The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic rail line that runs through Lac-Mégantic, Que., was the subject of more than a dozen internal bulletins last month warning train operators to slow down to account for the condition of the tracks, company records show.
Concern over rail safety is growing in Canada as federal investigators work to determine what caused an MM&A train to derail in Lac-Mégantic last month, setting off a series of explosions that killed an estimated 47 people and flattened the downtown core. There is no indication that the state of the tracks played a role in the crash, but residents complain that the tracks are riddled with problems – despite past taxpayer-funded investments aimed at improving them.
A recent set of daily operating bulletins, distributed by MM&A and obtained by The Globe and Mail, instructed operators to reduce their speed in 23 locations between Montreal and Lac-Mégantic on account of rail, track or surface conditions. While some of the bulletins came into effect after the crash in Lac-Mégantic, others have been in place for months.
Railways may be required to reduce their track speed for a variety of reasons, including to account for damage to the tracks or weather-related problems, and to allow for repairs to take place. Federal regulations are designed to allow trains to continue to operate on damaged tracks – depending on the severity of the problem – as long as they reduce their speed to a defined level.
The majority of MM&A's Quebec tracks are designated as Class 3, which means they are permitted to carry freight at a maximum speed of 40 miles an hour, according to Transport Canada. The federal department measures railway speed and distance in miles. The designation also allows for less frequent inspections and reduced maintenance requirements compared with tracks that have higher speed limits.
The bulletins show that, for a recent day in July, the company instructed operators to reduce their speed to 25 miles an hour or less for the entire route between Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, southeast of Montreal, and Lac-Mégantic because of track, rail or surface conditions. A source familiar with MM&A's operations said the reduced speed limit was not unusual for the company.
In two small sections that are adjacent to the main line – on a siding in Brookport and the yard tracks at Sherbrooke – engineers were told to slow down to five miles an hour because of track and surface conditions. Other bulletins instructed drivers to slow down to 10 miles an hour in various locations along the main line, including one related to track conditions that covered a 17.7-kilometre stretch east of Magog, Que.
MM&A has received funding from several federal and provincial programs geared at improving infrastructure for shortlines in the province in recent years, government records show.
The company was given nearly $5-million in subsidies through a 2007 program funded by the governments of Quebec and Canada. As part of the program, MM&A completed several track-improvement projects and was reimbursed by the two governments for two-thirds of the total cost, said Sarah Bensadoun, a spokeswoman for Transport Quebec.
The company also received another $1.5-million from Transport Quebec over the past 10 years through provincial infrastructure and construction programs.
MM&A was eligible to have more of its infrastructure costs subsidized under the 2007 federal and provincial program if it completed more work, Ms. Bensadoun added, but the remaining money was shifted to other shortline railways in Quebec in 2009 after MM&A ran into financial difficulties.
MM&A chairman Edward Burkhardt could not be reached for comment last week about the state of the company's tracks. However, Mr. Burkhardt said in an earlier interview with The Globe that he viewed concerns about the company's track maintenance as "extraneous" to the Lac-Mégantic crash.
"I would point out that infrastructure had nothing to do with what occurred at Lac-Mégantic, so people are pointing out a bunch of what I would call extraneous things," he said.
Cowansville, Que., Mayor Arthur Fauteux, whose community is located along another MM&A line that runs southeast toward Vermont, said it seems as though the company has dealt with infrastructure issues by slowing its trains down, rather than fixing problems with the tracks. He said the wooden rail ties on some portions of the track near Cowansville have disintegrated and some of the metal spikes can be pulled out by hand.
"For the municipalities, that's not acceptable," said Mr. Fauteux, who was part of a group of local officials that met recently with Transport Minister Lisa Raitt to discuss rail safety.
Ms. Raitt's office referred questions about MM&A's track maintenance to Transport Canada, which provided information about the company's track classification but did not respond to follow-up questions.