The Maine company that owns the train that derailed and exploded in the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6 has lost much of its freight business and is struggling financially.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway laid off 79 of its 179 employees Tuesday, with its work force in Maine bearing the brunt of the layoffs.
The train disaster, which killed 50 people just 10 miles from Maine’s western border, has severed the company’s rail lines in Maine from the rest of its network in Quebec and from national railroads that cross the continent.
Although Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s operations in Vermont are unchanged, the railroad can no longer carry oil tankers east through Maine to a refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. And it can no longer offer manufacturers east of Lac-Megantic a rail connection to the west.
“We have lost a lot of business,” said Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the railroad and president of its parent company, Chicago-based Rail World Inc. “We don’t need to run many trains. Revenues are way down.”
He said the layoffs are a temporary measure and the railway hopes to hire the workers back once revenues rebound. “We are doing what any company would do,” he said.
Burkhardt said he is unaware of the details of the layoffs and does not know how many workers were idled in Maine.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, a relatively small company based in Hermon, owns 512 miles of rail. It operates in Maine and Quebec and serves customers in Vermont just south of the Quebec border.
Only 19 of the railway’s 80 workers in Quebec have been laid off, according to the provincial branch of the United Steel Workers Union. Two of those employees are managers.
That means 60 of the company’s employees in Maine — more than half — have been laid off.
The railroad’s problems pose a logistical challenge for its customers in Maine that need to get products to market and receive supplies.
Everett Deschenes, manager of fiber and logistics at Old Town Fuel & Fiber, said the railway can still deliver wood chips to his company’s plant from suppliers in northern Maine, but the plant is now using primarily Pan Am Railways to ship its product, pulp, to customers to the west. The plant has begun using trucks for shorter hauls.
Deschenes said Pan Am Railways is offering fair rates and not taking advantage of its new rail monopoly.
Cynthia Scarano, executive vice president of Pan Am Railways, said the normally competitive railroads are now cooperating to re-route freight and make sure commerce is not interrupted.
“Everybody is working together as a group to make sure things keep moving through the state,” she said.
Pan Am Railways, which has 2,000 miles of rail in New England, offers connections to the west through Albany, N.Y.
Deschenes said it’s upsetting to see Maine people lose their jobs.
“I am very saddened,” he said. “My boys said they were good people to work with.”
The train that exploded in Lac-Megantic was carrying 72 tanker cars filled with crude oil destined for a huge refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, owned by Irving Oil Ltd.
While the route through Lac-Megantic was an important line for the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, equal amounts of western crude are being shipped from the west through southern Maine via Pan Am Railways and on Canadian National Railway tracks, according to CBC News.
Oil deliveries through southern Maine on Pan Am Railways are now expected to increase.
The St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway, which runs trains between Portland and Ste. Rosalie, Quebec, where it connects with the Canadian National Railway, has offered help re-routing Montreal, Maine & Atlantic trains, said St. Lawrence & Atlantic’s president, Mario Brault.
One of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic’s biggest customers is Lac-Megantic’s largest employer, Tafisa Canada Inc., which manufactures particle board and thermofused melamine panels.
The factory, which employs more than 300 people, ships 2,500 train cars of particle board annually. It depends on Montreal, Maine & Atlantic to get its products to markets in the west. That route is now cut off because the factory is east of the crash site, which remains closed while crews work to recover bodies and remove tankers. The area is also considered a crime scene.
Burkhardt, the railroad’s chairman, said it’s uncertain how long the area will remain closed and when train traffic can resume.
He said Tasifa Canada and his staff are developing a plan to truck products a short distance, then load them onto rail cars west of the disaster site.
Burkhardt said he appreciates the offers of help from other railroads.
“It’s a strange business,” he said. “We are enemies one day and friends the next. We fight on one thing and cooperate on another.”
– Staff Writer Jessica Hall contributed to this report.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: