Early Work Begins on Controversial Lac-Mégantic Train Diversion Project

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez says preliminary work will begin on the long awaited Lac-Mégantic rail bypass. People walk on the boardwalk built along the crash site of a train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on Thursday, June 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

Ten years after the catastrophic train disaster in Lac-Mégantic that resulted in the death of 47 individuals, the project aimed at diverting trains away from the town’s downtown core is now underway. However, the move has ignited division among community members over the proposed route.

Federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez visited Lac-Mégantic this Friday to announce the signing of two pivotal agreements for the project, a promise that was initially made back in 2018.

The agreements set the stage for the initial call for tenders. The first deal has been forged between Ottawa and the town of Lac-Mégantic, and the second one links the federal government with the Central Maine & Quebec Railway Inc., an offshoot of the Canadian Pacific Kansas City.

“We want to move ahead,” Rodriguez emphasized to the media, underlining the pertinence of the project. He mentioned, “Trains carrying dangerous cargo are still passing through the town. So the people, the same people that survived and lived that tragedy, are seeing and hearing the same train every day, and that has to stop.”

Recalling the fateful day on July 6, 2013, a runaway train laden with crude oil veered into the town’s core and detonated, causing the demise of 47 townspeople.

The 7.8-mile rail line will bypass downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a train carrying crude oil derailed, causing a fiery explosion that killed 47 people on July 6, 2013.

To mitigate future risks, in 2018, Ottawa in tandem with Quebec pledged funding for a 12.5-kilometre rail bypass. This diversion is intended to route trains, particularly those carrying hazardous freight, away from the heart of the town — home to about 6,000 inhabitants and situated roughly 200 kilometers east of Montreal.

While the initial budget for the project stood at $133 million, Rodriguez suggested the final costs might substantially exceed that estimate. However, he refrained from specifying a particular amount.

Despite the project’s progression, it’s not without its critics. Residents from Lac-Mégantic and its neighboring regions have expressed reservations about the new rail route, pointing out its increased curves compared to the old one, which they fear could pose derailment risks.

Landowner Raymond Lafontaine of Lac-Mégantic, who endured the loss of a son and two daughters-in-law in the 2013 calamity, voiced his concerns: “We are not moving forward, we are going backward.”

Lafontaine also criticized the federal government for pushing forth with the required expropriations earlier this year, calling the project “political, stubborn, and dictatorial.” Furthermore, he mentioned the compensation he received for his expropriated land was unsatisfactory, and he outrightly rejected the bypass as “inconceivable.”

Despite the contention, Rodriguez remains resolute in his stance. An impending injunction request from residents opposing the bypass is slated to be addressed later this month. Still, Rodriguez conveyed his confidence in the government’s position, stating, “It’s a difficult process, I understand the people who are experiencing the expropriation are unhappy and that there is pain too, we are listening to them. We hear them, but we must move forward.”