There is a sign marking the start of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway line south of Montreal, but it's hardly needed: Simply look for the piles of discarded track and cracked and rotting ties amid the ragweed, out past the point where the Canadian Pacific Railway ends in a well-groomed rail bed.
"I can't tell you how many times we've had to call the city to get them to clean up their tracks," says Amélie Gervais, the owner of Bistro La Trinquette in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. Her quaint restaurant, with its vast courtyard patio, overlooks the Chambly Canal at the start of the MM&A line.
Railroads still count distances in miles, and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu stands at what was once Mile 20 of the mighty Canadian Pacific Railway's "short line" extension from Montreal to the Atlantic Ocean, which helped knit Canada from Pacific to Atlantic for 105 years.
Then, in the 1990s, the CPR effectively declared Montreal the end of the line, abandoning or selling almost everything to the east. Today, this is Mile 1 of the modest 510-mile network run by MM&A, the biggest of a series of a handful of operators keeping this route to New Brunswick alive.
People from here to Saint John, and Searsport, Me., have watched in horror as their rail-line neighbours in Lac-Mégantic await the chance to bury 47 dead from the crash of a runaway oil train July 6. This week The Globe and Mail travelled to stops along the line, finding towns united in mourning, but feelings about the tracks very mixed.
Canadian and U.S. government inspectors may have checked every inch in the past three weeks, but many people, especially in Quebec, still note obvious signs of disrepair. Others, especially in Maine, describe a plucky railway with limited resources and 170 employees struggling valiantly to maintain a vital link.
Not many would like to see the railway abandoned – they see the train as vital to keeping rare manufacturing jobs in their regions.
The most common sentiment is expressed by Maurice Bernier, the head of an economic development council in southern Quebec: "What matters to us is the future of rail, not the future of MM&A."
That issue extends beyond this particular rail line. People may be angry with Edward Burkhardt, the bombastic head of the Chicago-based holding company that owns MM&A, but many would agree with his recent statement: "We all wish the national rail infrastructure was in better condition, but after years of starvation while nearly all government assistance has gone into highway development, this is quite representative of the thousands of miles of light-duty branch line in the U.S. and Canada."
The capricious weather of recent months and years has served notice on the dangers of neglected infrastructure in general. But the recent centrality of oil transport to the rail business raises particular alarms.
Those black tankers have become a constant presence on rails across the country. In Saskatchewan, they are reinstalling rail-to-ship Prairie crude to coastal ports and southern and eastern refineries. The Black Trains, as some in Quebec call them, now haunt the rails from coast to coast, and people will not soon forget the price paid in Lac-Mégantic.
"This is our Sept. 11," says Myriam Girouard, a 20-year-old bartender at the bistro in Saint-Jean. "People will be talking about this in 100 years. The question is what do we do about it now."
Most MM&A cargo moving eastward is picked up at Canadian Pacific's vast St-Luc rail yard in Montreal's west end. A train like the 72-car one from North Dakota that exploded in Lac-Mégantic is moved along borrowed CP track before shifting to MM&A tracks and finally landing in Farnham Yard, MM&A's main Canadian staging area.
While St-Luc yard is a four-kilometre-long model of military-style precision, the mess at Farnham Yard has long irritated many of the town's 8,500 residents. Farnham was the first town to demand the railway improve its regime of inspection and maintenance, a call now joined by dozens of municipalities and higher authorities in Quebec and Maine.
What residents here see in their own backyards (three-quarters of them live within 500 metres of the rails) helps explain why. The two-storey brick Canadian headquarters for MM&A looks like an abandoned railway station from the outside. Maintenance vehicles appear to have been built from a salvage yard, with mismatched fenders and hoods.
"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.
"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."
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."
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.
All that lies between the eatery and the embankment now, Mr. Kreider points out, are the six large propane tanks that keep the stoves running. "I've had visions of waking up in the middle of the lake one day," he says.
Not everyone in Greenville is so wary. Jeff Pomerleau, who has been its police chief for six years, says he moved here partly out of nostalgia for the railway that ran past his childhood home in the French section of the state capital, Augusta. "There's a certain romance to the train, and I certainly feel it."
A few months ago, Mr. Pomerleau noticed the long, dark oil tanker trains that had suddenly started appearing, and he and Mr. Semko met with MM&A to learn about the cargo and appropriate disaster responses.
It was the type of information mayors up and down the Quebec side of the tracks say they did not have.
Mr. Pomerleau says MM&A staff shared radio frequencies to ease communication. When he calls to complain about a signal light being out, it's usually fixed the next day.
"I'm sure some Canadians don't want to hear this, I've been pretty impressed with MM&A."
Brownville Junction has more sidings and switches than houses or businesses. For a small operation, the MM&A is pulled in a remarkable number of directions, and it is here here those conflicting priorities intersect.
There's a pair of small railways owned by giant J.D. Irving Inc. called the Eastern Maine and the New Brunswick Southern. They travel up the MM&A line leading to New Brunswick to feed pulp and paper mills and the huge Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
To the north, the MM&A once tried to abandon 233 miles of track ending near Madawaska. The state of Maine purchased the track for $20-million and spent millions more upgrading it, rescuing two dozen businesses that relied on rail. Another Irving railway, Northern Maine, started leasing the tracks two years ago.
To the south is Bangor and Searsport, Maine's second largest deepwater port. Preserving the little-used network of rail leading to the port has been a major priority for the state.
Hermon, outside Bangor
The Bangor yards of the MM&A are just outside the state's largest city, and they are surrounded by industry that has turned its back on rail.
All around the tracks are gravel crushers, fuel and propane distributors, warehouses, and shipping companies that are decidedly road-oriented. Tracks are paved over and loading docks next to rail sidings are overgrown with weeds. Many businesses have simply fenced off the rails.
The Bangor and Aroostook Railway was a Maine institution for 111 years. For the first 70, its main job was to haul potatoes from northern Maine. A shift to greater quantities of pulp and paper accelerated in the 1960s and ended up in bankruptcy in 2002.
Eleven years after it disappeared, though, it remains far more visible than the MM&A. Faded blue Bangor and Aroostook Railway (BAR) signs more frequently adorn bridges and rolling stock.
Trackside, nothing announces the main yard for MM&A, unless an abandoned shed with a BAR logo or an old, parked rail-maintenance vehicle count.
A young man drives up in a blue compact Chevrolet and is asked for directions to the MM&A yard. "This is it," he says. He is here to unload three of the railroad's tanker cars full of corn starch. He's the only person around and it is his only task of the day.
The MM&A offices are on the other side of the yard, distant from parked boxcars, in a tidy low brick building. Managers in golf shirts are gathered around a board table. A staffer politely asks a reporter to leave, saying the company has nothing further to say.
This is the end of the line for the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, and a locomotive engineer working on one train jokes that the "end of the line" may hold more truth for MM&A than just this final mile of track.
The company is assailed by lawsuits and accused of failing to pay contractors $4-million, and governments are certain to try to recoup the tens of millions they are spending on disaster recovery.
The engineer has no illusions. He's survived the bankruptcy of the old Bangor and Aroostook Railway in 2002, and the first round of MM&A layoffs that sent home about a third of employees in mid-July. But he believes he will be out of a job in the next couple of weeks, and that the rest of the railway is unlikely to last long.
But he still believes in the viability of the tracks. "There's enough freight going through to keep a railroad running," says the 40-year-old father of two, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's just a question of who is going to be running it."
For nearly an hour, he explains how his train works, describes his distrust of management and talks about how railroading "has changed a lot" in his 14 years in it. The engineer says that he enjoys the life, but his wife hates the unpredictable hours.
The one thing he refuses to discuss is the cause of the crash in Lac-Mégantic. "You hear a lot of things, but until the investigation is done, it's only rumours," he says.
Today the engineer is linking up tankers full of clay slurry and sulphuric acid to go eventually to an Irving pulp-and-paper mill in New Brunswick. He's using one of MM&A's remote control locomotives, and it is exhausting, repetitive work on a 30-degree day.
A 10-pound, grey, metal remote-control box hangs from his reflective safety vest. Using knobs marked "brakes" and "throttle" and switches for the bell and the horn, along with about a dozen other controls, the engineer repeats the same routine for four hours, hitching cars together, checking the hitches and brakes, and moving trains from track to track.
He likes the remote control for yard work like this, he says, but it's not ideal. "It's not as good as a second set of hands. It would be best to have both." That's even more true for work on the main lines.
The engineer points a mile down the track, to the port at the estuary of the Penobscot River. "That's the end of the line. You go off the end of that track, you're going in the ocean."
It's a busy little port, but most of the action is boat traffic from the Irving refinery in Saint John coming in to a depot that sends fuel out to the region by road on semi-tankers. One or two cargo ships appear every month carrying road salt, gypsum and windmill parts. Most of that goes out by road, too.
"The clay is pretty much the only thing going out of here by rail," the engineer says.
He comes from three generations of railroad men who mostly worked on the BAR. "I knew what I was getting into," he says.
Mr. Booth, the Quebec railway historian, describes many of the early railroads as redundant, with ill-conceived and poorly funded lines thrown together under intense competition and fiscal mismanagement.
Companies such as BAR and CPR scooped up most of the lines that didn't die and went on to dominate the region for a century.
Since it all blew apart in the 1990s, small companies have come and gone, and the Quebec and Maine governments have at times intervened to rescue rail.
Some combination of government and private enterprise may still back a future for these rails. The engineer says he hopes Irving, which has quietly expanded railway operations in recent years, will step up and take over the rest. But he admits it will be a tough sell in the wake of Lac-Mégantic: "I can't even guess what is going to happen."
More than 130 years after the tracks first were laid, the railways are again at a fork, with no guarantee of a branch line ahead.