The day the trains stopped running

by Carroll McCormick

LAC MAGANTIC, Que. — When a runaway freight train carrying crude oil exploded in the middle of Lac Megantic, Que. this July 6, half the downtown vanished, 47 people died and the city’s industrial park lost its rail connection to the continent. Particleboard and decorative melamine panel manufacturing giant Tafisa Canada called on its trucking carriers to fill the gap.

Up until that horrible day in Lac Megantic, located about 250 kilometres east of Montreal and just 15 kilometres from the Maine border, Tafisa, which opened in the early 1990s, relied on a mixture of rail cars and trucks to ship vast quantities of particleboard. Every week between 50 and 60 rail cars, each carrying as much as 85 tonnes, and from 200 to 210 trucks would leave the 700,000 sq.-ft. plant.

The trucks served most destinations under 1,000 kilometres away and the railcars took product further west in Canada and the US, primarily to Ohio and Michigan.

The short line railway Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) owns the line running through town and some of the spur line that branches off from downtown Lac Megantic and meanders north to the industrial park and Tafisa. Tafisa would load rail cars at its 100-metre long indoor rail platform and push them away from the plant. MMA locomotives would hook up to them for transport to the mainline railways CN and CP.

The explosion changed all that, but Tafisa was determined to continue serving all of its customers, according to Christine Couture, supply chain manager, Tafisa.

Tafisa put out a call for help to the 10 or so trucking companies already hauling for it, and hired one additional carrier. The truck departures increased to 330-350 truckloads a week.

“We brought in only one new company. Otherwise, our existing trucking companies were able to find more trucks and more brokers to fill our needs,” Couture explains.

It took two to three weeks for Tafisa to put in place a plan to have those roughly 130 additional trucks per week deliver their loads to reload centres in Quebec, where their contents could be put on railcars.

“Now, most of our customers who were receiving railcars before are receiving them from reload centres,” Couture says. She declined to say where the reload centres are, other than that they are within the province.

Between the plant’s administration offices and the railcar loading platform are four truck loading docks. They serve closed van, flatbed and curtainside trailers. Before the explosion, Tafisa was loading trucks six days a week. The greatly increased truck traffic meant ramping up that schedule to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Work was reorganized so that the loading could be done entirely by Tafisa’s employees.

Of the change, Couture says, “It is faster to load the product on the trucks. Flatcars, for instance, take a long time to load, because there is a lot of tarping to be done.”

That said, there is no chance that Tafisa will get hooked on the convenience of trucking: Its distant customers are well accustomed to the train schedules, direct shipment by truck to them is more costly and double-handling the shipments to the reload centres incurs added costs.

It is unknown how much longer Tafisa’s carriers will continue filling in for the railway. Work did begin in late October to repair the tracks so trains could pass through the city and on to Maine and to the industrial park. The work could be completed by the end of November, but this does not translate into an automatic resumption of rail service. Transport Canada has already denied a tourist train passage on the MMA line into Lac Megantic, raising questions about when rail service on the MMA line will resume, and how quickly car movements will return to the levels seen before the July explosion.

That said, Tafisa has expressed hope, in a press release this October, that rail service from the plant could resume before year’s end.

In any case, the repair work is a temporary fix, Couture understands. “The city is pushing to have a track go around the city. But this is a huge project, a long-term project.” In the meantime, trucks will continue to keep Tafisa’s supply chain intact, its doors open and its workforce of some 325 on the job.

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