MONTREAL — The dangers of transporting hazardous goods by train were highlighted in tragic fashion four years ago, when an oil-laden runaway train derailed and crashed in the centre of Lac-Megantic, Que., killing 47 people.
But as the town rebuilds and rebrands itself as an eco-friendly hub, some engineers at Montreal's Concordia University are working to develop a math model they hope could help prevent similar rail disasters.
The project, which is led by PhD student Omar Abuobidalla, aims to develop a model that would consider various risk factors involved in a given train journey, thus allowing rail operators to make the best decision on what route to use, according to one of the project's supervisors.
"It may be (that) through investigation we locate very dangerous locations or track segments, and give that a much higher weight in the modelling," said Mingyuan Chen, a professor in Concordia's department of mechanical and industrial engineering.
The solution from the mathematical model would then help avoid those locations, he added.
As an example, the finished version of the model could include risk factors such as an area's population, the type of material being transported, and even the slope of the track — some of which may have contributed to the Lac-Megantic disaster.
If the dangers are deemed to be high, the model could suggest an alternate route if one is feasible, or possibly issue a recommendation such as reducing speed, Chen says.
As of yet, the team — comprised of two supervisors as well as Abuobidalla and a master's student — is still working on developing the mathematical equations to calculate risk as accurately as possible without making the final product prohibitively complicated to use.
Some results should be available in a year, but the final result of the study, which is partly funded by CN Rail, is still two years or more away.
Chen says it would be "too forward" to suggest his team's work could prevent another Lac-Megantic, given the many factors involved in a rail accident.
He also pointed out that other solutions are being proposed by researchers, government and rail companies.
Ottawa, for example, announced a series of measures including reducing the speed of convoys in urban areas, letting municipalities know what kind of dangerous materials could be passing through their territories, and retiring the older DOT-111 rail tanker cars.
But despite his modesty, Chen says the research is promising.
"The influence of such research including ours would make the chance of those things happening much reduced, that I will say," he noted.
But while policy-makers continue to look for ways to improve rail safety, citizens of Lac-Megantic are preparing to celebrate another sombre anniversary of the derailing on July 6, 2013.
"We can feel it a few days before the actual date, people are somehow different, some are uncomfortable," said Sonia Dumont, a spokeswoman for the town's rebuilding committee.
She said that after years of planning and decontamination work, Lac-Megantic is well into the reconstruction process.
It's being guided by a vision of "eco-responsibility," which she describes as "putting people at the centre of development, while considering the environment, the economic aspect, and the social aspect."
Construction on several new projects, including a new park, pedestrian walkway and multi-functional community space will begin this fall, Dumont said.
The town is also developing new "human infrastructure," including a new greeters program where citizens act as guides for the town's tourists.
As they rebuild, townspeople aren't dropping their calls for a bypass that would steer trains away from the town's core.
The Quebec and federal governments have financed a feasibility study on the matter, and the province's environmental review agency began public hearings on the issue in May.
"Projects are ongoing in the downtown area and we're moving along but always keeping in mind that in the near future we are wanting to see, and expecting to see, a bypass," Dumont said.
Nor have they forgotten the anniversary, which will be quietly marked with a church service, an outdoor vigil and an activity at the historic train station.
"(The residents) just want to be amongst themselves, they want to be together in a very simple way, not forgetting," she said.