Council takes first step to improve Benson Ave. rail crossing safety

But project also depends upon federal grant

The District of Houston is tentatively planning a project to increase safety at the Benson Ave. CN level crossing. But it’s contingent upon receiving a federal grant. (Houston Today photo)

The District of Houston has taken the first step toward addressing safety concerns at the Benson Ave. CN Rail level crossing.

It’s proposing a $610,000 project to install rail crossing arms and warning lights at the crossing within its 2021 fiscal year.

And it is also reviewing the project within its five-year financial planning forecast for the years 2020-2024, says District of Houston chief administrative officer Gerald Pinchbeck.

But, added Pinchbeck, the project is contingent on securing half of the project’s financing through Transport Canada’s Rail Safety Improvement Program.

The potential project continues the District of Houston council’s consistent efforts over the past years to address safety concerns at the crossing.

In September, council members pressed the issue with CN officials who say they are continuing discussions with the District.

Council members have pointed to increased rail traffic spurred by an increase in industrial projects as one of the key reasons for needing safety improvements.

Houston is not alone in the northwest in advocating for increased safety measures where CN’s tracks cross over roads.

In a council briefing note prepared for the September meeting with CN, District officials noted that “when trains block these rail crossings, emergency services are unable to reach the north side of Houston, meaning residents are unable to receive assistance from police, fire and ambulance services.”

“This is especially dangerous because of the amount of heavy industry located in the north side industrial zone,” the briefing note added.

Earlier this month, Houston resident Ron Harris presented a petition of approximately 430 names to council, highlighting the need for gates where the CN line crosses Benson.

“If there was an accident there, it blocks about 60 homes and a water treatment plant, and there’s no way to get medical or fire [personnel] to protect people,” Harris told The Houston Today when he presented the petition.

Harris said residents have been pressing for safety improvements for at least 20 years.

“It’s been brought up again and again, but it’s always passed over,” Harris said. “Safety should be the number one priority in any community.”

In speaking to the petition presented at the Dec. 10 council meeting, Harris proposed using public monies to advance the project.

Along with increased safety measures, residents and council are looking for ways to cease CN trains from using their whistles.

But CN says train crews are required to whistle at all public crossings regardless of the type of crossing warning system in place.

“Train whistles are safety devices that alert vehicular and pedestrian traffic to the presence of an approaching train and warn trespassers away from the railway right-of-way,” it said in a statement provided this fall.

A municipality can apply to halt whistles at some locations but that requires a series of steps beginning with a detailed safety assessment, CN continued.

Transport Canada’s Rail Safety Improvement Program provides grant and contribution monies to improve rail safety and reduce injuries and fatalities related to rail transportation.

A District of Houston request for financial assistance would fit within the parameters of recently approved grants through the program.

In Leduc, Alberta, for example, the program provided just over $430,000 to add standard railway crossing signs, street lighting and improve pedestrian protection at an existing crossing.

That project included improved signage and the installation of traffic signals to control intersection movements during train crossings.

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