When most Canadians find themselves at a railway crossing and a train goes by, they see it as an inconvenience. When it happens to Louise Couture, it is like seeing her daughter’s killer pass by.
“For me the train is an aggressor, like a human being that took my daughter’s life,” Ms. Couture said on Tuesday from her home in Lac-Mégantic. “I get a knot in my throat. I have to turn around to avoid looking at it.”
Ms. Couture’s 24-year-old daughter, Kathy Clusiault, was one of 47 people killed in 2013 when a runaway train derailed in the core of Lac-Mégantic and exploded. To Ms. Couture and the many people in Lac-Mégantic who lost friends and loved ones in the tragedy, news that the train will be banished from the downtown comes as a profound relief.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau are scheduled to be in Lac-Mégantic on Friday to announce construction of a railway bypass, answering a request from the community that began almost as soon as the embers of the July 6, 2013, explosion were put out.
The presence of the train tracks is not just like an unhealed scar on the heart of the devastated town. The trains are a daily reminder of the rail catastrophe, haunting people with each whistle and rumble on the tracks.
“We lived through an unprecedented trauma on July 6, 2013, and the public needs to see the train leave downtown,” Mayor Julie Morin said in an interview on Tuesday. “We were seriously hurt by this tragedy. The train wakes us up at night, it makes it hard to sleep. The sound brings people back to exactly the moment [of the tragedy].”
Mr. Trudeau first pledged to speed up construction of a bypass at a town hall in January last year. This week, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, a government official confirmed that Ottawa will pick up 60 per cent of the tab for the $133-million project, with the Quebec government covering the other 40 per cent.
Mr. Garneau has called the bypass a “social rebuilding project” to point out it is not only an issue of rail safety, but also psychological healing.
“I care deeply about this file, and I know the people of Lac-Mégantic are waiting for it. So I’m impatient,” Mr. Garneau said on Tuesday.
The train passes through town once or twice a day, including at night, according to the mayor. She says removing the tracks will help boost economic development in the centre of town, since the train’s passage has deterred some investors. Several people said the once-vibrant downtown is still suffering from moroseness because of the aftereffects of the calamity.
“We had the worst environmental tragedy in North America because there were 47 victims,” the mayor said. “So some people were reluctant to set up downtown, because the train still goes by.”
Removing the tracks could also nudge people toward closure, especially after three rail workers were acquitted in January of charges of criminal negligence causing death in the disaster. Many townspeople placed responsibility at the feet of Ottawa and the now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) Railway.
Research on both adults and children found they continue to live with psychological wounds from the tragedy. A study carried out last fall on 85 adults in Lac-Mégantic found that virtually all wanted the railway tracks moved, said Danielle Maltais, a professor of social work at the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi.
“To them, trains used to be something pleasant. Now they’re synonymous with catastrophe, death and destruction,” said Prof. Maltais, an expert on the psychological and social effects of catastrophes. “Moving the track will be a big relief.”
To Ms. Couture, it will mean coming downtown without fear. She often returns to where her daughter died, on the main street of town, pausing at the spot where her daughter came out of her apartment after no doubt witnessing the explosion. “I know it’s not the machine’s fault that my daughter died. But it’s how I see it,” Ms. Couture said. “And I just don’t want to have it in my face any more.”