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Rail chief says engineer did not set brakes properly before Canada rail crash

The engineer responsible for the train that crashed in Quebec failed to set the hand brakes properly before the rail cars rolled into a small town and exploded, leaving as many as 50 people dead or missing, the head of the railway said.

TORONTO // The engineer responsible for the train that crashed in Quebec failed to set the hand brakes properly before the rail cars rolled into a small town and exploded, leaving as many as 50 people dead or missing, the head of the railway said.

"It's very questionable whether the hand brakes were properly applied on this train," said Edward Burkhardt, chief executive officer of Rail World Inc., owner of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. "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 today, four days after an unmanned, 72-car oil train rolled from an overnight parking spot into the town, where it jumped the tracks, incinerated about 30 buildings and killed at least 20 people. As many as 50 people are missing and "probably dead," according to Chief Inspector Michel Forget of the Surete du Quebec police.

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 nearby Nantes. He said his company's inspection indicated the brakes were applied on the locomotives, but not on the rail cars.

Burkhardt told reporters today that the train's engineer told the company he had applied 11 hand brakes.

"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 has been suspended, he said. Burkhardt didn't name the engineer.

Police are investigating a possible criminal act or negligence, Surete du Quebec police Inspector Michel Forget said yesterday.

Burkhardt, 74, a railroad industry veteran who has served as Rail World's chief executive officer since forming it in 1999, was heckled by locals as he answered reporters' questions. He said in an interview yesterday before leaving Chicago, where Rail World is based, that he had received death threats and "a whole bunch of hate mail" since the incident.

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. The comments echoed a statement he made July 8 to CBC-TV.

"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 same network.

The crash in Lac-Megantic, about 250 kilometres east of Montreal, was the country's deadliest rail disaster since a 1986 collision in Alberta between a Canadian National Railway Co. freight train and a VIA Rail passenger train that killed 23 people.

Burkhardt, who said he plans to spend today and tomorrow 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 today 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.

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 US 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 821 kilometres of track in Maine and Vermont in the US 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 US.

"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."

Burkhardt spent 20 years at the Chicago & North Western Transportation Co. before founding Wisconsin Central in 1987. He took the new company from a regional startup to a global transportation firm, purchasing interests in railroads being sold by their governments.

Wisconsin Central was part of a group of buyers that acquired New Zealand Rail Ltd. from that country's government in 1993. It also acquired freight rail operations that were privatized by the UK government in 1996.

"In a way, he's an empire builder," Anthony Hatch, an independent rail analyst based in New York, said July 7 in a telephone interview. "He's a beloved character in recent rail history."

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."

Updated: July 11, 2013 04:00 AM

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