Ottawa commits to building railway bypass for Lac-Mégantic

The federal government has committed to building a railway bypass for Lac-Mégantic, nearly five years after a runaway train derailed and blew up in the centre of town, killing 47 people.

Federal government vague on details in announcement 5 years after deadly rail disaster

A firefighter walks by rubble on the train crash site in Lac-Mégantic, Que., July 14, 2013. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The federal government has committed to building a railway bypass for Lac-Mégantic, nearly five years after a runaway train derailed and blew up in the centre of town, killing 47 people.

In a statement, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Tuesday the federal government would provide a "substantial amount" to build the bypass.

Garneau did not provide details about the financial investment or where exactly the bypass will go.

Specifics will be announced before the anniversary of the explosion in July, he said.

"This is great news for the people of Lac-Mégantic," said the town's mayor, Julie Morin, speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon. "I have to admit I was very moved."

"We received the answers we wanted, a clear commitment from the federal government.… We can finally have hope."

Call for bypass 7 days after disaster

Garneau's announcement brings the Liberal government one step closer to fulfilling a commitment Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a year ago, when he said during a 2017 town hall event the government would speed up the process to build the bypass.

The demand that the railway be rerouted around the town dates back to a week after the disaster, when the former mayor of Lac-Mégantic, Colette Roy-Laroche, first floated the proposal.

Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julie Morin says the federal government's commitment to help fund a bypass track is a relief to the town's residents. (Lauren Mccallum/CBC News)

Morin said she believes pressure from the town's residents following Friday's acquittal of three rail workers, indicted for their roles in the July 6, 2013 rail disaster, helped push Ottawa to make the pledge now. ​

Many in the town supported the workers and said they felt the responsibility for the derailment and explosions rested with the federal government and the now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway company. 

Morin said the railway bypass will contribute to the town's continued redevelopment, economically and socially. 

The mayor said removing the track from the centre of town won't only give residents some psychological relief, it will also make Lac-Mégantic safer. 

This will simply help people turn another page.- Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julie Morin

"There are risks; the hill and the curve are still there. There's still danger [of another derailment] beyond the trauma," Morin said.

"This will simply help people turn another page."

'Just at the beginning'

Members of the Lac-Mégantic citizens' coalition for rail safety who have been advocating for a railway bypass since the 2013 disaster, say they're cautiously celebrating. 

"We're just at the beginning," said Gilbert Carette, who said he hopes the new track will prompt investments in the town's commercial and industrial sectors. 

"You can't hide that this town is just dying slowly," Carratte said. "Today is the first good news since the beginning of our fight.

From left, Robert Bellefleur, Gilbert Caratte, Gilles Fluet and Richard Poirier are members of the Lac-Mégantic citizens' coalition for rail safety. (CBC)

Another coalition member, Robert Bellefleur, said beyond making a financial commitment, Ottawa needs to further improve railway safety in Canada. 

Bellefleur also pointed to the fact Garneau did not provide a timeline for the new track's construction. He said the 2022 completion date predicted by one of the feasibility studies is too far away.

Still no firm commitment from province

Morin said she has also asked the provincial government to pitch in to help pay for a bypass, and she's confident it will. 

Quebec and Ottawa split the financing of the feasibility studies commissioned to study bypass routes.

Quebec's environmental review board, BAPE, put forward five bypass options in a report released last July. Option 3, in pink, is the one favoured by Lac-Mégantic. It would reroute the train tracks to the north of town. (BAPE)

Morin said those studies show a bypass would add 11 or 12 kilometres of track and would cost about $130 million, although those figures still need to be refined. 

Quebec's Transport Minister André Fortin said in a statement his ministry will continue its discussions with the federal government about the project, but that it expects Ottawa will be paying the bigger share "since it is first and foremost responsible for it." 

"We continue to be preoccupied by what happened to Lac-Mégantic and always wish to contribute solutions," Fortin added in the written statement.

With files from Claude Rivest