The railway at the centre of the disaster in Lac-Mégantic has laid off a significant portion of its workers, less than two weeks after a deadly derailment brought trains to a standstill on the company’s tracks.
The chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway called the layoffs a “temporary” response. Reports indicated Wednesday that as many as 79 of the railway’s 179 employees were told by e-mail not to return to work, including 19 in Quebec.
“They are reducing the force in Quebec and Maine, consistent with a reduction in the volume of traffic that we are handling,” said Ed Burkhardt, blaming a bottleneck created by the derailment.
Despite support from Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche’s office and businesses in Lac-Mégantic for a quick resumption of service on the railroad, federal investigators have warned that no trains will run through the town for months.
The Quebec provincial police have confirmed that long stretches of the company’s track through town have been torn up as investigators search for bodies in the downtown crash site. As of Wednesday, 38 bodies had been pulled from the rubble, with another dozen people unaccounted for.
Daniel Roy, the head of the Quebec branch of the United Steelworkers, confirmed that 19 of the company’s 75 workers in the province were let go.
“Workers are angry,” Mr. Roy said, calling the company’s approach “cavalier.” No individual notices were given; the union was left to announce the layoffs at a planned meeting on Tuesday evening.
Among those losing their jobs were 13 workers who drove the MM&A’s trains, inspected the company’s 820 kilometres of track and maintained its locomotives and wagons. According to Mr. Roy, the railroad was already operating with a skeleton crew.
Newspapers in Maine reported on Wednesday that 60 of the railroad’s employees working at the company’s hub north of Bangor had been laid off.
While visiting Lac-Mégantic in the days after the crash, Mr. Burkhardt committed the beleaguered railroad’s resources to helping the town rebuild after fires and explosions gutted downtown. Calling the layoffs an “exercise in prudent management,” the railroad’s CEO confirmed that workers would be rehired when the company’s tracks were operating and traffic was rolling again.
Lac-Mégantic sits in the centre of the railroad’s network, joining its tracks in Quebec and Vermont to ports on the Atlantic Ocean. While the company has been able to reroute some traffic onto tracks owned by competitors, Mr. Burkhardt said the effort had so far been limited.
The railroad also faced the ire of Lac-Mégantic’s mayor on Wednesday as contractors working for the MM&A walked away from the crash site after telling municipal officials they feared they wouldn’t be paid. Ms. Roy-Laroche confirmed that contractors cleaning up oil had stopped working for several hours.
Work restarted just after 1 p.m. when Quebec Premier Pauline Marois told company officials her office would cover the cost of cleanup if the railroad was unable to make payments. A spokesman for the mayor said the railroad was still expected to pay for the removal of millions of litres of oil and benzene from Lac-Mégantic’s downtown.
“Typically the company responsible for a disaster pays for the cleanup,” François Moisan said.