Lac Megantic rail bypass to be funded jointly by federal, Quebec governments

Five years after a runaway oil-laden train slammed into the heart of Lac-Megantic and killed 47 people, Ottawa and Quebec confirmed a rail bypass Friday that will ensure trains leave the municipality’s downtown core for good.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard were among those on hand to announce a commitment to build the 12.8-kilometre bypass.

The town of Lac-Megantic. Photo by SImon Villeneuve via Wikimedia Commons.
The town of Lac-Megantic. Photo by SImon Villeneuve via Wikimedia Commons.

Trudeau said politicians normally are all smiles during such infrastructure announcements, but that wasn’t the case Friday.

“There’s nothing we wouldn’t give to go back in the past and avoid being here today to make this announcement,” Trudeau said. “Obviously, we can’t rewrite history, but we can, together, shape the future.”

The prime minister said many people are still dealing with the ongoing effects of trauma and loss and he hopes the bypass will help the community continue to heal and rebuild.

“No community should have to live through what Lac-Megantic went through, no one should have to suffer the tragic loss of their own,” he said.

The new route that will take rail traffic away from the downtown area was selected following a feasibility study commissioned by the municipality.

While the estimated cost is $133 million, the next phase of the study will clarify the final cost of the bypass.

The federal government will assume 60 per cent of the cost, with Quebec taking on the remaining 40 per cent.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the plan is to build the bypass “as quickly as possible,” likely by 2022.

Colette Roy Laroche, who was mayor at the time of the July 2013 tragedy, described the news as a victory for the town and another step in the slow, ongoing reconstruction process.

A police helicopter view of the 2013 Lac-Megantic disaster. Photo via Sûreté du Québec
A police helicopter view of the 2013 Lac-Megantic disaster. Photo via Sûreté du Québec

“Today, I’m thinking of my fellow citizens who are still going through difficult times following the tragedy,” she said.

“For all of us, it’s another way of rebuilding ourselves, socially.”

Gilbert Carette, a member of a citizens’ coalition that has been fighting for the bypass, said the announcement was important for residents who are still traumatized by the derailment.

“It’s like a little nightmare every time you hear the train whistle,” he said.

“People want to step ahead for a new start.”

But while Trudeau’s announcement was met with applause, not everyone was cheering.

About a dozen protesters stood nearby, waving signs that read No To The Bypass and No Trains Through Our Town.

Garneau said the project will encompass 80 pieces of privately owned land. The federal government will approach each of the owners and come to an agreement with them in terms of the value of their property.

One such resident, Michel Dallaire, could hardly contain his anger as he told reporters the bypass would cut his land in two.

“My land is finished, it’s worth nothing,” he said of the property he’s owned for 17 years.

“I’m not a big guy, but it’s going to take one big bulldozer to get me out of there.”

Rita Boulanger, another protester, noted that trains are still parked at the top of the steep slope leading to the town, as they were five years ago.

She said many citizens would rather the government address the safety issues and keep the track in place.

“It’s not true that those people are traumatized,” she said. “They’re tired. We’d like to turn the page and move forward but it’s five years they’ve been dragging their feet.”

Trudeau, meanwhile, acknowledged that no plan would satisfy everyone.

“When you move a rail line, you’re moving it from somewhere to somewhere else. There are private lands all around this place and there’s no question that there’s going to be people impacted when you move a rail line.

“(But) we’ve chosen a path that we all believe is the right one to move forward on.”

Lac-Megantic Mayor Julie Morin praised the bypass, but noted that every effort needs to be made to minimize its impact on residents as it moves forward.

“Let’s remember that citizens will be affected, regardless of the final path, and they could become, without anyone wishing it, collateral victims of July 6, 2013,” she said.

Couillard said a balance had to be struck in choosing the path.

“It shouldn’t be too close because people want it to move away from the downtown part of Lac-Megantic, but it shouldn’t be too far because it’s also economically crucial for the region, for the city, that it remains close to the industrial park,” he said.

Couillard also said that despite the goodwill of all those involved, a project of this magnitude could not be improvised.

He called the long-sought bypass an exceptional response to an exceptional situation.

Additionally, the federal government has reached a deal with the Central Maine & Quebec Railway, which will own and operate the new infrastructure.

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