Lac-Megantic, Que. residents concerned about cracked rail
Transport Canada is unable to say whether the portion of a cracked rail near downtown Lac-Mégantic met safety standards. The rail was repaired last week, but a citizens' group remains concerned as the town prepares to commemorate 10 years since the tragedy.
Since 2015, Robert Bellefleur has been monitoring the state of the rails in his community, where 10 years ago, a convoy carrying 72 cars of crude oil derailed and claimed the lives of 47 people.
The spokesman for the Coalition des citoyens et organismes engagés pour la sécurité ferroviaire met The Canadian Press at the end of May, near a rail owned by Canadian Pacific (CP), about two kilometres from the centre of Lac-Mégantic.
"I'm not an engineer, but you don't need to be an engineer to see that this rail is worn to the bone, that the metal strips are frayed," said Bellefleur, pointing to the cracked rail.
The citizens' coalition he represents says it has often identified rails in a pitiful state near the centre of Lac-Mégantic since the 2013 tragedy, and it fears that another derailment could occur and claim yet more victims.
The interview with The Canadian Press was interrupted when Bellefleur received a phone call from a CP police officer.
The conversation was courteous, and the officer told the citizen that he had recently been seen near the railway, on CP property, in an area deemed unsafe.
Bellefleur took advantage of this conversation to warn the police officer that a "rail in the area, which has to support monster trains of over 200 wagons and tanks, is worn to the limit."
The officer asked the citizen to send him photos and promised to report the situation to the inspectors.
Five days later, CP crews arrived on the scene to replace the section of rail identified as problematic by Bellefleur.
"It shouldn't be up to citizens to do this inspection work," a spokesperson for the citizens' group told The Canadian Press after the rail was refurbished, adding that "this highlights the need for his group's monitoring role" in the face of Transport Canada's inaction and lax public protection role.
TRANSPORT CANADA CANNOT COMMENT ON RAIL STANDARDS
In an exchange of emails, Transport Canada asserts that it has "considerably strengthened its monitoring program" and that the department has "implemented stricter measures and requirements to protect communities" since the 2013 tragedy.
The Canadian Press sent Transport Canada photos of the rail deemed problematic, specifying where it was located.
The news agency asked the ministry responsible for enforcing rail safety rules whether the rail, before it was replaced, met safety standards.
A spokesperson for the ministry replied that "the section of rail shown in the photo is not sufficient to determine whether the rail meets track safety standards" and that safety requirements "depend, among other things, on the speed of trains (class of track) and the annual gross tonnage carried on the track."
The response does not reassure Bellefleur, who maintains that he is used to "receiving such bureaucratic answers from Transport Canada."
The spokesperson for the citizens' group added that, although trains must not exceed 16 kilometres per hour in this sector, they are carrying hazardous materials such as propane and that the rail is located at "the entrance to a major curve in the sector where the gradient is at its steepest, close to a residential area and the Polyvalente Montignac."
The Canadian Press also asked Transport Canada for the rail inspection reports carried out in the Lac-Mégantic area in the last six months, and the department replied that it "does not provide inspection reports to the public, as they contain information from third parties," in this case railway companies such as Canadian Pacific.
NO SAFETY ISSUES - CP
In an email exchange, CP's manager of government affairs and communications explained that "the photo shows wear or 'flow' of the rail on the side of the track that does not come into contact with the wheel" and that "this is not a defect or a safety issue."
Stacey Patenaude added that "notwithstanding the fact that the identified track was fully compliant, this section of rail has been replaced."
The Canadian Press asked CP why the section of rail had been changed even though it was compliant, but the company did not reply.
According to Canadian Pacific, "the track at Nantes and the surrounding area is inspected visually and for internal defects regularly, beyond regulatory standards," by its "engineering department to maintain compliance with Canadian Pacific Kansas City's high safety standards."
Over the years, the Coalition des citoyens et organismes engagés pour la sécurité ferroviaire de Lac-Mégantic has developed a mistrust of Transport Canada and the railway companies, obviously because of the safety-related shortcomings identified in several investigations that led to the 2013 tragedy.
But even after 2013, there were concerns about the safety of trains carrying hazardous materials and the state of the rails at Lac-Mégantic.
For example, on May 7, 2019, Transport Canada rail safety inspector Jean-René Gagnon issued a "Notice and Order" to the Central Maine and Québec Railway (CMQR), the company that owned the section of rail that runs through the town of Lac-Mégantic before CP acquired it.
In this public document, the rail safety inspector writes that he has "observed several urgent situations and concerns requiring immediate repairs," including rail wear, and "that the number of broken rails discovered" following visual inspections between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic in 2019 "is alarming."
The document also states that the number of defective rails reported by ultrasonic vehicles was 253 in 2018, 185 in 2017, 175 in 2016 and 115 in 2015.
On Sept. 3, 2019, the citizens' coalition gave formal notice to former Transport Minister Marc Garneau to stop transporting hazardous materials between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic until this section of rail was repaired.
Three days later, Garneau issued a ministerial order requiring CMQR to restore the railway between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic, after the company had repaired the 253 defects along the 200-kilometre corridor.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on June 10, 2023.