10 July 2013
A New and Costly Railway Age Emerges
Lake Megantic Quebec - The operator of the runaway train that derailed in Lake Megantic, causing at least 20 confirmed deaths, said Wednesday it thinks rail service will one day resume in this tourist village, possibly on a new line routed outside of the now-decimated downtown core.
"We have a number of shippers that depend on railway service," said Edward Burkhardt, the embattled chief executive of Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway operator Rail World Inc., after arriving in the town 216 kilometres east of Montreal.
"We'd like to look at that project (to reroute the track)."
Calls to move the track that cuts through Lake Megantic's downtown near cafes, stores, and homes, many of which were destroyed in the blaze when the train carrying 72 tankers crashed early Saturday, are resonating in other Quebec towns built up around the railroad.
As part of expansion projects, U.S.-based transportation company CSX Corp. has recently worked with two off-island towns, Beauharnois and Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, to relocate its rail lines from residential to industrial areas.
But because of the prohibitive cost of constructing rail in developed areas, experts say improving safety requirements, rather than building new tracks, is the best solution for the growing number of Quebec towns that are starting to view the train as a liability rather than an economic driver.
"At one time, when the railway was created, there were train stations in small towns so there were economic spinoffs," said Michel Gilbert, mayor of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, one of many South Shore towns where the rail track goes through the heart of residential neighbourhoods.
"But now, we have no station, the train doesn't take passengers, deliver merchandise, or pick up merchandise."
"So we live without the advantages, but with the potential risks."
According to the American Association of Railroads, it costs between US$1 million and US$3 million per mile to build mainline rail, with the actual price varying on the amount of "earthwork", whether the track is being laid on flat, open land, or whether it would have to pass through a tunnel.
In the United States, rail infrastructure has boomed in recent years with soaring oil production from North Dakota, creating what some have described as a new railroad age.
In 2011, U.S. rail companies spent US$8 billion on the renewal and expansion of rail track, data from the Association of American Railroads show.
While rail track continues to be built on a small scale in Canada, mostly projects a few kilometres long in the resource-rich north, major projects haven't been deemed viable.
A $5-billion plan by Canadian National Railway Co. and pension fund manager Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec to build an 800-kilometre rail from Sept-Iles on the Lower North Shore to the iron mines being developed in the Labrador Trough was shelved this year.
"It's very expensive to build railroads. And the more you are in an urban area, the more the limitations in the land that's possible to buy," noted Miguel Valero, president of the Montreal-based rail engineering firm Canarail Consultants Inc.
"It's not like you go up north and you're in the middle of nowhere and it's government-owned land."
"Here you go in the Eastern Townships and you want to find a way to bypass downtown and go around the town, the main cost won't be the construction of the railway itself, but the acquisition of the land."
"And I could guarantee you that the day you announce that you want to move a rail line where there will be dangerous materials transported, you will hear, Not in my backyard, not here, not there."
The devastation in Lake Megantic, combined with the soaring use of rail to transport oil and chemicals like ethanol, are renewing fears among Quebec municipalities with rail lines running through their populated areas.
Mont-Saint-Hilaire already faced a deadly collision in December 1999, where a freight train hit a derailed tanker car carrying gasoline, killing a train conductor and engineer and forcing hundreds of families from their homes.
While that collision took place outside the city, Gilbert can only imagine the devastation if it had happened in the heart of Mont-Saint-Hilaire.
The mayor can see the rail line from his office at the town hall, where the flag is flying at half-staff.
Within the next few weeks, Gilbert said he intends to revive talks about ways to improve rail security.
"The events that took place at Lake Megantic will make us rethink what could be done to prevent this kind of catastrophe," he said.
"We must always think of ways to improve things."
"The only information we have is that if you see a passing train, the content is mentioned on a wagon."
"If it's oil, it's written oil."
"But we only see this when the train is passing, we don't have this information beforehand," Gilbert said.
Some experts and municipalities are calling for Ottawa to immediately tighten regulations on the transport of dangerous materials by rail.
- Replace the outdated CTC-111A steel tanker car believed to have been used in the Lake Megantic disaster, already "under review" by Transport Canada over safety concerns;
- Park unmanned trains on sidings, a section of track that is off the main rail line, as opposed to being left on main tracks.
Burkhardt pledged Wednesday to no longer "change crews anywhere near the Megantic area."
That may not be enough assurance for the residents of Lake Megantic and other towns."
There are parts of Quebec where the rail has disappeared," Gilbert said.
"I was born in the Beauce, and during my childhood there was a rail that passed 30 feet in front of our door."
"Now it's disappeared and it's a bike path."
"Maybe I would be happier to have a bike path (in Mont-Saint-Hilaire) instead of a railroad."