told the residents that track maintenance was continuing and the organization was conducting tests on noise levels. They said that surface irregularities may cause the screech, and in that case, they also said rail grinding would be done to help eliminate the sound.
But she believes that it was their petition and their group outspokenness that achieved the result.
"They didn't inform us when they fixed it. We noticed some workers early one morning were working and the next day there was no screeching noise," she says. "Now, everyone in the neighbourhood is happy and we are finally able to sleep at night.
"But I use the SkyTrain all the time and I've noticed in some areas the same screeching noise is happening. We weren't the only ones."
Mike Avery watches as a SkyTrain passes about 100 metres from his Vancouver home on Stainsbury Avenue. Mr. Avery says late-night maintenance workers talk loudly and play music.
DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL