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Montreal's REM suffers outage, 250K Hydro-Quebec customers lose power during winter storm

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More than a quarter of a million Hydro-Quebec customers were without power and Montreal's light-rail line was out of service Wednesday evening as a powerful winter storm brought strong winds and rain across the province.

Shortly after 11 p.m., the number of households without electricity reached 250,985, with the number increasing by the hour since the early evening.

Quebec's Montérégie region and the Montreal region were the hardest hit areas, with 62,000 and 45,000 customers without power, respectively.

A downed tree lays next to a car in Montreal after a strong storm swept through the region on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (Cosmo Santamaria/CTV News)

Hydro-Quebec says the outages are "mainly caused by the branches and trees that break near the power grid and [come] into contact with it," according to a post on social media.

A screenshot of the power outage map on the Hydro-Quebec website as of 7:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (Source: Hydro-Quebec)

The post said there are crews in the field working to restore power and that the "aim is to restore service as quickly as possible. The reliability of service is our priority and we are in action to reduce outages," the post reads.

In Montreal, the REM trains were offline due to "the numerous power outages affecting the Hydro-Québec," a spokesperson told CTV News.

On X, the REM said the restoration time was "undetermined," and recommended commuters take the shuttle buses that are being made available.

A video posted on social media shows REM trains stuck on the tracks with passengers trapped inside.

Some of the trains were later evacuated, forcing passengers to walk along the tracks in some cases to get to the nearest station. 

REM passengers walk on the tracks after their train was evacuated after it lost power on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (Source: Kevin Dalpe)

Kevin Dalpé was one of the passengers who was on the evacuated trains. He said what normally is a 20-minute commute turned into about a two-hour ordeal that ended with him walking along the tracks for about 10 minutes in the high winds and rain to the Du Quartier station, on Montreal's South Shore. 

Two REM crew members came to help with the evacuation, he said, as about 25 other passengers were stuck with him.

"He said, OK, go slowly and be careful. And oh my God," he told CTV News, adding that he was concerned about the older passengers who had to walk in the rain. "I can't imagine because, me, I'm too cold." 

An evacuation message onboard a REM train in Montreal during a power outage on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (Source: Kevin Dalpé)

Dalpé said he normally doesn't need a heavy winter coat during his commute because the train he normally uses takes him right to his condo, but he's glad he decided to wear one on Wednesday as the temperature plummeted drastically.

"I take the REM all the time and now I'm stressed for the next time I take the REM," he said.

A spokesperson for the REM said three trains were on the track when the outage happened, around 7:10 p.m. The passengers were removed either by taking backup staircases or by eventually getting on another train. 

City says it is ready for the storm

The City of Montreal said it is prepared for what Mother Nature throws at it.

The city has 1,000 salt trucks and just as many crews ready to hit the road, if needed, as the storm batters the island.

A flash freeze and strong winds are expected as a sharp cold front will sweep across Quebec.

With temperatures set to drop dramatically in just a few hours, it will be "a race against the clock" to de-ice the streets and sidewalks, said Philippe Sabourin, a city spokesperson, Wednesday afternoon. 

"It's a long process, it's going to be a long journey for our crews. We need normally between eight and 12 hours to complete the turnaround the network. It's 10,000 kilometres of streets and sidewalks. So it's normal, it takes time," he said in an interview.

He said crews will have to work methodically and not rush the salting operation too soon because of how the weather will play out, so he's asking for residents to be "patient."

"Especially during the evening, we will get a lot of millimetres of rain, then the big drastic change of temperature. So at first, we will wait because if we're spreading salt and rocks when it's raining, that won't be efficient," Sabourin explained.

"We need 500 employees for the spreading operation. And if we're getting more snow that they're calling [for] at this point, we will add another extra 500 employees. So between 500 and 1,000 employees will be deployed."

One of the main concerns for the city is falling tree branches, which is why extra crews will be on standby.

"We're pretty concerned not for the freezing rain, but for those strong winds that could affect the trees in Montreal. So we can easily expect that we will get some power outages, maybe branches falling down or broken trees falling down. So we have everyone on duty for the next night to make sure we will ease the move of every citizen in town tomorrow morning. But of course, if it's not secure, we'll let you know. And we're asking everyone to be cautious tomorrow morning," he said.

Environment and Climate Change Canada has issued widespread wind warnings, including in the Greater Montreal Area, as winds may reach up to 90 km/h. The wind chill could make the temperature feel more like -23.

Residents should take extra care on the roads and sidewalks and take public transit if they can, Sabourin added.

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