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In Wake of Lac-Mégantic Train Inferno, Anger Turns Toward Profit-Hungry 'Rail Empire'

Families of those still missing told to expect the worst as anger rises against company behind disaster

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Rail World Inc. President Edward Burkhardt speaks to the media as he tours Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on Wednesday, July 10, 2013. Burkhardt said Wednesday that an employee failed to properly set the brakes of the train that crashed into a town in Quebec, killing as many as 50 people. (AP Photo/ The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)As devastated families members in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic received news from authorities that relatives still missing are now presumed dead—bringing the possible total deaths in last weekend's train derailment to fifty people—anger is growing with the profit-hungry rail company behind the disaster.

First responders fight burning trains after a derailment and explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last Saturday. (Photo: Reuters) While twenty bodies have been recovered, police officials on Wednesday met with members of thirty additional families who had unaccounted for relatives.

"We’ve met with the families of these deceased or potentially deceased persons,” said Quebec provincial police Inspector Michel Forget at a press conference, “and we informed them of the potential loss of their nears.”

Amid the sadness permeating the town, anger was also taking hold.

In one incident reported by the Montreal Gazette, a local resident responded in anger after he noticed an employee of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway behaving aggressively" toward a newspaper photographer, the Gazette's own John Kenney, who was taking pictures of the burnt out rail cars.Lac-Mégantic resident Alex Larabée (left), who said he knew many people who perished in Saturday’s train disaster, confronts a man who said he worked for the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Tuesday, July 9, 2013 in Nantes where oil cars sit on track. The man had been looking at the cars. A Maine & Atlantic Railway train carrying cars holding oil derailed Saturday in downtown Lac-Mégantic, caught on fire and exploded. Explosions and fireballs followed causing loss of life and heavy destruction. (Photo: John Kenney/Gazette)

The Gazette reports (restricted):

Kenney was taking photographs of some oil tanker cars parked on the track in the village of Nantes when the employee approached him and screamed at him menacingly.

“The gentleman was just an inch away from John and was yelling at him, trying to intimidate him,” Larabée said.

Then the employee, who described himself as an investigator from Illinois but did not give his name, called police and complained that Larabée had threatened him. Larabée says the employee pushed him in the chest.

Larabée, who lives on the border between Lac-Mégantic and the neighbouring village of Nantes, went to the scene because he was concerned about whether the tanker cars posed a safety hazard.

“I went to see if the cars were losing oil,” Larabée said.

The cars had been part of the train involved in Saturday’s derailment but had been decoupled from the rest of the train Friday night and remained parked on the track in Nantes, he said.

“I saw there was a gentleman there. I asked him if they were leaking. I asked in French and he started swearing at me in English, calling me a f---ing frog and all that,” Larabée said.

Larabée said The Gazette’s Kenney told the man to calm down, adding that all he needed to do was ask them politely to leave rather than become aggressive.

Larabée said the confrontation left him with an even more negative view of the railroad company than before.

“We’ve been living with this in our community for half a week, and then this employee screams at me and insults me,” Larabée said.

“I said, ‘Our community has been completely destroyed through your fault, and on top of that you are trying to intimidate us by being aggressive,’ ” he said. “It really shows their flagrant lack of respect for us (residents).”

But as news spread of the death toll, the growing focus on Edward Burkhardt, CEO of the rail company that owned the train, continued.

“It was all about cutting, cutting, cutting. It’s just an example of putting company profits ahead of public safety.” -Jarod Briggs, former MMA employee who resigned over safety concerns

Burkhardt is the CEO of both Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), the company directly associated with the derailment which unleashed so much destruction, and its much larger parent company, Rail World Inc. As Common Dreams reported Wednesday, the CEO so far has been deflecting any and all blame for the disaster, denying he had first blamed local firefighters and later saying it was the fault of an employee for not setting the brakes.

But as additional reporting by the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal and Toronto Star shows, Burkhardt’s “railway empire” has been fueled by an aggressive business strategy that has relied on busting railway workers unions, privatizing public rail systems, and imposing controversial changes that critics say supplant safety with pursuit of profit.

From the Tribune:

Burkhardt's career in the industry includes a 12-year stint as president of a railroad that broke convention by shunning unions, reinvesting profit rather than paying dividends to investors and expanding internationally.

Burkhardt helped to found Wisconsin Central railroad in 1987 on a business model that took advantage of the 1980 law that deregulated the U.S. rail industry, according to Tribune articles.

Complaints from railway unions slowed the railroad's start and caused early financial troubles, but the company quickly emerged as a profitable enterprise, according to reports.

Relating to safety concerns, the Wall Street Journal adds that

former workers have criticized Mr. Burkhardt for being a proponent of single-engineer-operated trains and so-called radio-controlled trains, in which trains are controlled remotely in train yards. Mr. Burkhardt said that in a modern engine there is no role for a second person and that remote control improves safety in yards. Such practices are increasingly common in the industry, particularly in Europe and New Zealand. In North America, though, most train operators still use two staff, including Canada's two largest, Canadian National Railway Ltd. and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.

But, as the Toronto Star reports, that kind of cost-cutting by Burkhardt implemented at MMA in Quebec and Maine resulted in warnings from employees that safety had been put in jeopardy:

When he took over the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway in 2003, [Burkhardt] cut employee wages by 40 per cent according to a company history in the Bangor Daily News.

There were more layoffs and cuts in expenditures in 2006 and again in 2008.

The company also announced plans “to improve safety and efficiency” by cutting its locomotive crews in half, replacing two workers with a single employee.

That prompted at least one veteran engineer to quit the company in part over his fears for safety.

Jarod Briggs, who had worked on railways since 1998, told the Star he left MMA in 2007 because he thought leaving only one engineer in charge of a train — as happened in Lac-Mégantic — was too risky.

“If you have two people watching you can catch a mistake,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Maine. “It was all about cutting, cutting, cutting. It’s just an example of putting company profits ahead of public safety.”

Briggs, who used to work on the company’s routes into Canada, said he was dismayed but not entirely surprised by the disaster in Lac Mégantic.

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