There is a sign marking the start of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway line south of Montreal, but it’s hardly needed: Simply look for the piles of discarded track and cracked and rotting ties amid the ragweed, out past the point where the Canadian Pacific Railway ends in a well-groomed rail bed.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had to call the city to get them to clean up their tracks,” says Amélie Gervais, the owner of Bistro La Trinquette in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. Her quaint restaurant, with its vast courtyard patio, overlooks the Chambly Canal at the start of the MM&A line.
Railroads still count distances in miles, and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu stands at what was once Mile 20 of the mighty Canadian Pacific Railway’s “short line” extension from Montreal to the Atlantic Ocean, which helped knit Canada from Pacific to Atlantic for 105 years.
Then, in the 1990s, the CPR effectively declared Montreal the end of the line, abandoning or selling almost everything to the east. Today, this is Mile 1 of the modest 510-mile network run by MM&A, the biggest of a series of a handful of operators keeping this route to New Brunswick alive.
People from here to Saint John, and Searsport, Me., have watched in horror as their rail-line neighbours in Lac-Mégantic await the chance to bury 47 dead from the crash of a runaway oil train July 6. This week The Globe and Mail travelled to stops along the line, finding towns united in mourning, but feelings about the tracks very mixed.
Canadian and U.S. government inspectors may have checked every inch in the past three weeks, but many people, especially in Quebec, still note obvious signs of disrepair. Others, especially in Maine, describe a plucky railway with limited resources and 170 employees struggling valiantly to maintain a vital link.
Not many would like to see the railway abandoned – they see the train as vital to keeping rare manufacturing jobs in their regions.
The most common sentiment is expressed by Maurice Bernier, the head of an economic development council in southern Quebec: “What matters to us is the future of rail, not the future of MM&A.”
That issue extends beyond this particular rail line. People may be angry with Edward Burkhardt, the bombastic head of the Chicago-based holding company that owns MM&A, but many would agree with his recent statement: “We all wish the national rail infrastructure was in better condition, but after years of starvation while nearly all government assistance has gone into highway development, this is quite representative of the thousands of miles of light-duty branch line in the U.S. and Canada.”
The capricious weather of recent months and years has served notice on the dangers of neglected infrastructure in general. But the recent centrality of oil transport to the rail business raises particular alarms.
Those black tankers have become a constant presence on rails across the country. In Saskatchewan, they are reinstalling rail-to-ship Prairie crude to coastal ports and southern and eastern refineries. The Black Trains, as some in Quebec call them, now haunt the rails from coast to coast, and people will not soon forget the price paid in Lac-Mégantic.
“This is our Sept. 11,” says Myriam Girouard, a 20-year-old bartender at the bistro in Saint-Jean. “People will be talking about this in 100 years. The question is what do we do about it now.”
Most MM&A cargo moving eastward is picked up at Canadian Pacific’s vast St-Luc rail yard in Montreal’s west end. A train like the 72-car one from North Dakota that exploded in Lac-Mégantic is moved along borrowed CP track before shifting to MM&A tracks and finally landing in Farnham Yard, MM&A’s main Canadian staging area.
While St-Luc yard is a four-kilometre-long model of military-style precision, the mess at Farnham Yard has long irritated many of the town’s 8,500 residents. Farnham was the first town to demand the railway improve its regime of inspection and maintenance, a call now joined by dozens of municipalities and higher authorities in Quebec and Maine.
What residents here see in their own backyards (three-quarters of them live within 500 metres of the rails) helps explain why. The two-storey brick Canadian headquarters for MM&A looks like an abandoned railway station from the outside. Maintenance vehicles appear to have been built from a salvage yard, with mismatched fenders and hoods.