Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) - Date/Photographer unknown.
20 October 2013
One Man Train Crews Safe
Says MMA Chairman
Chicago Illinois USA - The public face of the insolvent rail company implicated in the Lake Megantic train disaster remains convinced that single-man crews are safe, even more so than those with multiple workers, and maintains that one man is responsible for the deadly accident.
Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), told the Toronto Star in a recent interview that he stands by his company's use of one-man crews, and would continue using them if Transport Canada had not passed emergency regulation banning their use in the wake of the 6 Jul 2013 disaster that killed 47 people.
MMA was granted permission from Transport Canada to reduce their staffing to one man in 2012, an allowance that, within two weeks of the disaster, was overturned for all trains transporting dangerous goods.
"I think safety is enhanced when unneeded personnel are not involved in an operation," said Burkhardt from his office in Illinois, adding the one-man crew "had absolutely nothing to do with what occurred there."
An internal investigation by MMA into the accident is almost complete and Burkhardt said the company stands by his initial statement that Tom Harding, the sole engineer who parked the 72-car MMA train hours before the disaster, did not set a sufficient number of hand brakes on the cars.
"That's still the situation," he said. "The man on that train had plenty of time to properly set the brakes on that train. He didn't."
Thomas Walsh, Harding's lawyer, has called that conclusion premature, and said the Transportation Safety Board and Quebec police investigations should be allowed to run their course.
Last week, Lake Megantic residents complained that MMA dealt the town a second blow after Transport Canada ruled a special tourist train, intended to bring visitors to the recovering town for a few hours, could not operate because the MMA-owned tracks were not safe.
The train, operated by regional train company Orford Express, was due to begin bringing visitors to Lake Megantic 14 Oct 2013, in an effort to help boost the struggling economy. When the special trips were announced earlier this month, Lake Megantic Mayor Colette Roy Laroche had called it "a step towards reclaiming our town."
But following a last-minute inspection earlier this month, Transport Canada ruled the MMA-owned tracks, which run along the edge of the town, were not safe for use by the Orford Express. Vegetation encroaching on the tracks, issues with the grade-crossing signal, and debris on parts of the rails were among the problems.
The train company has been forced to take passengers to Lake Megantic by bus, while the rest of the trip is done by rail.
According to Transport Canada, MMA is in charge of the maintenance of the track, something Burkhardt said is not going to happen any time soon.
"It's not a priority, and it's costly, and we don't have the funds to do it," he said.
Burkhardt insists MMA never agreed to allow Orford Express to use the track, and remains confused why the regional train company went ahead and sold tickets when the arrangement hadn't been finalized.
A spokesperson for Orford Express did not return a request for comment.
The track in question, which runs east of Sherbrooke, Quebec, past Lake Megantic, and south to Jackman, Maine, USA, was used every day before the disaster, Burkhardt said. Some of the problems found by Transport Canada were caused by discontinued use in the past three months, he added.
"We would have loved to have been able to run that train, and we told the Orford Express a long time ago that we couldn't... but now we're getting the fingers pointing at us as, once again, letting down the people of Lake Megantic. And I don't think that's true," Burkhardt said.
Last week, after MMA demonstrated it has sufficient third-party insurance, the Canadian Transportation Agency extended MMA's operating licence, allowing the company to continue conducting business in Canada until at least February 2014. The decision was in part made because of an 80 percent decline in the transport of dangerous goods by MMA, which in turn reduces any risks the company poses.
The railway's overall operations are down between 70 and 80 percent, Burkhardt said, in large part because the destroyed Lake Megantic track cuts off the railway network. The company is now operating in separate segments, one in Maine, the other in Quebec and Vermont.
But the significant drop in MMA's transport of dangerous materials is also due to MMA immediately halting its shipment of crude oil after the disaster.