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Lac-Mégantic has a reluctant rebirth as first trains roll through town

A locomotive passes on the tracks through Lac Megantic, December 18, 2013. It is the first time trains rolled through the town since a train derailed in July, 2013, killing 47 people.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

They did not cry in protest, nor did they cheer. The first freight train of Lac-Mégantic's second life lumbered out of town at 2:53 p.m., passing a handful of people who shed no tears but shared a sombre thought that life must go on.

This was Lac-Mégantic's reluctant rebirth as a railway town five months after a runaway train loaded with crude oil jumped the tracks, exploded and wiped out a good portion of the business district, killing 47 people.

On Wednesday, a single grey locomotive towed a half-dozen empty cars and six more loaded with particle board from the Tafisa wood products producer, and started up the track toward Montreal. The train rolled at about 10 kilometres per hour up the long hill out of town. It was the same hill that five months ago used gravity to power a runaway train headed in the opposite direction that hit 10 times that speed just before impact.

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François Jacques lost everything but the crematorium at his funeral home when the train blew up, and in the weeks that followed he worked out of warehouses and trailers to help bury 25 of the dead – almost all of whom were friends or acquaintances.

For Mr. Jacques, the train was a welcome sight. He grew up in an apartment above the funeral home. As a youngster, the 11 p.m. arrival of the daily train signalled it was time to go to sleep. "It's always been part of my life, and without it there is no life in this town. Without it there is no industry, and no industry means no commerce," said Mr. Jacques, 43. "It's a return to normal, and without the train there's no other normal for Lac-Mégantic. There aren't very many people against it."

Louise Andrews, who lost several friends in the disaster, said the sight of the trains provoked some melancholy, but having freight moving again means jobs in town. "I'm happy … well, let's say this brings us no joy, but it's very important to this city that this day has come," Ms. Andrews said.

The first run Wednesday on the rails of the bankrupt Montreal, Maine & Atlantic did not go without a hitch. Due to depart at noon, the train was delayed several hours because frigid temperatures had snapped a rail about 20 kilometres to the west when a locomotive passed on a test run.

Simon Desjardins, the manager of the railway's Canadian operations, said there was nothing unusual about such a break. "I can assure you everything is fine, it's the kind of thing that happens at this time of year," Mr. Desjardins said.

Away from the tracks, it was business as usual for most of the town. Even in the disaster zone, the signs of a slow return to life are all around. Mr. Jacques converted an apartment building next to his crematorium, and Jacques et Fils funeral home moved in last week. Across the tracks from the old downtown, a new shopping district has sprung up. The liquor store is already open, and other businesses are setting up.

Behind the new shopping centre, a woman named Mary watched the grey locomotive roll toward the Tafisa complex to pick up the freight cars. Inside the locomotive, her husband, the engineer, was at the controls. He smiled and waved.

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Mary and her husband have a house in Sherbrooke but live at the foot of Mont-Mégantic. She shops in Lac-Mégantic and has family who lost a home in the fire. She said her husband has heard all kinds of insults since his company's train hit the town, but people have also been kind. While a lot of railway employees were laid off or took stress leave, he had 30 years experience and managed to keep his job running the local switcher locomotives used to put together trains.

He never took the insults too much to heart, she said. "He's not the kind who wears stress others put on him. He's all about doing his job," said Mary, who did not want her full name in the news.

But normal is a matter of degree in Lac-Mégantic. The old downtown remains a ghostly construction and decontamination zone, with checkpoints at every entrance. Even Mr. Jacques is dealing with heavy fallout. Inside his new building, he has the cremated remains of about 200 people that were salvaged from his destroyed columbarium.

"Some of the urns are in better shape than others. It got so hot, even the names engraved on the bronze urns melted. We still don't know who we have, and who we don't have," he said. "Luckily we took photos just before the accident, so we'll be able to identify many of the urns. It's difficult, but we're working through it, along with everything else."

The next train out of Lac-Mégantic is expected Jan. 4.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More


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