Railroading’s Titanic

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Train Wrecks Vol. 2

By Justin Franz

Just before 11 p.m. on July 5, 2013, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train No. 2, an eastbound oil train, pulled to a stop at the east end of the Nantes siding, 7 miles west of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Locomotive engineer Thomas Harding, a 33-year veteran of the railroad, who first hired out on the Canadian Pacific in 1980, emerged from the cab of General Electric C30-7 locomotive No. 5017 into a warm July night.

The 74-car train with five locomotives stretched into the darkness along Route 161 and, with the exception of the idling locomotives, all was quiet. Harding began to walk along the train and apply handbrakes on five locomotives, a buffer car, and a remote control caboose placed between the first and second locomotives. He then shut down the trailing four locomotives and did a brake test. At 11:05 p.m., Harding called the dispatcher in Farnham, the division point to the west where he had started his workday 10 hours earlier, to ask for a taxi to take him to his hotel.

While waiting for the taxi, Harding called another dispatcher in Bangor, Maine, headquarters of the MM&A, to talk about issues he had with the lead locomotive throughout the day. Harding reported that the engine had been losing momentum throughout the trip and that he was unable to maintain power as he guided the loaded oil train over the Sherbrooke Subdivision’s roller-coaster profile. He also noted that when he had arrived at Nantes the locomotive was spewing black- and-white smoke. The dispatcher and Harding agreed to leave the engine as it was and have the next crew, who would take the train from Nantes to Brownville Junction, Maine, deal with it in the morning. Shortly after ending the conversation, the taxi from Lac-Mégantic arrived.

As Harding put his grip in the cab, the driver asked about the smoking locomotive that was spewing oil on the vehicle’s windshield. “The engine’s busted,” Harding said as he climbed in.

Two hours later, the same train that Harding had parked at a remote siding in Quebec’s Eastern Townships would be at the center of the worst railroad accident in modern Canadian and U.S. history.

The derailment of MM&A train No. 2 resulted in the death of 47 people and leveled buildings in the heart of downtown Lac-Mégantic, changing the small lakeside community forever. But the incident also had impacts far beyond Lac-Mégantic and they continue to impact the rail industry five years later. In many ways, the derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013, changed the rail industry in the same way the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic a century earlier impacted maritime transportation. 

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This story appeared in Trains Wrecks Vol. 2 from Trains Magazine in 2018.