Last weekend's rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic has torn apart the long-standing relationship between a town and railway that defined the municipality for nearly 130 years.
But even before Saturday morning's deadly derailment of more than 70 oil cars and the ensuing fire that has killed upward of 13 people, forced the evacuation of 2,000 residents and destroyed about 30 buildings, safety concerns about the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway had been mounting in the area.
Through interviews with officials and residents and a review of official documents, a picture has emerged of a vibrant Eastern Townships community that had grown increasingly worried about the state and path of a train track that wound through town, crisscrossing city streets and the now-destroyed downtown. Those trains were getting longer, carrying highly flammable crude oil in outdated containers and travelling on tracks that often needed repair.
"It concerned a lot of people to see hundreds of tankers in front of your face every day," said Jean St-Pierre, a professional recruiter whose wife owns the town's Hotel Le Chateau. "You didn't feel comfortable being so close to this."
The geometry of the track is among the many things transport officials are investigating, chief federal investigator Donald Ross of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada told reporters on Sunday.
Despite concerns about the tracks and the tankers running on them, there is no indication either might have made a difference. "I can't imagine a tank car that's solid enough to withstand what happened here," MM&A's chairman and controlling shareholder, Ed Burkhardt, told La Presse.
Not long ago, town officials were openly praising MM&A, a short-line railway that was teetering on the edge of financial ruin before making a few key moves in recent years, including securing a contract to move oil from the western United States to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B. In August, 2009, Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche officially inaugurated a new MMA spur into a local industrial park, praising the development – largely government financed – for bringing a much-needed economic boost to the town.
But those views would give way to a more troubled relationship and concerns about other sections of the company's track through town.
Last fall, the municipality and the county, MRC du Granit, issued a report on "serious erosion" of a 30-metre segment of track that they feared threatened a culvert on the western edge of town just steps from a beach and campground. They pressed MMA and federal authorities about the effects a derailment of "toxic products or contaminants" could have on the area, according to municipal records. In early 2013, the federal government told the town that MMA had corrected the problem.
A few months later, the town again pressed MMA for changes, this time to fix a part of the track on the eastern edge of the town just past the site of last weekend's derailment. The town council agreed in a unanimous motion passed on May 6 to ask MMA to fix a "considerably damaged portion of track after the city received numerous complaints."
Last month, 13,000 litres of diesel fuel spilled from rail cars in town.
Further up the line in the municipality of Nantes, where the derailed MM&A train began its fateful journey, the company has recently done repair work. On a spot on the track where nine oil tankers now stand, it appeared dirt and rocks between the railway ties had been dug up and scooped to either side of the tracks – deep holes, three across, one on either side of the track and one underneath. Resident André Lavigne said the holes were the result of repairs the rail company completed about two weeks ago. He said the train used to tilt as it passed his home, and the company had come in to adjust the tracks so the cars would stand more upright.
"They left them like that a year, and then after they came and repaired them two weeks ago," his sister-in-law Diane Lavigne added.
Meanwhile, 20-year-old Lac-Mégantic resident Marc-Antoine Lecours said a friend who works on the tracks often expressed safety concerns. "A month ago, he told us, 'The tracks here are finished,'" Mr. Lecours said. "We spoke about it already, they need to be changed right away. He's been working on the tracks for six years and he said he never saw tracks as bad as those ones."
Other residents said the municipality had pressed MM&A to move the tracks away from the middle of the town or rebuild them so they traversed more gradual curves. Ms. Roy-Laroche refused to address these and other related questions with reporters on Monday. "Listen, do not ask me any more questions about the company. I just can't talk about it," she said.
Ray Lafontaine, a local entrepreneur whose son, two daughters-in-law and an employee were lost in the disaster, lashed out at MMA this week and criticized officials for allowing the railway to run trains carrying petroleum through town. But Mr. Lafontaine was not just an angry resident affected personally: his construction company had performed maintenance work on the tracks, which he told the Sherbrooke Tribune were "like rolling on overloaded tracks that should have been changed a century ago."
Mr. Lafontaine, overcome by emotion, declined to speak on Monday with The Globe and Mail. "The tracks are not adequate and we know because we often repair the tracks for them," he told The Tribune. "A week ago, they had a derailment. Another time, a foot of track was missing. ... When a piece of your track is missing, something isn't right."
It has emerged that the tank cars involved in the disaster were an older type that regulators had criticized for years. The surviving cars that were pulled from the blast had stencilled markings indicating they were the type that have been described as prone to puncturing because of their thin metal shells. Over the years, regulators have tried to limit their use, citing poor design.
In an interview, MM&A director Yves Bourdon defended the company's maintenance record. "If any location needs repair, it will be repaired," he said. Mr. Bourdon confirmed that some people wanted the route through town changed, but added: "They might have tried, but who's going to bear the cost? In Canada, cities were built around rail tracks, and so it's a fact of life. … We can't afford [to move them], nobody can afford to do that."
With reports from Verity Stevenson