Railway CEO Faulted by Union for Blaming Engineer

The head of the railroad in the crash and fatal explosion in Quebec last week is ducking responsibility and prematurely blaming the train engineer for the disaster, a union official in Canada said.

Edward Burkhardt, chief executive officer of Rail World Inc., owner of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd., told reporters yesterday that the engineer failed to apply hand brakes before leaving the train on July 6. The engineer, identified by a union official as Tom Harding, parked the 72-car train hauling oil tankers overnight in Nantes, near the devastated Quebec town of Lac-Megantic.

“I have no respect for a person like this who cannot take his responsibilities and tries to find a scapegoat,” Guy Farrell, assistant to the Quebec director of the United Steelworkers Union, said today in an interview. “It doesn’t make any sense that he should come out and say something like this because there’s no proof of this so far.”

Burkhardt paid his first visit to Lac-Megantic four days after the unmanned 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. Police said 20 people died and about 30 more are missing and presumed dead, making it the worst rail disaster in Canada in more than a century.

Harding of Farnham, Quebec, told the company he had applied 11 hand brakes, Burkhardt said without naming the engineer.

‘His Word’

“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.”

Police are investigating a possible criminal act or negligence. The Surete du Quebec questioned Burkhardt after he agreed to meet with investigators, police spokesman Benoit Richard said, without providing details. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois visited the town today.

Burkhardt initially questioned the actions of firefighters responding to a fire on the train about two hours before the deadly explosions. Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert denied his team did anything to contribute to the accident.

“Burkhardt, who doesn’t want to take responsibility, who’s trying to blame everybody else but himself and his company, first of all blamed the fire department,” Farrell said. “Then he needed somebody else so yesterday he came out publicly, he said that the person responsible for that was Tom Harding his engineer.”

Harding has been suspended with pay, Farrell added. Calls to a Tom Harding in Farnham weren’t answered.

“He’s off work for his own safety apparently and the way he’s feeling right now,” Farrell said. The steelworkers union represents 75 MM&A employees.