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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 ...

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.

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