“We’ve had problems left and right,” says city manager François Giasson. For example, about a week after he signed off on the demand that MM&A cease operations until the whole line could be inspected, a train here jumped the tracks. Luckily, “our derailments only happen at five kilometres per hour,” he says.
In the Victorian era, Farnham was a hub for a wildly speculative railway boom across the Eastern Townships. The town is layered over tracks that spray out like a spider’s web, most of now abandoned. All that’s left is the Montreal Maine & Atlantic.
The little bridge on the edge of Cowansville is not the rustiest on the MM&A network, and it’s certainly not busy. But a photograph of the bridge, its decrepit wooden pillars sinking into the Yamaska River, has become a widely publicized symbol of how little Quebecers trust the railway.
A hike along the muddy, sewage-contaminated river allows a layman to confirm what the image shows. Some of the wooden support beams on the bridge are so rotten saplings have sprouted from them. Two of four support structures have sunk so far they no longer touch the bridge deck. The impression from on top is hardly more reassuring. The bridge’s 10-metre span creaks and shifts under the feet of a 200-pound man. On the tracks leading to it, about every third tie is so rotten it no longer holds a spike. In several instances, only dust remains.
Not every railway tie has to be in good shape, according to Transport Canada regulations. A formula of speed, grade and curve dictates how many are required. A train limited to 10 miles per hour on a straight, flat track only requires five solid ties over 39 feet. If the 14 others normally found on such a stretch are falling apart, the track is still up to code. Mr. Burkhart, the MM&A head, says there’s nothing to worry about – the bridge is on a branch line and “is safe for the handful of cars being handled each day.”
One U.S. MM&A employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the Canadian tracks line have been in worse shape than those in Maine since they were acquired in 2002.
“They’re working on it around Sherbrooke, and west of Mégantic. But everybody’s short on manpower.”
Sitting in the middle of the only viable pass through the northernmost extension of the Appalachian mountains, Magog was built by rail. Speculators in the 19th century built the Waterloo and Magog Railroad and dangled it to CP as an alternative route to Atlantic ports like Saint John. Textile mills and a vast weekend and summer tourist trade from Montreal sprouted.
Today the mills are gone and the tourists arrive by automobile. The rail snakes past some of their favourite art shops and eateries but also past the hospital, elementary schools and behind the backyards of thousands of the 25,000 residents.
Ginette Gendron is an orderly at the hospital, which rattles when the train passes. She and her partner, Claude Deslandes, bought a house 10 metres from the tracks just before MM&A discovered oil transport was the route to profit.
For now the oil trains have stopped rolling.
“We certainly sleep better,” Mr. Deslandes says.
But when they start again – and the couple is convinced they will – “it will always be with that fear,” Ms. Gendron says.
For a homeowner, there are other implications, she adds. “This house is probably not worth what it was before the oil.”
At Sherbrooke station, a dozen metres from an MM&A locomotive parked on a siding, a uniformed maintenance man with a leaf blower is meticulously blasting dust off every inch of the Orford Express.
The immaculate tourist train offers gourmet meals and a splendid view of the mountains and lake, on daily excursions borrowing the tracks to MM&A Magog. It is a throwback to the romance of railway travel, at odds with the current reality that oil is the main cargo keeping the line alive.
Six kilometres away, the MM&A’s raised rail bed looms over the tiny campus of Bishop’s University, a key venue for the Canada Games being staged this summer. University principal Michael Goldbloom has asked the railway and various levels of government to make sure emergency preparedness and security are at the highest level.