Nearly a decade after the horrific derailment of a crude oil unit train at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that claimed 47 lives and led to new regulations for railroad hazmat tank cars, Canada Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra on Jan. 14 announced that building a 12.5-km (7.75-mile) bypass to get trains out of downtown Lac-Mégantic “remains a priority.” While the government has signed agreements to acquire some of the land for the project, he said, it has decided not to extend the “mutual negotiation period” with the remaining impacted owners after doing so three times, so that the project can move forward.
The government of Canada in November 2022 reported that an agreement-in-principle had been reached with the city of Lac-Mégantic for the land parcel acquisition required for bypass construction. “This is an important project for the community, the government of Canada, and the families of the 47 victims of the tragedy,” Transport Canada said at that time. “The government of Canada is working with the government of Quebec, the city of Lac-Mégantic and the municipalities of Frontenac and Nantes to complete this project, which will benefit the community.” Land parcel acquisitions for the bypass, which will be built, owned and operated by Canadian Pacific (CP), were expected to be finalized over the coming months.
The railroad line is the former Central Maine & Quebec, which CP purchased from Fortress Transportation and Infrastructure Investors LLC (FTII) in late 2019. Fortress subsidiary Railroad Acquisition Holdings had acquired the assets of the bankrupt Montreal, Maine & Atlantic from Rail World following the Lac-Mégantic disaster, reorganizing it into the CM&Q (Railway Age’s 2016 Regional Railroad of the Year).
On Jan. 14, 2023, Minister of Transport Alghabra issued the following statement, which Railway Age reproduces in its entirety:
“We will always remember July 6, 2013, and the 47 victims of this tragedy. In 2018, our government committed to building a bypass to get trains out of downtown Lac-Mégantic. The construction of the Lac-Mégantic bypass remains a priority.
“Given the scale of the project, it was undeniable that it would require several years of work, including determining the route, conducting environmental studies and acquiring the parcels of land needed for the project. We are now at a crucial moment as we hope to start construction as soon as possible, especially since it will be the 10th anniversary of the tragedy next July.
“An important step forward is the acquisition of land for the bypass. Although we have signed agreements with several impacted owners, including the town of Lac-Mégantic, there are still agreements that have not been finalized.
“After postponing the end date of negotiations three times to allow impacted owners more time to properly analyze their offer, to use the services of experts, and to obtain reports related to the value and sale of their property, the government of Canada informed the owners impacted by the acquisition of parcels of land on Friday that it would not extend the mutual negotiation period beyond January 13, 2023. For those who have signed an offer to purchase with the government of Canada, note that these agreements remain valid.
“Since October 2021, landowners impacted by the land acquisition process have been able to meet with government of Canada officials at the designated office in downtown Lac-Mégantic. Transport Canada also held two public consultations in 2022 as part of the project, including a public consultation on hydrology and measures to mitigate potential impacts of the project, from October 24 to November 25, 2022. Citizens and impacted owners who wanted to learn about the project and ask questions were also able to do so during the ‘open house’ session on November 8 or during the virtual session on November 9.
“We are therefore taking a new step today, even if it is a difficult step, since we would have liked to finalize all the agreements by mutual negotiation. Transport Canada will continue to make every effort in the next steps by sharing information and responding to resident’s concerns. This is to ensure the best possible integration of the project into the community.”
In 2015, the City of Lac-Mégantic contracted AECOM to conduct a rail bypass project pre-planning feasibility study, which the governments of Canada and Quebec funded. A monitoring committee with representatives from the federal and provincial governments and the three municipalities was formed. The feasibility study was carried out in three phases. The first, completed in 2016, identified and analyzed three potential corridors. The monitoring committee selected Corridor 1.
During the second phase of pre-planning, three variations on Corridor 1 were developed and assessed. In 2017, the monitoring committee selected variation number 2 was selected by. The final route selected was communicated in the project funding announcement by the federal and Quebec governments in May 2018.
In 2020, the study’s third phase was completed. This step incorporated data obtained from field surveys and geotechnical work and specified the selected track profile in the chosen corridor. Criteria used to determine the bypass route were technical characteristics (track geometry and grade), safety, human environment (proximity to buildings and communities), land planning (acquisition of permanent rights-of-way, affected and fragmented land), natural environment (crossing of waterways and wetlands), grade crossings, engineering works (necessary structures) and culverts, and cost.
The project involves construction of two yard tracks in the Lac-Mégantic industrial park to allow rail operations from Nantes and Frontenac to be relocated there, “thereby maximizing rail safety.” This component, announced in August 2019, is in response to the request from the mayors and the community of Lac-Mégantic.
“The selected route removes the rail right-of-way from downtown Lac-Mégantic and reduces the number of buildings near the railway,” Transport Canada noted. “This route was recognized as the most advantageous one by the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur environnement du Québec (BAPE) and as having the least impact on agricultural land by the Commission de protection du territoire agricole du Québec (CPTAQ).”
CP is responsible for bypass plans, specifications and construction. In the fall of 2021, plans and specifications passed the 30% progress level and were submitted to the Canadian Transportation Agency to initiate the project approval process. As of April 2022, the plans had reached the 70% progress level. The plans and specifications phase also includes the completion of soil and water quality, noise, vehicular traffic, fish habitat and private drinking water source studies, as well as archaeological inventories.
The government of Canada, in collaboration with the government of Quebec, will implement monitoring mechanisms “to ensure that the project meets the expectations and requirements for both levels of government.” Transport Canada hired the engineering firm CIMA + to provide support for this purpose.
Once the bypass is in operation, the existing track between Nantes and Frontenac will be dismantled and transferred to Transport Canada. “Decontamination work may be carried out depending on the intended use of the land,” Transport Canada said. “The government of Canada intends to transfer these lands to the municipalities for public use.”
Watch a 3D animated video of the Lac-Mégantic rail bypass: