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Quebec police try to prevent U.S. auction of Lac-Megantic locomotive

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MONTREAL - Quebec provincial police say they've taken steps to prevent the auction of the locomotive that played a key role in the deadly Lac-Megantic rail disaster.

A spokeswoman for the force said Wednesday that investigators initiated measures to block a U.S. auction house from selling the locomotive until the end of legal proceedings.

News of the police move surfaced after a report by The Canadian Press on Wednesday revealed that locomotive MMA 5017, the lead engine on the train that smashed into the Quebec town last summer, was due to go to auction in Maine on Aug. 5.

"The only thing I can confirm to you in this file is that Surete (du Quebec) investigators have taken steps to block the sale of the locomotive for the duration of the judicial process," said Sgt. Christine Coulombe, who declined to provide any further details.

The runaway oil train derailed and exploded last July in the heart of the community, wiping out dozens of buildings and killing 47 people. Some locals in the community have referred to it as the "train from hell."

Three employees of the now-insolvent Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the company at the centre of the disaster, have each been charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death, one for each victim of the crash. The MMA itself is also facing the same charges.

The auctioneer hired to sell the locomotive at a Maine rail yard said Wednesday he has yet to hear from authorities that the unit will be pulled from his auction.

Adam Jokisch said he will proceed with his plans to sell the locomotive until an official tells him otherwise.

"As of right now, this minute, it is in the auction and it will be sold in the auction," Jokisch said.

"If something happens between now and the auction? Hey, I don't know. But I'm just the auctioneer and it's on our plate to sell. If somebody comes and takes it, then we won't."

A spokesman for MMA's secured creditor, the Maine-based Bangor Savings Bank, told The Canadian Press earlier this week that it "double" and "triple" checked to make sure authorities no longer needed the unit and that they had permission to auction it off. He was not immediately available for comment after the Quebec police announcement.

MMA 5017, the lead engine on the train that smashed into Lac-Megantic, is scheduled to go to auction Aug. 5., a month after the disaster-scarred town marked the first year of the catastrophe.

The opening bid for the locomotive that played a key role in one of Canada's worst-ever rail disasters has been set at $10,667 (or US$10,000).

Jokisch said he has yet to receive any specific inquiries about MMA 5017, but he's expecting more spectators than usual when he belts out its name at the Derby Rail Yard in Milo, Maine.

"It is unique and obviously this locomotive's got some history to it," the president of St. Louis-based Adam's Auction & Real Estate Services, Inc. said in an earlier interview.

"It's definitely not a good piece of history, that's for sure. . . I don't think I'd want to be reminded about that horrible accident."

MMA 5017 will also have company on the auction block.

In all, the auction will feature 25 locomotives from the fleet of the now-bankrupt MMA, as well as seven units identified as the property of an affiliate of its former parent company, Rail World Inc.

The black-and-green MMA 5017 appears to have avoided any serious damage in the incident. The night of the disaster, the diesel-electric machine continued rolling along the rails as 63 tank cars filled with volatile crude oil careened off the tracks behind it.

But like several of the MMA locomotives that will be sold off, the General Electric C-30-7 is not in running condition, according to the auction-house blurb that also mentions its connection to the disaster.

"The MMA 5017 unit was the lead locomotive in a derailment and fire incident in Canada," reads the ad on Jokisch's website.

It notes that due to that crash, "the number 4, 5 & 6 power assemblies were removed." The ad also states that MMA 5017 has a "defective piston."

Many of the other MMA locomotives advertised by the auction house come with problems, from graffiti to missing parts. Some units are likely worth little more than scrap value, says the online ad.

"Sometimes they're worn out, sometimes they're real good," Jokisch said about locomotives he's auctioned off in the past.

"(We've sold used) locomotives anywhere from $25,000 to $300,000 before . . . It depends on the make and model number and condition, of course."

The cash generated by the auction will help pay back the US$3.7 million owed to the Bangor Savings Bank.

Yellow Light Breen, an executive vice-president with the bank, said any extra money from the sale of the 25 MMA engines and three of the seven units owned by Rail World Locomotive Leasing will pay off the insolvent railway's other debts. Breen said the bank also expects to recoup some money from MMA through an upcoming real-estate sale.

Breen declined to estimate how much the machines would generate at the auction, but said the bank hopes the sale brings in several million dollars.

When it comes to MMA 5017, he was asked about whether the bank would consider donating it to a museum or even destroying it.

"Certainly, it has some unfortunate, tragic historic significance. . . But I can't speculate as to what that might mean as far as disposing of it," Breen said in an interview.

"Obviously, we're a federally insured financial institution, so we have a duty both to our depositors and to our insurers to collect the funds that we've lent the best we can. . .

"If there are interested parties who see a civic or historical significance they should probably be in touch with the auctioneer about that."

MMA 5017's fate will likely be of particular interest, considering the locomotive played a central role in the series of events that led to a crash that made global headlines and incinerated part of Lac-Megantic's downtown core.

On July 5, 2013, at 11 p.m., engineer Thomas Harding parked the locomotive and its train of 72 tankers for the night about 12 kilometres up a steep grade from Lac-Megantic. It was left unattended with its engine running to ensure its air brakes remained enabled.

Harding was picked up that night by his regular taxi driver Andre Turcotte, who later told The Canadian Press that the idling locomotive was burping so much thick smoke that oil droplets from its exhaust splattered onto his car.

Less than an hour later, the local fire department responded to a call that the locomotive had caught fire. The engine was shut down and the blaze was extinguished.

With the engine still turned off, the train was left unattended once again after an MMA track employee allegedly gave the green light to do so.

Shortly before 1 a.m., the train began to roll away and picked up speed as it raced downhill toward Lac-Megantic.

Witnesses have recalled watching the unmanned, unlit train roar through the darkness — with only the sparks on the tracks illuminating its path.

The 1:14 a.m. crash set off massive explosions and destroyed about 40 buildings in Lac-Megantic.

MMA 5017, however, rolled safely away from the disaster zone, unscathed by the inferno. It led a string of five locomotives at the front of the train, a group that decoupled from the convoy of tankers, the Transportation Safety Board has said.

They came to a stop 800 metres beyond the crash site, far enough to avoid the towering fireballs.

The train disaster left widespread physical and emotional scars in a community whose history was shaped by the century-old railroad.

Today, the majority of locals want the tracks re-routed outside of their shattered downtown, to ensure that trains filled with hazardous substances never pass by their homes again.

This resentment was spelled out last summer in black upper-case letters scrawled on a handmade sign posted at the railroad's edge, not far from where the tank cars rumbled off the tracks.

"You, train from hell," read the sign. "Don't come back here. You are no longer welcome."

Fortress Investment Group, which recently bought MMA and renamed it Central Maine and Quebec Railway, has pledged to stop shipping hazardous materials through town until at least Jan. 1, 2016.

Company spokesman Daniel Matte has said CMQ hopes to ease concerns of locals by repairing its Canadian stretch of tracks and by buying new locomotives.

As for MMA 5017, it's unclear whether it will operate on a railroad ever again.

Officials at the rail yard in Milo, about 250 kilometres east of Lac-Megantic, declined a request by The Canadian Press to see the locomotives.

Jokisch has posted maintenance reports for the units online and potential buyers will be invited to inspect the machines up close in the days preceding the auction. Bidders and spectators will also be able to follow the auction live online.

He believes MMA 5017 could eventually pull trains again, as long as someone wants to invest in it.

"Sometimes it comes down to a dollar amount — whether it's worth it. . . I think just about most any locomotive can be refurbished and put back on the tracks," Jokisch said.

"They gotta make it safe again, that's for sure, if somebody's going to use it."

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

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