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Mayor of Lac-Mégantic wants tracks rerouted out of downtown

A firefighter stands close to the remains of a train wreckage in Lac Megantic in this file photo taken July 8, 2013. The rail firm involved in a tanker train disaster that killed 47 people in a Quebec town last month will be shut down because it does not have enough insurance to cover clean-up costs and other damages, a Canadian government agency said. The Canadian Transportation Agency said it would suspend the operating license of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) and its Canadian subsidiary from August 20.

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

A Quebec community still recovering from a fiery train disaster says it sent a clear message to the railway's potential new owner: We want the tracks out of our town.

A Lac-Mégantic town official says Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche delivered the message this week during her first meeting with a representative for Fortress Investment Group, the winning bidder for the insolvent Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.

The MMA is the railroad at the centre of last July's derailment that saw tank cars carrying volatile crude oil explode in downtown Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people.

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During Monday's meeting in Montreal, the mayor expressed the community's wish for the railway to be rerouted outside the town core, said the Lac-Mégantic official, who attended the session.

"Of course, Fortress is not the owner yet, so they didn't say yes, but they didn't say no," said the official, who did not want to be identified.

"They were listening and they were taking notes and they understand how we feel because [after] an accident like [the one] we had, it's impossible not to think of a bypass line."

Last month, Fortress subsidiary Railroad Acquisition Holdings LLC secured a winning bid for the bankrupt MMA, which operates about 770 kilometres of track in Maine, Vermont and Quebec.

The Lac-Mégantic official said Fortress consultant John Giles told Ms. Roy-Laroche that he was in an information-gathering phase because the company was still unsure whether it wanted to go through with the MMA purchase. The transaction is expected to close some time in March.

"They wanted to know what we expected from the new owner," the official said Wednesday. "It might be them, it might not be them, because they're not sure they're going to buy."

The official said the mayor also made it clear during her "positive" exchange with Mr. Giles that since the railway still winds its way through the middle of town, locals want to be assured that crude oil will no longer be transported on those tracks.

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Train service in Lac-Megantic, where some of the region's biggest employers depend on the railway, restarted in December and the MMA agreed not to transport dangerous goods through the town.

At the time, Ms. Roy-Laroche said she had participated in discussions to see whether the tracks could eventually be rerouted outside of downtown Lac-Mégantic. It's unclear whether a costly project to move the tracks outside the centre of town will proceed and who would pay for it.

The Lac-Mégantic official also said that Mr. Giles told the mayor a considerable amount of investment would be needed to improve the MMA's worn railway network, though he did not provide figures on how much the company would need to spend.

Ms. Giles did not respond Wednesday to an interview request sent by The Canadian Press.

The Maine-based Bangor Daily News reported that Mr. Giles called his introductory meeting with Ms. Roy-Laroche "very productive."

"We articulated the history and credentials of Fortress as a long-term investor in transportation and asset-based companies," Mr. Giles wrote to the newspaper in an e-mail.

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"It was also an opportunity to listen to the town leaders, to their beliefs and interests and a chance for me to articulate our sincere priorities and long-standing and successful history of being a high-performance company serving customers and communities safely and efficiently, and finally, being a good long-term employer."

Fortress used to own a 60-per-cent stake in Rail America before it was sold in 2012. It still operates short-line railways, including Florida East Coast Railway.

The Bangor Daily News has also reported that Fortress plans to change the MMA's name to the Central Maine and Quebec Railway if and when the sale is finalized.

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