A year on, Quebec town remains in grip of 'train from hell'

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By Richard Valdmanis

(Reuters) - Each time a train rumbles past her house and the clothing shop where she works, Lucie Roy relives the moment last year when explosions leveled much of her neighborhood - and she and her two children narrowly escaped injury.

"I freak out inside when I feel that train shake the ground," she said, looking out a window at the tracks and the blast zone, an open pit crawling with heavy machinery. "I'm doing my best to move on, but it is hard when I have to face my nightmare on a daily basis."

This picturesque lakeside town nestled in the pine-covered hills of eastern Quebec is slowly rebuilding after a train loaded with crude oil crashed in flames in the downtown core nearly a year ago, destroying dozens of buildings and killing 47 people in one of North America's worst rail accidents.

The July 6, 2013, tragedy has become a symbol of what can go wrong when industry ships dangerous cargo on an aging rail system. Oil transport by rail has surged fiftyfold since 2008, when the boom in North American oil production began to overwhelm traditional pipeline networks.

In the incident's aftermath, regulators in Canada and the United States sought to shore up safety with a slew of new rules. But Lac-Megantic is still waiting for recovery and reassurance.

"To move on, the town needs to be repaired and people also need to know that this can never happen again," said the Rev. Steve Lemay of St. Agnes Church, a stone structure on a hill that overlooked the blast. "Right now, we can't pretend that is the case."

The slow pace of recovery has frustrated residents, entrepreneurs and public officials. Hopes that the scores of businesses dislodged by the explosions could restart by the summer tourist season have been dashed by red tape and decontamination work in the blast zone that is expected to drag on for months. Meanwhile, housing prices have slumped.

"There is still a lot of uncertainty, even after a year," said Isabelle Halle, director of the Lac-Megantic Chamber of Commerce. "It is palpable, and it is very discouraging for people who, ultimately, just want their lives back."


The 72-car train, dubbed the train from hell, had been parked up a hill from Lac-Megantic when its brakes failed. Unattended, the train rolled downhill 11 km (7 miles) before hitting a curve and derailing near Lac-Megantic's waterfront, which was packed with late-night revelers.

The explosions lit up the sky like daylight, witnesses said, incinerating buildings and trees and spilling millions of gallons of burning crude oil into the lake.

Most of those who died in the blast were at the Musi-Cafe, a popular waterfront bar. Its owner, Yannick Gagne, who was at home that night, is among the business owners trying to rebuild.

Gagne says he can imagine bands playing to crowds on the waterfront deck of his rebuilt bar, but he is not sure when it will happen. Like many businesspeople, he has a spot to rebuild but is waiting for the provincial government to calculate the amount of assistance he will receive.

"In the best case it will be September, but it could be later," he said, standing amid wood and metal frames in a zone set up by the government for dislodged businesses. "The problem is we don't know how much assistance we are getting from the government, and that is slowing us down. We've been waiting for an answer for months."

Quebec's Ministry of Municipal Affairs said some C$4.3 million has been disbursed among 147 businesses that sought aid in the wake of the derailment. An additional 97 requests are still unresolved. A spokeswoman declined to comment on their progress.

That aid is part of more than C$200 million that has been doled out by the governments of Quebec and Canada. Most of that has gone toward the cleanup, rebuilding infrastructure and support to municipal and non-governmental bodies.


The one tangible sign of recovery - the return of freight trains last December - is also one of the town's biggest worries. The train is a constant reminder of the tragedy.

"I hear it 15 minutes before it arrives. I see it, I watch it go by my window," said Helene Metivier, 50, who owns an inn just outside the blast zone. "It is hard. I live with this memory and fear."

An investigation into the crash led to criminal charges against the conductor and two other employees of the now-defunct Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) railway, and led Canadian regulator Transport Canada to adopt numerous safety measures, including the phasing out of older DOT-111 tanker cars by 2016.

After the incident, MMA went bankrupt and the rail line was purchased by Fortress Group, a New York investment firm. Repairs on the tracks were completed last fall. Now, trains pass through Lac-Megantic several times a week.

The trains do not carry hazardous materials. But Fortress has said the line, renamed the Central Maine and Quebec, could resume oil shipments after further track upgrades.

Some residents have circulated petitions calling for new tracks that steer clear of town.

"I think everyone wants the rail rerouted around town. It is unanimous. It needs to be done in a way that still serves our industries, but a new track makes sense," said Halle of the Lac-Megantic Chamber of Commerce.

On July 6 the town will mark the anniversary with ceremonies at St. Agnes Church. Outside the church, the statue of Jesus Christ that overlooks the blast area - charred in the explosion but now restored - will be a comforting presence for many townspeople.

"It is an important symbol for the town. For people, it is a symbol of faith, a symbol of resistance," the Rev. Lemay said. "The statue faced all of this."