Businesses in Lac-Mégantic that depend on rail service are pushing to get trains running again less than a week after a runaway freight derailed and destroyed the downtown core, leaving 24 people dead and dozens more missing.
Those companies are working with Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc. – whose train was carrying crude oil crashed and exploded on Saturday morning – aiming to reopen a stretch of track connecting the town’s industrial park to a main line that continues east toward Maine.
Béland Audet, head of the transportation company Logi-Bel, said the town’s mayor is behind the plan “100 per cent” and instigated a meeting with businesses in the industrial park earlier this week. Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche did not respond to a request for comment on the plan on Thursday.
“We can’t even comprehend the tragedy. I’ve lost friends,” Mr. Audet said in his office, just over a kilometre from the crash site. “But we need to think about the economy, turn a page and look forward.”
Many residents still grieving over friends and relatives are adamant the train should not run through the town again, with some vowing to move away if that happens in the future.
“I don’t think the train will ever, ever pass through the town again,” said Étienne Poirier, who works for one of Lac-Mégantic’s largest employers and rail shippers.
The spur splits from the main line about 600 metres southeast of the crash site and passes through the eastern edge of town. Only a small stretch runs through the area that police have cordoned off. Proponents of the plan are asking for the police line to be pushed back – a move that highlights the rail system’s central role in the small Quebec town, at once a source of grief and hope for economic recovery.
The provincial police force, Sureté du Québec, has blocked off most of Lac-Mégantic’s downtown while it investigates and scours the area for signs of those still missing.
Asked about the idea on Thursday, Sergeant Benoît Richard of the SQ said the force has no plans to move the barrier back.
“As we are speaking, there is no moving of the crime scene because it’s a crime scene,” he said. “We have some work to do there. We’re not finished over there, and we’re not going to move anything in the red perimeter. It’s going to stay like this until we do our investigation.”
Asked if it was a matter of days, weeks, or months, he replied: “I have no idea.”
He said the area is not safely cleared because of the amount of petroleum and benzene in the ground. “I’m not going to let the train pass over there and touch anything.”
MM&A chairman Edward Burkhardt, who made his first appearance in Lac-Mégantic on Wednesday, said the company’s financial resources “are going to be devoted” to helping residents relocate and rebuild their homes.
But he also made it clear his company intends to continue to use the rail line, pointing out that industries in the town depend on the railway. “These guys are going to have rail service or else they’re going to lay their people off and have more problems than we create.”
Yves Bourdon, a member of MM&A’s board who has acted as a spokesman for the company over the past week, said the effort is about supporting people who have been put out of work since the crash. “For us, it’s not a money-making thing, it’s more of trying to help assist the city.”
Roger Charbonneau, head of operations for Bestar, which makes ready-to-assemble furniture and employs 115 people, said the company supports re-opening the railway if safety is improved. He admitted that the plan will likely be controversial.
“It’s a hot subject in the industrial park,” he said on Thursday, looking visibly shaken. “Many people in the community think this is a train from hell, they never want it back. … This is going to be a tough debate.”
In August, 2009, Ms. Roy-Laroche, the mayor, praised the new MM&A spur as a much-needed economic boost to the town.
Mr. Audet said he is hopeful the SQ will approve the plan to bring trains back to the area in the coming days. “Without the train, Lac Mégantic will not survive.”
With reports from Daniel Bitonti and Sean Silcoff