Lac-Mégantic's latest effort to get back on its feet has been dealt a setback by a business whose name is all too familiar: Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, the insolvent rail company at the centre of the derailment that left 47 dead.
As of Monday, the tourist train Orford Express was to bring visitors to Lac-Mégantic and its pristine surroundings, which were left unscathed by the explosion that devastated the town's centre on July 6. Close to 5,000 tickets have already been sold for trips in the coming days. But late Friday, Transport Canada ordered the shutdown of the railway between Lennoxville and Lac-Mégantic. The department requested a more thorough examination of the rails and repairs after the inspection it carried out on Thursday.
"Transport Canada detected deficiencies on that portion of the track. Therefore, in order to ensure public safety, no train can travel on that track until corrective measures are taken by the company owner of the track [MM&A]," said spokesperson Marie-Anyk Côté in a written statement.
Faced with the prospect of turning down unhappy clients, Orford Express's controlling shareholder, André L'Espérance, scrambled to come up with a Plan B. Instead of travelling by train, the tourists will be bused back and forth between Sherbrooke and Lac-Mégantic, after a train trip between Bromont and Sherbrooke. On Monday, the tour's first clients made no complaints.
"When we told them why we were forced to do the last-minute change, and we explained to them why we felt it was still important to visit Lac-Mégantic as a show of solidarity, even if it was by bus, the people on the train started applauding," Mr. L'Espérance said. To his knowledge, no one has asked for a refund.
The idea for the Lac-Mégantic tour came in the fall of 2012, well before the train derailment. It was conceived as a one-season experience in partnership with wholesaler Groupe Voyages Québec, which resold the tour to travel agencies. But Mr. L'Espérance decided that if the Lac-Mégantic trip was successful, he would keep offering it.
Currently, Orford Express's tourist train, made up of three restaurant-coach cars, serves a gourmet meal while it travels from Sherbrooke to Eastmain. With more than 40,000 passengers per year, the Orford Express has become Sherbrooke's main tourist draw, said Denis Bernier, general director of Destination Sherbrooke, the city's tourism-promotion agency. With 60 per cent of those visitors coming from out of town, it has meant good business for the hotels and restaurants of the biggest city in the Eastern Townships.
Lac-Mégantic was hoping for a similar boon before tragedy struck. Mr. L'Espérance wasn't sure whether it was appropriate to invite tourists to a grieving city, but Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche told him it was a good way of rebuilding Lac-Mégantic. The Oxford Express travellers spend a couple of hours in the city and eat in one of its restaurants before they are bused back to Sherbrooke.
"It is even more important for people to come and visit us now," Ms. Roy-Laroche said.
"They will only get a taste of Lac-Mégantic," she added, "but when they find out how beautiful our region is outside of the destroyed downtown, they might want to come back for a longer stay."
There is still no word on how extensive the damage to the rails between Lennoxville and Lac-Mégantic is, and how quickly MM&A can repair them. Ms. Côté was unable to get more detailed information during the holiday weekend. MM&A president Robert Grindrod and the bankruptcy lawyers of its Canadian affiliate did not respond to interview requests.
Ms. Roy-Laroche had hoped that her city's rail service, interrupted since the derailment, would reopen before Christmas, but she now fears a longer delay. It is one thing to bus in sympathetic tourists. But this last-minute solution doesn't work for Lac Mégantic's wood-product exporters, which depend on rail transportation to remain competitive.