July 29, 2013

'My mission failed': Rail chief admits mistakes in disaster's wake

Ed Burkhardt's missteps after the deadly July 6 train explosion in Lac-Megantic made him one of the most reviled people in Canada.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

As a boy growing up in Queens, a borough of New York City, Ed Burkhardt would sneak onto the trains in the nearby rail yards and ask engineers for rides in the cab. In high school, he worked one summer driving spikes with a sledgehammer with a track gang with the Great Northern Railroad in Washington state.

Ed Burkhardt
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Ed Burkhardt was jeered when he spoke in Lac-Megantic on July 10.

Reuters

Ed Burkhardt
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Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, is surrounded by media representatives after arriving in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 10. Burkhardt, the head of the company whose oil-tanker train killed 47 people when it exploded in the small Quebec town, heard cries of “murderer” from furious town residents.

Reuters

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After college, he became a railroad executive. By the time he turned 60, Burkhardt was praised as a leader of the renaissance in small and regional freight railroads in the United States and the privatization of state-owned railways around the globe.

One magazine called him "Railroader of the Year" and another "one of the 16 Railroaders of the Century."

Recently, another Burkhardt success story was in the works in Maine. A struggling little railroad that he had been trying to revive for the past decade had finally begun making money thanks to its new cargo: crude oil.

On July 6, one of the company's trains, a riderless "ghost train" as it is now known, rolled down a hill and crashed in a terrible explosion in a small town in Quebec near the Maine border.

Although not all the bodies have been found, authorities believe 47 people are dead, making it the worst train disaster in Canada in more than 100 years.

Now age 75, Burkhardt is fighting to save a railroad that stands on the edge of financial ruin and at the center of a criminal investigation.

His critics say his response has been so tone-deaf that he has managed to turn Canada's 35 million people against him.

In an interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram late Friday, Burkhardt defended his management of the railroad, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, and controversial cost-cutting measures, saying safety has always been his top priority. But he also for the first time admitted to mistakes in his public handling of the disaster.

While he understands that people are angry and need to vent, Burkhardt said, the public has turned him into a caricature that is all wrong.

"I don't think that's me," he said. "People are painting me as some sort of Jack the Ripper. I don't think that fits, and I don't think people who know me think that it fits."

CELEBRITY STATUS

After graduating from Yale University, where he studied industrial administration and rail operations, Burkhardt worked as an executive for the St. Louis-based Wabash Railroad and then for the Chicago & North Western, one of the largest railroads in the country at the time.

His celebrity status in the industry came after he purchased a network of rundown tracks from the Canadian Pacific in 1987 and turned it into a thriving regional railroad he called Wisconsin Central. He was ousted 12 years later after losing a power struggle with other board members.

That's when he formed Rail World Inc., a railroad consulting company, which despite its grand name consists of Burkhardt and four employees at a modest office in Rosemont, Ill.

Over the past two decades, Burkhardt has been involved in the privatizing of railroads in New Zealand, England, Australia, Estonia and Poland.

In 2003, he led a consortium of investors in buying the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which operates in Maine and Quebec and also serves customers in Vermont just south of the Quebec border.

Although Burkhardt last year gave up all ownership stakes in the company, he is still chairman of the board. He said the company is owned by about 20 anonymous shareholders and operates as an independent company based in Hermon, outside Bangor.

The railroad's fleet of 21 locomotives must roll through long stretches of empty forests to reach its scattered customers. Like most short-line railroads, its margins are tight. But this railroad faced plummeting revenues right from the start. In 2003, shortly after Rail World bought it out of bankruptcy, one of its biggest customers, the original Great Northern Paper Co., which ran mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket, declared bankruptcy.

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