Lac-Megantic residents still pushing for safer railroads 5 years after disaster
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (WGME) -- The town of Lac-Megantic is still recovering five years after a train carrying crude oil derailed and killed dozens.
It happened just 20 miles from the border, on some of the same tracks that run through Maine.
"It will never be the same as it was before," said Gilbert Carette.
Walking block after block of gravel and weeds, Carette said locals refer to the empty downtown as The Red Zone. They reminisce about what it used to be.
"You were just walking here and driving in and it was just like an old boom town you know," Carette said.
It was forever changed in the early morning hours of July 6, 2013, when a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train parked miles away began to roll downhill. It picked up speed and derailed near a crossing in the heart of the town. Sixty-three tank cars filled with crude oil jumped the tracks, causing explosions and a massive fire that burned for days.
"Some fires went to a thousand feet high," Carette said. "It was just like an atomic bomb."
"People were running everywhere, trying to save their life," added another resident, Gilles Fluet.
Forty-seven people were killed. Frontenac Street was left unrecognizable.
"Oh God, was just like I lost half of myself, half of my soul, half of my heart," said Carette.
An investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada identified 18 causes and contributing factors, including an engine fire earlier that night., a weak safety culture at the company and inadequate oversight.
Transport Canada immediately required any unattended trains be secured and an extra crew member on trips with dangerous goods. Tank cars, like those used in the disaster, must meet new safety standards if used to transport hazardous goods.
A spokesperson for the Canadian agency said, "Rail safety remains Transport Canada's top priority. The department monitors rail safety and the transportation of dangerous goods across Canada, and will not hesitate to take action in the event of non-compliance with federal laws under its jurisdiction."
Transport Canada continues to work closely with agencies in the United States, where similar changes have been made.
U.S. DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. where similar changes have been made.
According to the Association of American Railroads, or AAR, the industry has invested billions in upgrades and even have a mobile app so first responders can see what's moving in a rail car at any given time.
There are more tests and inspections, and Positive Train Control, which uses GPS to prevent collisions and derailments, is required on all railroads by the end of this year.
"A number of measures have been taken to improve safety, but they don't address, in my view, the elephant in the room, which is the relationship between the regulator and the regulated industry," said Bruce Campbell, the former director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who has a book about the disaster coming out this fall.
Campbell said the railroad companies are too powerful and some of the improvements have been watered down with conditions, leaving opportunity for another tragedy.
"There's a whole variety of things, which in my view, mean that the full lessons have not been learned," Campbell said.
He believes there are still changes to be made, like removing the volatile components of oil before it's loaded onto trains and alternate route planning to avoid major population centers.
AAR officials maintain 99.99 percent of all tank cars carrying crude oil reach their destination without incident.
But there's also less being hauled. According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, 190,000 barrels of oil were transported by rail through the state in 2017, but not crude. That hasn't been reported since 2015.
The Bangor-based Central Maine and Quebec Railway, which took over ownership of the tracks through Lac-Megantic after the disaster, said demand has dropped and they'll address the situation if it comes back again.
It's little consolation for locals.
"A lot more should be done," said Carette.
Carette helped form a citizens coalition that's been pushing for safety and has no plans to stop. Members of the group said the town still sits at the bottom of one of the steepest train tracks in Canada, and the curve near the crossing in town was rebuilt twice as sharp.
"So we have the same dangerous conditions using the railroad that we had at the time of the catastrophe," said Robert Bellefleur, a member of the group.
Though they are celebrating one major victory. In May, the federal government in Canada announced it will help foot the bill for a bypass, sending trains about seven miles around Lac-Megantic, instead of right through it.
Until then, every whistle will rattle their nerves.
"A reminder, you know, of a nightmare," Carette said.
But listen closely and you'll also hear the hum of construction: a reminder of how far they've come.