nb-southern-rail

A J.D. Irving spokesperson said the company wants to sustain rail links that are vital to its manufacturing operations. (NB Southern Railway)

People in the state of Maine welcome the news that J.D. Irving Ltd. has popped up as a potential buyer for the deeply troubled Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway.

The embattled railway at the centre of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster was granted creditor protection in Canada and bankruptcy protection in the United States as it faces a growing number of lawsuits, legal notices and cleanup costs, which MM&A has estimated will exceed $200 million.

The company has laid off many of its employees in Maine, and it appears unlikely it will remain in business.

The railway's line from Montreal to Brownville Junction, Me., is a key link for J.D. Irving's NB&M Railways. The company already operates two railways in the state, besides its NB Southern line.

Chop Hardenbergh, the editor of the industry newsletter Atlantic Northeast Rails and Ports, said JDI has a reputation for maintaining and improving its tracks.

"As far as I can see, everybody and his brother would just be overjoyed to have Irving take over given their nice record in Maine already," said Hardenbergh.

"The people in Maine desperately need a good operating rail system to serve the paper mills to the best advantage we can."

Brownville, Me., an historic railway town, wants to see the rail line operating again as soon as possible.

'Before the rail disaster we would see anywhere from seven to 11 trains come through here a day … Now we don't see anything.'— Matt Pineo, Brownville Maine town manager

Matt Pineo, the town's manager, said he is trying to figure out how his tiny community will help the families of 44 laid-off MM&A rail workers.

No one has received a cheque since the Lac-Mégantic derailment, said Pineo.

"They are all losing their health benefits, they cannot afford to pay it … at this time none of those workers receive any unemployment benefits," he said.

The rail line remains closed through Lac-Mégantic, meaning it is virtually shut down.

"Before the rail disaster we would see anywhere from seven to 11 trains come through here a day … Now we don't see anything," said Pineo.

"We heard a couple trains in the last couple days, but most of the time when you see them go through they could be Pan Am [Railways] using MM&A's rail line."

He said people are hearing it could be anywhere from two to six months before traffic resumes on the line.

Heating fund set up at town office

Pineo said the town is setting up a heating fund because a lot of people will have trouble heating their homes this winter.

The biggest concern is that JDI, or any new operator, would overlook MM&A's former engineers, and maintenance and track workers, said Pineo.

"I hope that whoever the party is that purchases this brings these talented rail workers back because they are talented," he said.

Cowansville, Que., Mayor Arthur Fauteux said he is also paying attention to JDI's possible acquisition of the MM&A railway.

Fauteux said MM&A did not have a good reputation in the area, even before last month's deadly train crash.

"We have to trust them more than we can trust MM&A," he said. "I don't know [about] the tracks' condition in Saint John, but here it's terrible, the tracks are terrible."

Fauteux said almost 600 people in the Cowansville region work in industries, such as plastics, which are not set up for shipping and receiving by truck.

The industry needs good train service, said Fauteux.

Mary Keith, a vice-president with J.D. Irving Ltd., said earlier this month that its NB&M Railways unit is assessing its options, but has not made any offer for Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway.

Keith said the company, which has track in Maine and New Brunswick, wants to sustain rail links that are vital to its manufacturing operations in New Brunswick.