It’s hard not to be consumed in the tragic news pouring out of Lac Megantic, an iconic Eastern Townships municipality that conjures images that are serene and picturesque.  The horrific images beaming around the world coupled with the heartbreaking stories of families and friends devastated by this disaster seem surreal and out of place, especially given the enormity of what has transpired only a short drive from our own homes here in Cote Saint-Luc.

What’s also of concern is the similarity of our two towns given that both have a history deeply connected to the railway.  Indeed, Cote Saint-Luc’s very own coat of arms depicts the railroad, an important part of the history of our community.

I am often asked by residents about railway activity in the St-Luc Yards, owned by CP Rail, reputedly one of the largest shunting (also known as marshalling) yards in Eastern Canada. The fact is the railways in may ways predated modern Cote Saint-Luc, and Canadian laws pertaining to railways predate and supersede most of the laws governing municipalities.

In the pre-merger years (pre-2002) the Cote Saint-Luc Fire Department would receive a weekly inventory from CP Rail listing all materials that were being transported through our city. With the municipal mergers we lost our own fire department and the authority to deal with the railway at that level.

Nevertheless, our residents routinely see every kind of box car and tanker car parked along Mackle road in the St-Luc Yards. So, it isn’t unreasonable to ask questions ourselves.

Here are a few questions I’ve been trying to understand since learning of the tragedy not too far away:

  • Why was the Montreal Maine & Atlantic train carrying 72 cars (all or most carrying crude oil) and a locomotive left unattended when its conductor ended his shift? Was there no night watchman or other personnel with the train? Don’t dozens of cars worth millions of dollars require some surveillance against thieves, terrorists, natural or man-made disaster?
  • Was there a GPS locator on the locomotive and a monitored control centre so that someone would know the exact location and movement of that train within meters at every given moment?
  • Why would a train be parked on a hill or slope?  Is this permitted by law? Does it make sense given that any brake failure will result in gravity doing its thing? Shouldn’t trains always be parked on level terrain?
  • A fire was reported on the locomotive an hour before the explosion and fire crews responded to douse the flames. Shouldn’t there be a standard operating procedure, particularly in the case of dozens of cars carrying highly flammable liquids, to immediately separate the car on fire from the rest of the train for a period of time to allow for a proper investigation and a cooling down of the car?

I will be reading the media reports attentively looking for these answers and more and wondering what will be learned from this tragedy to ensure it never happens again. I am always consumed with thinking about emergency preparedness here in Cote Saint-Luc and what we would do in case of a disaster. This tragedy will get me thinking even more.

Meanwhile, my thoughts and prayers are with the townspeople of Lac Magantic. Please donate whatever you can through bonafide organizations that will be collecting on their behalf.