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Canadian train disaster a dark turn for rail veteran
A blinding flash of orange light jarred Weyauwega residents awake before dawn on March 4, 1996. An 81-car freight train had been barreling toward the farm town in central Wisconsin when it jumped a broken rail. The train’s propane and petroleum cargo had caught fire and exploded.
Gerald Poltrock II, a rookie local police officer, thought it was a prank when the dispatcher called to say the city “blew up.”
It was no joke. When he arrived at the Mill Street railroad crossing, Poltrock recalled, the scene was “mass chaos.” Thirty-five rail cars were piled up like toys and firefighters were battling a roaring blaze. No one was seriously injured or killed but the inferno burned for 16 days and the entire town had to be evacuated.
Seventeen years later, another North American railway disaster has brought back memories of Weyauwega. On July 6, a runaway freight train with 72 cars of crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. A fireball leveled the center of the picturesque lakeside town and killed about 50 people.
More than two weeks later, emergency crew are still digging through the charred rubble to find bodies, police are investigating to see if there was criminal negligence, and Canadian regulators are probing the railroad’s safety practices.
In both disasters, the railroads involved were headed by Edward A. Burkhardt, a veteran industry entrepreneur credited with helping to lead a renaissance in U.S. regional and local freight railroads in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are clear differences between the two cases; for instance, the Wisconsin Central Ltd train that jumped the track in Weyauwega was operated by a two-man crew, while the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Corp (MMA) train that derailed in Lac-Megantic had a sole engineer who was not on board.
Still, a review of the U.S. federal investigation into the Weyauwega derailment offers clues on the kinds of questions that MMA is likely to face from transportation safety regulators, according to rail industry executives, transportation investigators and experts.
Burkhardt, who is about to turn 75, stands by MMA’s safety record and noted the company had no serious derailments before Lac-Megantic. “I have never been involved with anything remotely approaching this in my whole life,” he said.
With a career spanning more than five decades, Burkhardt specializes in piecing together small, aging or financially troubled rail lines. He cuts costs by trimming staff, pays for infrastructure repairs, and creates mid-size railroads that can run on thinner margins than larger competitors, according to union officials, regulators, former employees and business partners.
Like other regional railroad operators, Burkhardt has to strike a balance between ramping up traffic on rail lines to boost profits - and keeping up with maintenance and other costs to safely handle increased traffic volumes.
Henry Posner III was a partner of Burkhardt’s in a railroad venture in Estonia in 2001 through 2007. He said Burkhardt kept a close eye on rail safety, and often began board meetings each month with discussions about how to improve safety measures.
Posner said they significantly reduced the number of personal injuries caused by the railroad over five years, adding, “It was the number one priority of Ed’s and the shareholders.”
Critics contend that not all of Burkhardt’s rail lines were always well maintained, pointing to the Weyauwega crash as an example. U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators said the cause of that derailment was a broken switch-point rail that they said was not properly maintained by Wisconsin Central.
According to an NTSB report filed in August 1997, the broken rail should have been caught by Wisconsin Central’s track inspectors during federally mandated monthly inspections.
“The switch point rail broke due to an undetected bolt hole crack that progressed from improper maintenance because Wisconsin Centr
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