August 19, 2013

Rail line’s bleak outlook a challenge for Maine

With the return of service to Lac-Megantic in doubt, the state is faced with losing an important economic link.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Motorists here still stop at the railroad tracks and look both ways.

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A sign alongside the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway tells engineers they have arrived in Lac-Megantic, originally called Megantic, a town in Quebec about 22 miles from the Maine border.

Photos by Tom Bell/Staff Writer

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Lac-Megantic exists because of the train tracks.

The town, originally called Megantic, was founded in 1884 after the Canadian Pacific Railway began building the final segment of its transcontinental railroad, from Montreal to Saint John, New Brunswick.

The chosen route was a relatively straight line between the two cities, a route that put it right through the middle of Maine.

The route boomed during the winter months when the port of Montreal was iced in. As many as 40 trains a day crossed Maine in the winter, according to Ira Silverman, a retired Amtrak executive who has studied the history of the line.

Ice-breaking technology now keeps Montreal’s port open and much of the rail cargo that once went to Saint John now moves in containers through Halifax, Nova Scotia, he said. Coupled with the inability of railroads to compete with trucks for relatively short trips, the line through Maine has been in a long, downward spiral, he said.

The stretch between Brownville Junction and Lac-Megantic was known as the “Moosehead Subdivsion.”

In 1994, when Canadian Pacific sought to abandon its line, its customers urged the company to sell it. Iron Road Railways bought the section from Brownville Junction to the suburbs of Montreal.

The company went bankrupt in 2002, and the route was purchased by the newly formed Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.

– Tom Bell

Such are the habits of people living in a town built around a transcontinental railway.

But nobody has seen or heard a freight train since the riderless “ghost train” hauling crude oil rolled into town on July 6 and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying 40 buildings downtown.

The rail line has been blocked while crews work to clean up 1.5 million gallons of spilled oil and remove debris.

While trains could be allowed to pass through within a few months, the long-term prospects for rail here are uncertain.

What happens in Lac-Megantic has ramifications in Maine, where the rail line is a link between Maine lumber and paper mills and their customers throughout North America.

At issue is not the survival of the line’s bankrupt owner, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which is looking for a buyer, but whether the line can be run as a sustainable business under any owner, given its scattered customer base, high fixed costs and daunting political obstacles.

Because of the decline of Maine paper mills over the past decade, the railroad had been struggling financially. Only in the past year and a half, after it began hauling crude oil for the Irving oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, did the railroad make enough money to begin upgrading its deteriorating infrastructure, according to the railroad’s chairman, Ed Burkhardt.

The railroad had been hauling 500,000 barrels of oil a month until the accident.

That business is now gone.


Despite Lac-Megantic's economic dependence on rail, any attempt to bring oil tankers through downtown will be met with fierce opposition here.

The public will simply never allow it, said Yannick Thibault, 44, head coach of the football team at Lac-Megantic's high school.

While visiting the "red zone," the epicenter of the crash, Thibault said that four former players were killed. He said the area is a cemetery because five bodies have never been found.

He said people in Lac-Megantic are afraid of another train accident and will do everything they can to protect their town.

"You can't hurt our city twice," he said.

Half of the downtown was destroyed in the blasts. After the cleanup is complete, a process still months away, the town will allow only "safe" cargo -- such as lumber, logs and consumer goods -- bound for the port of Saint John to travel on existing rails.

Meanwhile, officials and business leaders have begun talking about re-routing the line so it goes around the town. But it would take a couple of years to plan and build the new nine-mile line, and nobody has figured out how to pay for it.


It's questionable whether there's enough business to sustain a rail line that has relatively few customers while passing through a remote and mountainous region, say some experts in the rail industry.

Between Lac-Megantic and Brownville Junction in Maine, a stretch of 117 miles, there is only one customer, Moose River Lumber, in the town of Moose River near Jackman.

Until the accident last month, the railroad every week had been operating three trains made up of oil tank cars bound for Saint John, according to Steve Banahan, sales and transportation manager for Moose River Lumber.

In addition, the railroad each week was running three eastbound freight trains and two westbound trains, he said.

On July 6, Banahan was able to smell the smoke rising from Lac-Megantic 30 miles away. He said he knew immediately that his sawmill would be hit financially by the disaster.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Cleanup crews have painted “empty inspected” on a tanker car in the “red zone” at Lac-Megantic, the epicenter of the July 6 train derailment that killed 47 people. Authorities say tanker cars carrying oil exploded when the train derailed.

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Just under 6,000 people live in Lac-Megantic. The downtown is situated on the shore of Lake Megantic at the bottom of a long hill. The railroad passes through the downtown along the shore. The lake itself is a depression in the Appalachian Mountains.

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Francis Cliche, 28, a scrap dealer in the town of Frontenac, stands in front of wheels taken from tanker cars that were wrecked in the July 6 accident in Lac-Megantic. Cliche said his children’s baby sitter was killed in the disaster.

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