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Emergency personnel continue to comb through the debris in the search for remains of the missing in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 9, 2013.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

An investigation into the disaster and its causes.

The first steam locomotive to arrive in Lac La Biche back in 1915 was greeted with cheers. Today the 100-car oil trains that run through the heart of the Northern Alberta town are met with a mixture of anger and worry.

The tracks bisect the town. The hospital lies on one side, the fire station on the other. Over the past five years, as the oil boom escalated and more and more bitumen from Fort McMurray was shipped by rail, the oil trains grew long enough to block all the town's railway crossings for extended periods of time.

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"We've had blockings up to 45 minutes," Mayor Aurel Langevin said. "If we have an ambulance that's waiting to get to the hospital and it's caught up in this traffic, there could be some very serious consequences." And what is now a few trains a day will likely increase. "We've received some notice, some forecasts [from the oil industry], that we can expect up to eight trains a day coming through our community – eight trains of 100 cars or more," the mayor said.

One might think the town would have the ability to tell the railway to manage the crossings better. But the plight of Lac La Biche illustrates the problems that cities and towns face in dealing with railways in their own backyard: They have no power.

The power balance – or imbalance – was thrust into the national spotlight in July when Lac-Mégantic erupted in flames in the worst railway disaster in Canadian history. The train, carrying 72 cars of explosive crude, derailed in the Quebec town, killing 47 people. But when the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway began moving large amounts of oil through town on a regular basis, the people living there weren't consulted. The town had no say.

Even before Lac-Mégantic, though, 2013 had become the year when long-simmering tensions between Canada's federally regulated railways and the country's municipalities bubbled to the surface. From British Columbia and Alberta to Manitoba and Quebec, the disputes have differed in specific causes, but all stem from the new era of moving oil and related products in mass amounts by rail – and the longer trains associated with the oil boom.

Bestowed with federal powers that date back to the writing of the Constitution, when railways were nation-builders, the industry lies out of the reach of lawmakers at the provincial and municipal levels. Federal legislation ensured that a national network of rails could be created and that companies weren't hindered by a patchwork of rules varying from city to city or province to province, slowing the pace of commerce.

"The provinces and the municipalities have no authority over these federal railways," said Kenneth Peel, a Toronto lawyer specializing in Canadian railway law. "So a complaint about how they're running their business, by and large, is not something the federal railway companies have to pay legal attention to."

ENGINES OF COMMERCE

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Railways move $200-billion worth of goods across Canada each year, according to the Railway Association of Canada. Most household products, from clothes to appliances and chemicals, likely encountered the country's railway system at some point.

The industry is also crucial in moving some of the most hazardous materials. When cities require chlorine to operate their water-treatment plants, for example, they often rely on railways to deliver that extremely dangerous cargo.

But with federal regulations governing the railways, there are few avenues of recourse for the people who live in the cities and towns through which the trains pass. In the case of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, a Globe and Mail investigation found the federal government placed no added safety restrictions on the industry's decision to move mass quantities of potentially dangerous crude and that warnings about the explosiveness of the oil were ignored.

Ten days before the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe shook the country, another rail accident – the derailment of a Canadian Pacific train in Calgary – had already become a poster child for railway-versus-city dysfunction.

Details of what happened differ, but some facts are not in dispute. In the early morning hours of June 27, as Calgary battled rising floodwaters and raging rivers, a CP engineer drove a train carrying petroleum products across a rail bridge near the edge of downtown. What he didn't know was that beneath the river's surface, debris and the rushing current had battered the structures holding the 101-year-old bridge in place. As the foundation cracked, the bridge tilted and a rail car jumped the tracks, coming to rest on the side of the damaged bridge. Six cars carrying some form of petroleum products dangled precariously over the Bow River.

For city fire crews arriving on the scene, the immediate question was: What was in the cars? Would it be noxious if the cars ruptured, poisonous if the contents spilled into the river or explosive if a spark ignited the vapours? The placards on the tankers didn't give a clear enough answer. And when the city sought further information, the answers weren't easy to get, said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

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"The derailment happened just before 4 a.m., and at 9 a.m. I found myself yelling at CP, saying, 'What is in the cars? Tell me now exactly what is in the cars,' " Mr. Nenshi said in an interview. "This was many hours later. It's a simple question, one would think."

The paperwork for the train was incomplete, the mayor said, and CP was scrambling to track down information on the contents as fire crews tried to stabilize the train. It was eventually determined that the cars were filled with diluent, a hazardous material used in pipelines to make thick oil flow better. "I have no regulatory authority over these guys, but it's my guys risking their lives when these things happen," Mr. Nenshi fumed to local TV cameras.

CP chief executive officer Hunter Harrison remembers the emergency differently. He says the railway gave fire officials at the scene the necessary information and accuses the mayor of grandstanding ahead of the city's fall election. "The mayor was standing on a soapbox trying to make a big play," Mr. Harrison said.

"I was there. I crawled under the car and inspected," Mr. Harrison said. "I went to the fire chief and said: Here's what happened. … They shut down the town – it was overkill. There was more police and firemen than I had ever seen."

The dispute between the head of Canada's second-largest railway and the mayor of one of the country's biggest cities is a glimpse into the divide between cities and railways when it comes to sharing information, even in emergencies. Because the bridge belonged to the railway, it was federally regulated land. The city had no idea the bridge wasn't anchored in the bedrock, as the rest of Calgary's bridges were, nor could city hall order CP to reinforce the bridge. When the city asked for the blueprints to examine the structure, CP refused, Mr. Nenshi said. Under federal rules, the railway's authority over the bridge superseded the city's rights.

Mr. Nenshi can't understand why railways won't share more information, provided the city agrees to keep it confidential. Mr. Harrison says the mayor is arguing for municipal regulation of the railways, which would create a disjointed series of rules that would serve only to impede business.

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A day after the derailment, Mr. Harrison dismissed suggestions that CP should stop moving trains across the flooded river via an alternate bridge, at least until the waters receded. "We're jeopardizing commerce," he said. Later he suggested that the Calgary mayor "is way overstepping" his jurisdiction.

Although the two have attempted to find some common ground after the derailment, Mr. Nenshi described his relations with the railway as "the most challenging corporate relationship I've faced in this job."

POWER IMBALANCE

At the heart of the problem is the imbalance of power: A railway doesn't have to listen to a city official.

In Lac La Biche, Mr. Langevin found this out when he met with CN to discuss a solution to the long delays at railway crossings in town – and his fears that someone could die if an emergency vehicle couldn't quickly get where it needed to go.

Federal regulations say a crossing can't be blocked longer than five minutes, but locals say those rules are rarely respected. If emergency responders encounter a train on the tracks, they must radio Canadian National Railway to ask permission to cross, though moving the train is never quick.

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The town, which has an annual capital budget of $40-million, doesn't have the money to build tunnels or overpasses, so Mr. Langevin proposed moving CN's rail yard – which he believes is the source of the train congestion – outside of town.

"The first meeting we had with some senior people in CN, they said: Fine, if you want to have those switching yards moved, go ahead. It's going to cost you $10-million and you have to pay for it," Mr. Langevin said. "So I said: Well, that's fine for you to say that, but at what point in time does a good-corporate-citizen scenario factor into these conversations? We were basically told they don't."

Mr. Langevin and others, including Lac La Biche Councillor John Nowak and more than a dozen residents who have posted on a Facebook page, complain about trains blocking crossings for long periods of time – either by going slowly or stopping. Numerous postings mention the risk of emergency vehicles being unable to pass.

CN disputes there are frequent delays. "We do move trains through town, and sometimes build trains in the yard there, but this does not normally involve stopping trains for any length of time," Warren Chandler, CN's senior manager of public affairs, said in an e-mail.

He said the major concern in town is trespassing, as people walk through CN's property to get to the other side of town. Mr. Langevin agrees that's a problem – but certainly not the biggest.

In the absence of rules, it often comes down to how well local officials and railways can work together. In Slave Lake, Alta., the town faces the same issue with trains cutting off the RCMP detachment from the hospital and fire station.

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"The first question I ask is: Where is the fire? The second is: Can I get my guys there?" said Jamie Coots, chief of the Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service. The town has worked with CN crews to move trains in an emergency, which has worked. "It can be very nerve-wracking," he said.

Trains are becoming such an issue, Mr. Coots says the town is considering building another firehall so that Slave Lake is protected on both sides of the track.

Mr. Langevin wants a better fix to the problem. "It's tough," he said. "When you're dealing with the railways, they've got more power than the federal government."

REFUSING TO WAIT

For some people, the boom in shipping oil by rail – and the inability of local governments to have a say in how railways operate – is unacceptable. After the Lac-Mégantic disaster, The Globe went to Hermon, Me., where MM&A is based.

On the railway corridor leading north to Quebec, the concerns in Maine are no different than they are in Canada. However, Read Brugger, a soft-spoken retired mailman, decided to take matters into his own hands.

Last year, Mr. Brugger stopped his grey Toyota at a railway crossing in the town of Fairfield, where he lives, and waited for a train to pass. He was accustomed to the short delays and expected to see the usual 20 or 30 lumber cars trundle past.

But as his wait grew longer, Mr. Brugger, 63, soon realized he was witnessing something he'd never seen before. More than 100 freight cars rumbled by – a chain of black cylindrical oil tankers that stretched for nearly two kilometres. They rolled past homes, backyards, the elementary school and the town's 112-year-old library. Each carried the same blunt warning: Hazardous materials. Flammable. "What the hell is this?" he remembers wondering aloud, stunned at the sight.

What Mr. Brugger didn't realize was that he was witnessing the dawn of a new industry, as upwards of 80,000 barrels of oil made their way to a New Brunswick refinery, riding on rails that were designed a century ago for shipping lumber, coal and grain.

What bothered him most was the lack of public consultation. Residents of the town were the last to know about the oil moving through, so Mr. Brugger decided to do something about it. On a warm June day, he gathered a small group of like-minded neighbours and set up a blockade on the tracks, preventing an oil train from passing through town. When police disbanded the protest after two hours, Mr. Brugger was arrested.

If that much oil was going to be moving through towns like his, there needed to be public discussions, he figured. Otherwise something bad could happen. Nine days later it did – in Lac-Mégantic.

"When I started this," Mr. Brugger said, "my biggest fear was that the old bridge in town would fall down and the oil goes into the water. It wasn't this," he said of the Quebec catastrophe. "This is horrible."

SMALL STEPS

The damage from the Lac-Mégantic accident, which saw a runaway train derail after the brakes were improperly set, was amplified by the highly explosive oil in the tank cars. Four months later, as the town goes about rebuilding its shattered core, there remains an open question of what rights cities and towns have in relation to the railways. Meanwhile, other communities have grown wary of oil shipments running through their backyards.

In B.C., where debates and delays over new pipelines have prompted talk of shipping oil to West Coast ports by rail, Premier Christy Clark said she opposes the idea, fearing spills from derailments.

"If you look at the record in the United States and in Canada of rail safety when it comes to moving oil, it's not as good as it is for pipelines," Ms. Clark said.

However, the railways don't need approval to start hauling oil through B.C. Their federal right-of-way means the industry can simply do so if there is demand from shippers. Ms. Clark said she hopes companies would respect the need to get a "social licence," or public approval, before moving oil through the province on their own. If not, she said, B.C. would explore its options.

"I think there are probably levers that [provincial] governments could use," Ms. Clark said.

But it's unclear what remedies exist. Omnitrax Canada, a railway company in Manitoba, said this fall it plans to begin sending oil by rail to a port in Churchill, on Hudson Bay, where it will be shipped overseas. The proposal drew immediate opposition from the Manitoba government, which feared the concept was too environmentally risky, since a spill would damage polar bear habitats. Manitoba's Transportation Minister also raised safety concerns in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic explosions.

Yet Omnitrax is proceeding despite the province's objections and plans to send its first shipment in 2014, a series of six 80-car oil trains carrying crude destined for refineries in Europe.

In the wake of Lac-Mégantic, the 2,000 municipalities across Canada have had to settle for smaller victories.

Last month, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities won the right to get quarterly and yearly data from railways about the hazardous cargo they ship, to help emergency responders prepare for potential derailments.

In an industry where railways are loath to share any details on hazardous material shipments with outside organizations – citing competitive concerns and worries about terrorist attacks – the disclosure of this information was hailed in Ottawa as a significant breakthrough.

Even federation president Claude Dauphin, the mayor of Lachine, Que., admits he was skeptical at first as to why outdated data would be helpful. "If there's a train that will be full of chemicals in Lachine, if you have a report about a year ago, that won't help the accident if it happens tomorrow morning," he said.

He changed his mind after hearing that emergency responders want to know whether significant quantities of certain dangerous goods are moving through their area – so they can prepare. "It's a step forward," Mr. Dauphin said.

But for some municipalities, the steps are not enough. Cities value the railways, said Pauline Quinlan, mayor of Bromont, Que., but there needs to be more collaboration, even if federal laws say the railways don't have to co-operate.

"We don't want to not have the privilege of having rail transportation, but we want it to be safe," Ms. Quinlan said. "It doesn't seem to be part of their culture to consider us as partners. They have the right to go through, they go through."

After Lac-Mégantic, and the revelations about the explosiveness of the oil, CP's Mr. Harrison agrees there is a need to have a broader national conversation about rail safety.

"This is a big enough problem," he said. "If we all pull together, if we can just take our uniforms off for a few minutes and say, 'Let's get this solved,' " progress can be made.

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