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Lac-Megantic mayor meets potential rail owner

Lac-Megantic mayor meets potential rail ownerLac Megantic mayor Colette Roy-Laroche, flanked by security official, speaks at a news conference in Lac-Megantic, Que., Saturday, July 13, 2013. A Quebec community still recovering from a fiery train disaster says it sent a clear message to the railroad's potential new owner: we want the tracks out our town. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

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

A Lac-Megantic 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-Megantic, wiping out buildings and killing 47 people.

During Monday's meeting in Montreal, the mayor expressed the community's wish for the railroad to be re-routed outside the town core, said the Lac-Megantic 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 named.

"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-Megantic official said Fortress consultant John Giles told Roy-Laroche he was in an information-gathering phase because the company was still unsure whether it wanted to go through with the MMA purchase.

"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 bankruptcy trustee overseeing the transaction said in an email Wednesday that the deal should be closed by the end of March.

Robert Keach said all parties expect the conditions to be met and he believes Fortress will obtain the necessary regulatory approval from transportation agencies on both sides of the border.

The official said the mayor also made it clear during her "positive" exchange with Giles that since the railroad 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.

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

At the time, Roy-Laroche said she had participated in discussions to see whether the tracks could eventually be re-routed outside of downtown Lac-Megantic. 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-Megantic official also said Giles told the mayor a considerable amount of investment would be needed to improve the MMA's worn railroad network, though he did not provide figures on how much the company would need to spend.

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

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

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

"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 longstanding 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 once the sale is finalized.

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