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A work crew removes encroaching trees and deadfall around a Cowansville, Que., bridge that has become a symbol of safety concerns. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
A work crew removes encroaching trees and deadfall around a Cowansville, Que., bridge that has become a symbol of safety concerns. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Journey to the end of the MM&A Railway line Add to ...

“One wants to be seen to be doing something,” he admits, while conceding no one can absolutely guarantee safety. “This is the situation for thousands of people across the country. We all saw this accident and thought it could have happened here. There are no easy answers.”

Unlike most homes, businesses and other institutions along the MM&A tracks, Bishop’s University can say it was here first, in 1843. The tracks were laid years later, but the two institutions grew in lockstep for the next 100 years.

University archivist Anna Grant digs out a newspaper from 1864 advertising a special “convocation train” from Montreal to bring proud parents and the Governor-General to mark graduation day. The tradition ran at least into the 1950s.

The tracks no longer play much of a role in the community. In Sherbrooke, as across the country, restaurants and condos stand where railway yards and industrial zones once were.

Derek Booth, a retired Bishop’s professor who lives in Lennoxville, is the author of a series of books called Railways of Southern Quebec. “When once or twice a day, the train goes through to somewhere else, it disappears from the local canvas,” he says. “Outside of a major disaster like this, we mostly know trains now when they’re blocking traffic and we’re swearing at them. The rails are forgotten.”

MAINE

Jackman

Flags are at half-mast at the first stop on the U.S. side of the MM&A. Jackman is between funerals for two young women who have died in a car accident, and that’s the most immediate loss on the 800 residents’ minds.

But given that French is heard at a lunch counter on Old Canada Road, that the local phone directory is peppered with surnames such as Cormier and Gagnon and that one of the women who perished in the crash was named Jessica Giroux, people here are also thinking of their friends and relatives in Lac-Mégantic.

“It’s been a rough, no, a terrible couple weeks,” says Steve Banahan, a volunteer emergency responder who is sales manager at the Moose River Lumber sawmill. “People here have relatives over there. My son played hockey there. Everyone knows someone in Mégantic.”

In addition to dealing with grief, Mr. Banahan is managing a business headache: His sawmill normally relies on the MM&A to ship lumber to Montreal and then south. He’s using an alternate route southeastward through Bangor, but it adds $1,000 each to the usual $6,000-a-car cost of shipping to a destination like North Carolina.

Still, he stands up for the railway workers. “I find MM&A’s people are very hard-working, very honest. But the business has been struggling for 15 years, and was struggling before them. Sometimes when you’re struggling you can’t get everything done.”

Greenville

If Lac-Mégantic has a U.S. twin on the MM&A line, this lakeside oasis and northern Maine hub may be it. The collective memory in this town – 1,600 people wedged into a 200-metre strip of land between the rails and Moosehead Lake – is an archive of derailments past.

It’s Wednesday evening, and volunteer fire chief John Semko has asked the local town council – known as selectmen in these parts – for a special hearing to endorse his stern letter to MM&A demanding detailed rail inspections.

He recalls the two years in the late 1990s when Greenville had five derailments. Nobody died, but Mr. Semko says that was luck more than anything.

In October of 1998, a train loaded with butane derailed just after the locomotives had run past the hospital and the school (which is also the town evacuation centre) and under the only road connecting Greenville to the outside world. They rolled down an embankment into the town cemetery, landing on graves.

Evacuation was considered, but no leaks were found and the tanks seemed stable – and besides, a butane car was leaning precariously against a buttress below the only escape route.

“It was an incredibly tense time, and all the more frightening now, looking back,” Mr. Semko says.

The selectmen quickly endorse the demand for inspections.

An hour later, Peter Kreider is wrapping up supper rush at Kelly’s Landing, a restaurant at the bottom of the railroad embankment. A derailment in March of 1999 left two empty boxcars and a third loaded with wood pulp dangling over his restaurant.

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