Insight: Canadian train disaster a dark turn for rail veteran

Sun Jul 21, 2013 3:38pm EDT
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By Karl Plume, P.J. Huffstutter and Ernest Scheyder

(Reuters) - 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.   Continued...

Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways (MMA), speaks to the media as he arrives in Lac-Megantic, Quebec July 10, 2013. REUTERS/Julie Gordon