Residents of the small Quebec town where a train carrying crude crashed and killed as many as 50 people are calling on the head of the railway to take more responsibility after he said an engineer failed to set the hand brakes on the runaway train.
“It’s very questionable whether the hand brakes were properly applied on this train,” Edward Burkhardt, chief executive officer of Rail World Inc., owner of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd., told reporters yesterday. “As a matter of fact, I’ll say they weren’t, otherwise we wouldn’t have had this incident.”
Burkhardt paid his first visit to Lac-Megantic, Quebec four days after an unmanned, 72-car oil train rolled from an overnight parking spot into the center of town, where it jumped the tracks, caught fire and incinerated about 30 buildings.
About 50 people, many of whom were at the Musi-Cafe bar near the train tracks, are “probably dead,” said Chief Inspector Michel Forget of the Surete du Quebec police. Twenty bodies have been recovered, he said yesterday.
If 50 people are confirmed dead it would be the worst rail disaster in Canada in more than 100 years. About 63 people were killed in a derailment in Spanish River, Ontario in 1910, according to the Canadian Disaster Database.
Burkhardt laid the blame for the crash on his own engineer for failing to properly apply hand brakes on the rail cars when they were parked in the nearby village of Nantes. He said his company’s inspection indicated the brakes were applied on the locomotives, but not on the rail cars.
Burkhardt said the train’s engineer told the company he had applied 11 hand brakes. He didn’t name the engineer.
“We think he applied some hand brakes, the question is, did he apply enough of them?” Burkhardt said. “He’s told us that he applied 11 hand brakes and our general feeling now is that that is not true. Initially we took him at his word.”
The engineer on the train was Tom Harding of Farnham, Quebec, according to Guy Farrell, assistant to the Quebec director of the United Steelworkers Union. The union represents 75 MM&A workers. Harding has been suspended with pay, Farrell said.
“He’s off work paid,” Farrell said in an interview today. “He’s entitled to all services from the company.”
Calls to a Tom Harding in Farnham weren’t answered.
It was unprofessional for Burkhardt to blame his employee, said Jean Saint Pierre, who runs a head-hunting company from Lac-Megantic.
“The only professional way to act is to say, ‘there’s an enquiry, we will collaborate with the police and all those guys,” Saint Pierre said. “Only a cowboy would say ‘‘Ok, I decide my employee has done this or that.’’
Other residents called on Burkhardt and his company to take financial responsibility for the disaster. ‘‘He’s the one who says it costs too much and makes cuts to people manning the train,’’ said Francois Dion, a former steel worker and resident of the area. ‘‘He needs to pay the price.’’
Police are investigating a possible criminal act or negligence. The Surete du Quebec told reporters yesterday they questioned Burkhardt after he agreed to meet with investigators, police spokesman Benoit Richard said, without providing details. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois was scheduled to visit the town today.
Burkhardt, 74, a railroad industry veteran who has served as Rail World’s CEO since forming it in 1999, was heckled by locals as he answered reporters’ questions. He said in an interview this week before leaving Chicago, where Rail World is based, that he had received death threats and ‘‘a whole bunch of hate mail” since the incident. The center of town remains a crime scene and is closed off. About 2,000 people, or a third of the town near the Maine border, were forced to evacuate although many have since returned home.
While leaving locomotives running overnight with no one aboard is standard practice, Montreal Maine won’t do so again, Burkhardt said in the interview. “We’re going to tighten up our procedures,” he said. “I expect there will be a push to tighten up regulation as well. I support that.”
Burkhardt said firefighters responding to a fire on the train’s parked locomotive after the engineer left for the night may have switched it off, causing the air brakes to release. He told reporters in Lac-Megantic that a track foreman who boarded the train with the firefighters wouldn’t have recognized the significance of the engines being turned off because he isn’t familiar with diesel locomotives.
“Nothing the firefighters did could have put the train in jeopardy,” Patrick Lambert, the fire chief in Nantes, where the train was left, said in response on the CBC network.
Burkhardt, who said he planned to spend yesterday and today in the town, said the scene “looks like a war zone,” echoing comments by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during an earlier visit. Burkhardt said he didn’t arrive in the town earlier as he felt he could be more effective working from Chicago and not distract emergency crews dealing with the accident.
“I feel absolutely awful about this, I’m devastated,” he said.
Asked how he would react if criminal charges are laid, “if that’s the case, let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “I can’t draw the line between carelessness and criminal negligence.”
Montreal Maine’s U.S. accident rates exceed the average for commercial railroads operating in the country for at least the past decade, according to data compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration.
Rates have exceeded the national average in all except one of the past 10 years, FRA data show. In 2006, when Montreal Maine had 75.9 reported incidents per million train miles, the highest in that span, the average for the 730 railroads operating in the U.S. was 16.6.
Comparing Montreal Maine’s safety statistics to larger railroads is unfair because a single accident has a disproportionate effect for the smaller carrier, Burkhardt said.
Montreal Maine owns about 510 miles (821 kilometers) of track in Maine and Vermont in the U.S. and Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada, according to its website. That compares to a 21,000-mile network for CSX Corp., the largest railroad operating primarily in the eastern U.S.
“We’ve had a steadily improving safety record there,” the executive said in the interview. “It had always been an emphasis.”
Burkhardt said the situation at Lac-Megantic differs from a 1996 derailment at another railroad he was running. He was chief executive officer of Wisconsin Central Transportation Corp. when a train carrying liquid petroleum gas and propane burst into flames after jumping the tracks in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, according to a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report. While no one was killed, 3,155 people had to be evacuated.
The NTSB blamed the crash in the town, about 193 kilometers northwest of Milwaukee, on improper track maintenance that led to a broken rail. The Wisconsin Central workers in charge of inspecting the track weren’t properly trained, the agency said.
“The circumstances were completely different,” Burkhardt said. “Lac-Megantic was not an infrastructure problem at all.”
Mad as Hell
In Lac-Megantic, Burkhardt said he’s setting up a claims office where its insurer will receive claims and begin to process them immediately. He’s also working with the Red Cross to ensure people who were forced to evacuate have proper clothing, food and shelter before rebuilding begins.
“We have a lot of work to do with the people in this town who are, frankly, mad as hell right now,” Burkhardt said. “Understandably so.”
While residents said they were glad Burkhardt visited the town, they’re still looking for more information about the crash.
’’Just give us a good answer, tell us the truth, we want to know what really happened,’’ said Chantalle Pratte, 42-year-old resident of the town.