The mayor of Lac-Mégantic, Que., who has spent the last two days lobbying lawmakers and officials in Washington, D.C., to take more action on rail safety, told a news conference Tuesday that her town's tragedy must not be in vain.

Colette Roy-Laroche was in the U.S. capital with a coalition of cross-border officials from Quebec, New Brunswick and the United States to press the case for stricter rail safety regulations in North America.

"With every day, every press conference and every meeting, the same questions haunt me. Why? Why my community,  why in my hometown?" she told reporters in French who were gathered at the Canadian Embassy.

"We can't let a tragedy like the one we experienced in Lac-Mégantic be in vain," she said. "We need to investigate, find out what happened and do everything in our power to make sure it never happens again."

Lac-Mégantic, a small town in eastern Quebec, lost 47 people last July when a runaway train derailed and tank cars carrying crude oil exploded into a giant fireball. The disaster prompted calls for changes to rail safety regulations in Canada and is also used as example in the United States by those pushing for tighter rules.


Lac-Mégantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche speaks at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. She is part of a coalition of mayors lobbying U.S. legislators to improve rail safety regulations. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Roy-Laroche said what happened in her town was a painful reminder that inadequate safety regulations can lead to disasters with death tolls and financial losses far exceeding what is allocated to enforcing rules and trying to prevent accidents in the first place.

$400M spent on Lac-Mégantic so far

So far $400 million has been spent on cleaning up Lac-Mégantic and on victim assistance, and millions more will have to be spent to restore the once-vibrant town, she said.

Roy-Laroche said there are inadequate safety regulations on both sides of the border, and that's why the coalition is working together to lobby the Canadian and U.S. governments.

She said there is an urgent need for the governments to act more quickly before another community suffers the same fate as hers.

The other Canadian mayors on the trip to Washington were Vicki May Hamm of Magog, Que., and Roger Doiron of Richibuto, Luc Desjardins of Petit-Rocher and Jean-Guy Marquis from Edmundston, all in New Brunswick.

Karen Darch, the mayor of Barrington, Ill., and Peter Neilsen of the Maine Municipal Association were also part of the Cross-Border Municipal Coalition for Railway Safety.

The group met Monday with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Joseph C. Szabo, as well as a transport official at the Canadian Embassy. Tuesday's itinerary included a meeting with Canada's ambassador in Washington Gary Doer and then a meeting with members of Congress.

"They were very receptive to what we had to say, and I think they are showing urgency around the issue," Darch said about the meetings. "There is definitely an interest."

With the huge increase in transporting crude oil by rail in Canada and the U.S. over the last few years, the coalition says it's important for officials on both sides of the border to co-ordinate their actions.

The coalition said it hopes that by Roy-Laroche sharing her experience in Lac-Mégantic, and the other municipal officials sharing their concerns, U.S. legislators will be encouraged to address their safety priorities. Those include, for example, improving emergency response capacity and railway infrastructure.

Frustration over slow action

The coalition is also eager to see rule changes on the use of DOT-111 tank cars, which often transport hazardous materials. There have been calls to phase them out or to retrofit older cars to make them more able to withstand a crash. Some rail companies are already doing that, but the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is currently working on new requirements. 

A proposal isn't expected until November and final rules wouldn't come out until January 2015, according to the Illinois mayor at the news conference.

"We're frustrated," Darch said. "We'd like the rule to come out sooner."

Seven major rail companies have voluntarily made safety upgrades in recent years, but Darch said there are 550 smaller regional lines that need to join them.

The group said it is determined to keep the pressure on all the stakeholders involved. “We are in this for the long haul,” said Darch.