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'Train from hell': Railway revolt brews in Lac-Megantic, a town built by the tracks

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LAC-MEGANTIC, - Like so many kids raised near railroads, youngsters in this Quebec town would count train wagons as they rumbled by and got a kick out watching the wheels flatten pennies they had placed on the tracks.

"It was a ritual," said Diane Clusiault, who grew up by a section of Lac-Megantic's railway, just a couple of hundred metres from the heart of her town.

"We were never scared of the train."

Clusiault's view of the century-old tracks — along with those of many Meganticois — were forever changed a little over a week ago, when a runaway train carrying crude oil screamed past her house and smashed through downtown.

Among the dozens killed in the fiery derailment is Clusiault's 24-year-old niece, Kathy.

While crews dig through oil-soaked rubble in search of human remains, residents are already thinking about reconstruction and the role of the railroad that has shaped the town's history.

A key question on many locals' minds is whether the railway, seen by some as a regional economic lifeline and by others as the "train from hell," should ever pass through the downtown area again.

Many residents here are quick to explain that they don't want the trains back.

After the derailment, that defiance was spelled out in black upper-case letters on a handmade sign. It was posted at the railroad's edge, close to Clusiault's home.

"You, train from hell," reads the placard in French.

"Don't come back here. You are no longer welcome."

The message's headline is directed at the railroad's American operators — Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. It reads, in English, "Shame on you MMA."

"The people are rebelling," said Clusiault, who added that she agrees with the message.

"Maybe at a certain point if more people revolt, then we will have some results."

The anger in town has led to some discussions that residents should rip up the tracks themselves.

The catch is that many local businesses — and jobs — depend on those rails to survive, said the director of the region's economic-development centre.

Michele Tardif said Lac-Megantic's economy depends heavily on exports to the nearby United States, which is only about 25 kilometres from town.

Lac-Megantic's industrial park, she said, generates $400 million per year in revenues, about half of it coming from a particle-board manufacturer named Tafisa.

The company employs around 400 people and supplies the nearby Bestar furniture maker, which has nearly 200 jobs.

Combined, those two businesses' employment totals equal 10 per cent of the local population.

"So, for a small town, it's big — it's huge," Tardif said of the railway in an interview.

Tardif is concerned that pushback from residents could divide the town, positioning those who oppose the downtown tracks against those who need them to survive.

"I hope that won't happen," she said, "because that would be a real challenging situation and (would) draw people apart."

The railroad was part of Lac-Megantic's identity from the start, underscored by a popular local slogan: "From the railway to the Milky Way." The phrase refers to the region's Mont-Megantic observatory, which boasts a powerful, 24-tonne telescope.

The tracks weave through the very fabric of Lac-Megantic; they cut across major roads at half-a-dozen junctures from one end of town to the other.

"It's our only excuse for being late to work here, basically," Tardif said of the level crossings.

"Because there are no real traffic jams like in cities."

She said there had been some talk of veering the railroad away from the centre of town over the years, but said most complaints were focused on how it had become an annoyance — not a potential hazard.

With the area's hilly terrain, she said, the idea was considered too expensive.

"The problem is not just ripping it off, it's that you need to put it back somewhere else," Tardif said.

The owner of a local excavation company, whose son and two daughters-in-law died in the disaster, said last week that people had offered to send him large sums of cash to remove the rails.

Raymond Lafontaine doesn't want the railroad to pass through downtown Lac-Megantic ever again, but he understands there are more diplomatic ways to proceed.

"I am not a terrorist, we don't do things this way ... we don't do things based on rage," he said last week.

Lac-Megantic's mayor has said she wants the tracks to be diverted away from downtown, to the local industrial park.

Colette Roy-Laroche has acknowledged, however, that such a complicated project would be costly and would need help from different levels of government.

The offices of both the provincial and federal transport ministers say it's still too early to discuss such a project, with Ottawa saying it was waiting to act on the Transportation Safety Board's recommendations.

Even the chairman of the railway has indicated he's open to the idea of running the tracks around Lac-Megantic, rather than through it, as long as his company can afford it.

Ed Burkhardt, however, was also quick to remind people that Lac-Megantic's businesses rely on the railway and the priority is to reopen it, and soon.

"These guys have to have rail service or else they're going to lay their people off and we'll have more problems," Burkhardt said during a visit to the town last week.

His company is at the centre of investigations by police, insurers and the Transportation Safety Board.

"We hope when the investigations are completed that we can go in and start to make a path through the wreckage," said Burkhardt, who was heckled by angry residents during his stop in town.

"Later, we'll clean up all the wrecked cars and build track back and start to run trains through here again. But carefully, I might tell you."

It's unclear how long it will be before another train rolls through Lac-Megantic, with the massive cleanup barely under way.

If a locomotive ever passes through downtown again, Clusiault said she's certain that difficult memories of the crash will come rushing back.

"When it passes, for sure people will tense up," said Clusiault, who hopes the train will instead be moved a good distance from town.

"Far enough that just in case there are more explosions, nobody around will be affected by it."

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