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Canada Lac-Mégantic faces dire future with no train service

RCMP officers guard one of five locomotives about a kilometre away from the crash site July 9, 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Police have confirmed that the rail cars are being treated as a crime scene.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Freight trains will not run in Lac-Mégantic for months, according to federal investigators, a delay local business leaders warn will permanently damage the town.

Despite a picturesque main street once teeming with tourists, much of Lac-Mégantic's economy is based in its expansive industrial park. On Friday, federal investigators and police ruled out the possibility that rail service would be restored to area factories before a probe into the train disaster is complete.

"There is no question that a train will not operate here right now. We still have an enormous amount of work to do," said Jean Laporte, chief operating officer of the Transportation Safety Board. The investigation will "last months or more," he warned.

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In the days after an explosion and fire that claimed as many as 50 lives and left the village's downtown in ruins, local business leaders met with Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc. to draft a plan to return service to the town's factories within days.

"Without the train, Lac-Mégantic will die, too many jobs are linked to the rails," said Béland Audet, the head of transportation firm Logi-Bel.

A single spur off MM&A's main tracks leads to the vast industrial park north of the town centre. Only a few metres of that spur run through the expansive crime scene surrounding the disaster site. Business leaders, with the support of the town's mayor, had planned to ask the Quebec provincial police to pull back the edge of its crime scene to allow trains to resume.

However, high levels of benzene contaminate the area half a kilometre from the epicentre of the derailment, according to police spokesman Benoît Richard.

"I looked at the map and asked investigators, there's no way a train could pass there," Mr. Richard said, warning that a train could disrupt the wreckage that investigators are combing through.

According to the local Chamber of Commerce, 1,100 of the village's 6,000 people work in the industrial park. The local economy was not growing quickly before the disaster, but doing "alright," according to Pascale Hallé, the chamber's president.

Mr. Hallé said he spent Friday helping firms displaced by the fires. A number of companies have warned him that they are considering moving. Driving from business to business, Mr. Hallé said he is reminding owners that the village had a prosperous downtown.

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With nearly 40 buildings destroyed by the flames and explosions, much of the city's historic core is gone. Mr. Hallé lost two businesses in the disaster, but said he plans to rebuild.

Unless service is restored quickly, Mr. Audet warned that the village is in danger of becoming a "ghost town," faced by a collapse in its tourism industry and factories unable to export their goods.

"Let's not hide it, these factories are essential and they are putting out a cry for help. They need this railroad to be working," Mr. Hallé said.

While business leaders say they had 100 per cent support from Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche for the plan to use the spur, on Friday Ms. Roy-Laroche was hesitant to say she would support a push to alter the crime scene. "We are in the unknown."

Even once the crime scene is lifted, the mayor warned that the railway's opening could be delayed for weeks as wrecked tankers cars are removed.

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