LAC-MÉGANTIC, Que. – A runaway oil train brought death and destruction to this tiny community in Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying dozens of buildings.
Three years later, trains still roll through downtown, just feet from restaurants and shops.
Residents who see them as a haunting reminder of the conflagration want trains re-routed around the town, and a feasibility study of the proposed bypass, estimated to cost $115 million, is underway.
“We don’t want to be victims of human error or an accident,” said Robert Bellefleur, spokesman for Lac-Mégantic‘s citizens’ coalition for rail safety.
Much of downtown Lac-Mégantic was destroyed when a runaway oil train derailed early on July 6, 2013.
An investigation concluded a railroad worker failed to set enough hand brakes, allowing the unmanned train to begin rolling downhill in the dead of night.
The fiery derailment, along with others that followed in the U.S. and Canada, led to tougher government regulations on the transport of oil by rail.
Three men, including the train’s conductor, face charges of criminal negligence causing death.
Residents were taking time on the third anniversary Wednesday to remember those who perished, but “the best way to honour the ones who died is to move forward,” said Stephane Lavallée, director of the Lac-Mégantic Reconstruction Office.
Restoration work continues after demolition of damaged structures and removal of contaminated soil.
Infrastructure projects include electricity, communications and sewers.
Frontenac Street, at the town’s centre, is expected to reopen this fall.
But wounds are reopened each time a train rolls through town.
Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway filed for bankruptcy after the tragedy.
The new owner of the tracks, the Bangor, Maine-based Central Maine & Quebec Railroad, spent millions of dollars to improve safety before resuming shipments of hazardous materials in the fall of 2014.
Trains are limited to 10 mph while travelling through town.
But no crude oil has moved through Lac-Mégantic since the tragedy.
Central Maine & Quebec CEO John Giles has promised to visit Lac-Mégantic to talk to residents about safety when oil shipments eventually resume.
The bypass proposal calls for about 7 miles of new track so trains can go around Lac-Mégantic’s downtown, but some in the town of about 6,000 residents fear the study could take years.
Lac-Mégantic Mayor Jean-Guy Cloutier said the town doesn’t have to wait until the feasibility study is completed to begin negotiations to get the project started.
While the Lac-Mégantic bypass may one day be built, it wouldn’t make sense to divert rail traffic from all small towns through which oil trains travel because it would be too costly, said David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee.
Railroads are responsible for track upgrades and improvements, so they tend to aim for the projects that’ll have the greatest impact on improving safety, Clarke said.
“You’re going to go for the higher-profile, higher-payoff projects first, if you’re investing your money in a rational way. But politics often come into play,” he said.
Giles said the railroad’s business is growing but that the funding for a bypass would have to come from the province and from the Canadian government.
The small railroad doesn’t have millions of dollars to invest on the project, he said.