Science, Tech & Environment

Grieving residents of Lac-Mégantic prepare for the return of trains rolling through town once again


The Canadian government allocated $90 million to help clean up contamination caused by the disastrous derailment in July of a train carrying crude oil through the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic. November 21, 2013


REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Lac-Mégantic used to be a sleepy little town, only disturbed by the occasional sound of a freight train rumbling down the tracks.

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In the early hours of July 6, a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed in the town. Several of the tank cars blew up, killing 47 people. Many, it's believed, were vaporized by the heat of the fire. More than 30 buildings in the town's center were destroyed. And in a town of 6,000, nearly everyone was affected by the disaster.

Wednesday, for the first time since that July night, residents will hear the familiar sound of a train rolling through town. The tracks in Lac-Mégantic have been repaired and freight train service will resume, but now hazardous materials will be banned.

"People understand that trains are a key part of the economy," said Canadian Press reporter Andy Blatchford after a recent trip to Lac-Mégantic. "But at the same time, they are concerned."

Freight service is the lifeblood of the area and the town's mayor, Collette Roy-Laroche, had promised local businesses that rail service would resume by Christmas.

But many residents are still coping with the loss of loved ones, homes and businesses. A team of counselors has been working with residents providing individual and group therapy. And they will be on hand when the railway reopens Wednesday.

"They want to put [the counselors] in strategic locations around the town, at level crossings and areas where the track passes neighborhoods and homes," said Blatchford. "There are still a lot of people that are going through this grieving process, so this could be difficult for them."

The disaster underscored the need to improve railway safety, since oil-by-rail shipments have soared in recent years. The train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic was carrying almost 2 million gallons of crude oil, most of which spilled during the accident. And crews are still working to decontaminate the town, says Blatchford.