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

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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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The "deindustrialization" of Maine -- the decline in the state's paper and lumber mills -- and the overall stagnant economy of the state have made it difficult for the railroad to make a profit, Burkhardt said. The recent boom in oil transportation, however, had boosted revenues enough for the company to make upgrades in its infrastructure, he said.

Until the accident, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway had been hauling about a half million barrels a month through Quebec and Maine, bound for the huge Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick

Burkhardt's success during his career was built on his attention to his customers' needs, cost-cutting and improving operational efficiency, said George Betke, who lives in Damariscotta and owns three short-line railroads, two in Oklahoma and one in New York state.

At the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, Burkhardt replaced two-man crews with one-man crews. New remote-control technology allowed an engineer to control a train's movements from the ground.

Although the use of one-man crews has not been identified as a cause of the accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the Canadian government last week ordered that all trains operating in Canada and carrying hazardous cargo have two crew members.

The union that represents Maine workers on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway is launching a campaign to ban one-person crews in the United States, calling the practice dangerous.

SAFETY RECORD DEFENDED

Burkhardt's critics say he has failed to maintain rail lines elsewhere, and point to an accident in Weyauwega, Wis., in 1996, when a Wisconsin Central Railroad train loaded with propane and gasoline derailed, forcing the evacuation of 3,000 residents and setting off a fire that burned for two weeks.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the accident on a broken switch and improper maintenance because the railroad didn't ensure that employees who inspected the line were trained properly.

Burkhardt has dismissed criticism that he skimped on maintenance, explaining that he completely rebuilt the railroad during his tenure as the company's chief executive and president.

Burkhardt said he did his best to promote safe practices at the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.

"I worked hard in my small way to establish a good safety culture," he said. "Absent this disaster, the results show this effort."

The railroad experiened an average of 27 accidents per year during its first three years of operation, but from 2006 to 2012 the accident rate improved dramatically, ranging from two to eight a year, according to data collected by Canadian and U.S. regulators. Most were relatively minor incidents without spills or injuries.

In Estonia, where Burkhardt oversaw a railroad that was a "pipeline on wheels" because it moved Russian crude oil to seaports in Estonia, Burkhardt began every board meeting with a discussion about any instances of personal injuries, said Henry Posner III, who was a partner in the venture between 2001 through 2007.

He said Burkhardt's approach was to change the culture from the top down. During that period, he said, accidents resulting in injuries declined by 75 percent.

The safety practices of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway will now come under intense scrutiny. The company already faces a number of wrongful-death lawsuits in the disaster. Quebec police Thursday searched the railroad's offices in Farnham, Quebec, to collect undisclosed evidence for a criminal investigation.

PUBLIC RELATIONS DISASTER

Burkhardt first heard about the catastrophe in Lac-Megantic on a phone message after waking up that morning at his home in a wealthy suburban enclave outside Chicago.

His performance over the next few days will be studied in public relations programs at universities for years to come as an example of how to do everything wrong during a crisis, said Melissa Agnes, a crisis management consultant in Montreal.

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