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Lac Megantic Explosion: Train Operator's Safety Record Less Than Impressive

The Chicago-based railroad company that operated the train involved in the Lac Megantic disaster has an accident rate much worse than the average for U.S. railroads, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

According to data from the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, Rail World — which owns the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) railroad that operated the Lac Megantic train — had 23 accidents, injuries or “other reportable mishaps” between 2010 and 2012, the newspaper reported Tuesday.

The railroad company had an incident rate more than twice the U.S. national average in 2012 — 36.1 incidents per million miles traveled, compared to the U.S. average of 14.6 incidents for that year.

The Journal notes that Edward Burkhardt, the founder of Rail World who built an empire out of small, regional railroads, has been criticized for “championing the controversial use of remote-controlled trains in rail yards and one-person crews.” The Lac Megantic train had been left unattended and parked at the time of the disaster, but it was not being remote-controlled.

But Burkhardt said Monday he believes the train’s brakes were tampered with before it began to roll into the town of Lac Megantic in the early hours of Saturday morning, causing a blast that levelled the town centre and left 13 dead and about 40 missing, as of last count.

We have evidence of this,” Burkhardt told the National Post. “But this is an item that needs further investigation. We need to talk to some people we believe to have knowledge of this.”

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The company had earlier implied that the train was able to roll into town because its air brakes stopped operating after firefighters shut down the locomotive while fighting a fire on the train a few hours before the crash.

But both the fire department and railroad experts dispute this.

They’re saying the train left because we shut the engine down, which released the [air] brakes,” said Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert, speaking to the National Post on Monday.

There’s a train parked there right now and the engine is stopped. So do I have to go down to Mégantic and evacuate the whole city because that train is going to leave?”

And railroad workers contacted by the Montreal Gazette said the company’s explanation doesn’t make sense. The experts said air brakes should not be used to keep a train at standstill, because they stop operating some time after the engine is shut down.

Rail operators rely on a series of hand brakes to keep a train still, the Gazette reported, and the experts said those hand brakes should have been engaged on the Lac Megantic train.

The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the train crash, and has said it is still in the early stages of its probe.

In an email to the Journal, Burkhardt defended his company’s safety record, saying railroads like his are more prone to accidents because they rely on less-used, less safe railroad tracks than the large main-line operators.

"Up until Saturday, we never had a main-line derailment on our own railroad of any significance," he wrote.

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