Mother who lost son in Lac-Mégantic disaster questions plans for railway bypass

Residents of Lac-Mégantic whose lives were overturned by the 2013 rail disaster are asking the federal and provincial governments to move the two rail yards perched above the town before they approve the construction of a new bypass.

With rail yards still perched above town, Isabelle Boulanger says 'main danger' of derailment is still present

Frédéric Boutin, 19, was among the 47 victims of the Lac-Mégantic train derailment and ensuing explosions that occurred on July 6, 2013. (Submitted by Isabelle Boulanger)

Isabelle Boulanger held back tears as she addressed the panel of government experts, lawyers and company representatives in Lac-Mégantic, Que., this week, in town to discuss the impact of building a rail bypass around the town.

"The route we're being presented with doesn't eliminate the main danger we're facing —  which is leaving unattended trains in Nantes and Vachon," said Boulanger. 

Her 19-year-old son Frédéric Boutin died on July 6, 2013.

He had just left the Musi-Café bistro, headed for his apartment nearby, when a runaway train careened down a hill and exploded — killing 47 people, many of whom were at the popular hangout.

The train had been left idling, parked for the night in Nantes, a rail yard 12 kilometres west of Lac-Mégantic, before it rolled down the steep incline toward the town of 5,600.

Boulanger's plea echoed calls from other local residents and municipal leaders to move the Nantes and Vachon rail yards to Lac-Mégantic's industrial park, which is on flat ground.

Unless the the federal and provincial governments act on those demands, Boulanger said, building a new rail line to avoid the downtown core doesn't make sense.

Isabelle Boulanger, left, pictured here with her parents, said the family's farmland would be cut in half by the new rail line, and her home would be roughly 350 metres away from the tracks. (Submitted by Isabelle Boulanger)

"I find it inconceivable that we haven't considered moving the triage centres first, before having such an impact on people who will have to live beside a railway," said Boulanger.

Her own home is located 350 metres from the proposed new bypass. Her parents' farmland will also be cut in half once the new line is built.

"It's slightly cold-hearted to rub this in our faces —  to remind us every day of what we've lost," she said.

Ottawa open to relocation

Quebec's environmental review board, known by the French acronym BAPE, launched public hearings into the $133-million bypass project in Lac-Mégantic, 250 kilometres east of Montreal, Tuesday.

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau chose that day to issue a news release announcing the government has hired an engineering firm, RIVVAL, to evaluate the feasibility of moving the two rail yards.

A train slowly creeps up the slope, heading north toward Nantes, as it leaves Lac-Mégantic on July 3, 2018. (Julia Page/CBC)

The timing of that announcement left Boulanger and other residents asking why BAPE is proceeding with hearings at all right now.

"Why don't we figure out what to do with the rail yard before working on the bypass?" she asked.

Not an 'easy task'

A Transport Canada representative present at the hearings said the potentially high cost of relocation may explain why it hadn't yet been approved.

"Digging under an industrial park isn't an easy task — there can be gas lines and water pipes," said Luc-Alexandre Chayer, a senior manager of environmental assessment with Transport Canada.

Nonetheless, he said the federal government was "very open" to working toward relocating the yards "if the costs are acceptable."

Chayer said the company that now owns the tracks, Central Maine and Quebec Railway, also supports the idea.

He said the final decision will have to be made jointly by the federal and provincial governments "in late-August or September."

The BAPE is expected to hand its final report in to the ministry by Oct. 9.

The new railway route the BAPE is studying would go around Lac-Mégantic's downtown area where the derailment occurred. (Radio-Canada)

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, that operated the corridor in 2013, moved the rail yard from Lac-Mégantic to Nantes around 2006, according to the town's mayor, Sylvain Gilbert.

The Transportation Safety Board's report into the derailment revealed no risk assessment was carried out at that time.

"The company moved the crew-change location to Nantes and began parking trains unattended on the main track on a descending grade," the 2014 report stated.

Isabelle Boulanger said it would make sense to bring things back to the way they were before the 2013 derailment that cost her son his life.

"Then we won't have to deal with this danger — of having a runaway train."