Ed Burkhardt Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway chairman - Date/Photographer unknown.
27 December 2013
Lake Megantic Railway Owner:
"I was also a victim"
Chicago Illinois USA - The railway executive behind the company whose train smashed into Lake Megantic wants people to know he's been suffering, too.
Looking back at the year as it comes to a close, Ed Burkhardt said he's still troubled by the Quebec derailment and has thought about it every day since the 6 Jul 2013 catastrophe killed 47 people and destroyed part of the town.
The chairman of Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. (MMA) also told The Canadian Press in a recent interview that he's sustained significant personal financial losses since the disaster.
"They had every reason to be very upset with what had occurred," Burkhardt said about the anger directed toward him by the people of Lake Megantic.
"But what they didn't know was that I was equally upset and I was also a victim of this whole thing."
Burkhardt, who said he is the largest shareholder in the now-insolvent MMA, explained that he lost his entire investment after the crash forced the company to file for bankruptcy protection.
"That's a big pile of money, I might say," Burkhardt, the president of MMA parent company Rail World Inc., said in a phone interview from his Illinois office.
"It's reduced me from being a fairly well-off guy to one that's just getting by. But OK, that's what happens."
He added, however, that he wasn't complaining about the hit he took to his bottom line, insisting he didn't want to criticize the people of Lake Megantic because "they went through hell."
"Financial losses are not in the same category as the personal losses, the deaths and all of that, that people suffered in Lake Megantic," he said.
Burkhardt's frequently blunt remarks, often lacking public-relations massaging and sentimentalism, made him public enemy No. 1 last summer in Lake Megantic.
His brief stop in the town in the aftermath is perhaps best remembered for his tumultuous news conference, during which he was heckled by irate locals.
Burkhardt believes local anger was directed at him because, as chairman, he was the voice of the company.
"I think I assumed too much of a personal role up there, so I guess I was the magnet for all of the people's unhappiness, which is not terribly surprising," the railway boss said.
He then repeated an allegation he first made publicly at that July news conference: The train driver didn't do his job properly the night of the disaster.
"They view me terribly, but I wasn't the guy who didn't set the brakes on the train," he said.
Burkhardt has alleged that the driver did not apply enough hand brakes before the train broke loose and barrelled about 10 kilometres down a hill into Lake Megantic.
Tom Harding, the train's driver, was suspended by MMA following the accident.
Harding's lawyer did not respond to a request to comment on Burkhardt's allegation.
Firefighters from the neighbouring town of Nantes have said they responded to a blaze on board the train hours before it came off the tracks in Lake Megantic.
MMA has suggested the fire department's decision to shut off the locomotive to extinguish the fire might have disabled its air brakes.
Police and federal transport safety officials are conducting investigations into the crash.
In the months since the disaster, Burkhardt says he's questioned whether his trains should have ever been transporting crude oil.
"I've asked myself a number of times as to whether we should have been handling this oil at all," Burkhardt said.
"Hindsight is 20-20 vision, so at this point I wish we hadn't been handling oil. We would have obviously not been exposed to such a situation."
MMA stopped hauling oil after the crash, but Burkhardt noted that other Rail World operations in Europe have continued to transport other highly explosive cargo, like propane.
"There's always going to be risks in handling dangerous commodities," he said.
"You try to minimize those risks, you try to manage your company well, so that those risks are low. But the risks are never zero."
Burkhardt said he welcomes the fresh debates over regulations for the rail industry, as long as any eventual changes are harmonized in Canada and the United States.
For example, he thinks tank-car construction needs to be improved, though due to the high costs he expects any transition to a more durable tanker to take a long time.
MMA and Rail World executives, including Burkhardt himself, are among those named in pending lawsuits in Canada and the United States over the Lake Megantic crash.
The insolvent MMA has filed for bankruptcy protection and is now under trusteeship, though it continues to manage its day-to-day operations.
MMA is expected to be sold off in the coming weeks.
MMA's train service recently returned to the community, though it will no longer carry dangerous freight through town.