July 8, 2013 8:05 pm

Railway owners in Lac Mégantic explosion had brakes fail before

The dozens of oil-laden rail cars barrelling downhill to Lac Mégantic this past weekend sparked a hellish inferno and unprecedented devastation. But that wasn’t Montreal Maine & Atlantic’s first runaway train.

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The decade-old railway has reported at least 26 accidents since 2008, according to records from Canada’s Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration. (Canadian data is from January 1, 2008 to March 15, 2012. American data is from January 1, 2008 to April 30, 2013.)

Most of these were relatively minor derailments, with no injuries or damage reported.

But one involved a fatality: A person in a wheelchair was stuck at a crossing near Magog, Que., hit and killed by an oncoming train that couldn’t stop in time.

And at least two of these incidents involved brakes that failed and rail cars that rolled away unmanned, just as they did early Saturday morning.

In depth: Full coverage of the Lac Mégantic explosion

Montreal Maine & Atlantic has emphasized that its crews did everything they were supposed to late Friday night: They idled the train and left one engine running, to keep the air brakes powered.

“The engineer that took the train in properly applied the brakes and followed all instructions,” railway chairman Ed Burkhardt told Global News in an interview Sunday.

“The lead engine was left running because that was necessary to keep the brakes on. Somebody got on the locomotive and shut it down. And it didn’t take very long for the brakes to leak off … and the train ran away.”

Nantes firefighters have said they put out a fire at the MMA locomotive late Friday night and shut down the engine, leaving it with a crew member, they said.

Burkhardt did not respond to follow-up questions Monday.

Montreal Maine & Atlantic has had a good couple of years: After multi-million-dollar losses forced it to abandon hundreds of kilometres of track it could no longer afford to maintain, a boom in demand for oil transport helped boost its fortunes and its schedule.

According to its website, the company operates roughly 15 trains every day in the northeastern United States and Quebec.

“We’ve had a very good safety record and this, I mean, this has blown it, obviously,” Burkhardt said. “But the company is 10 and a half years old at his point, and the company’s never had a serious derailment. Never had anything approaching serious.”

And, he said, he still thinks transporting oil by rail is safe.

“It’s not perfect, obviously – we’ve proven that. And there have been other incidents. But it’s not perfect moving it by truck, waterway, pipeline or any other form of transportation,” he said. “They’ve all had their issues. But overall, our record is pretty good. I’m really very upset about this situation that occurred, and I wish I knew more about the cause at the moment.”

While Burkhardt said he had “some speculation” as to who shut off the engine,  he said he isn’t “making the allegation that this was sabotage or someone doing this on purpose or terrorism or anything like that. I just don’t know.”

Some have suggested the engine may have been shut off by firefighters who came in to quench flames in the train around midnight Friday.

In February 2010, three MMA locomotives were left unattended by their crew in Brownville Junction, Maine, according to American records. As the air brakes failed, the locomotives rolled away down the hill, causing a crash, a sprained knee and spilling more than 1,100 litres of fuel onto the ground.

According to Canadian records, MMA had another runaway locomotive in July 2010 in the Farnham, Quebec rail yard. There were no injuries and no cause for the accident is given in the records.

Watch: Map the route of Lac Mégantic train crash

Lac Mégantic is a regular stop on MMA’s major route from Montreal east through Maine to Irving Oil refineries in New Brunswick. In 2009, the railway received more than $80,000 to install safety lights at several railway crossings; $26,000 of that was earmarked for Lac Mégantic.

Barely a month ago, a Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway train derailed near Lac Megantic and spilled 13,000 litres of diesel, according to reports by Radio-Canada and the Canadian Press.

“We’re absolutely appalled. We’re very upset about this,” Burkhardt said. “We’ve had a good safety record, we have never had a fatality in our employee group or anything related to our operations. I think we had a truck driver that drove his truck into the middle of one of our trains, but apart from that we’ve never had anything like this. It’s very emotional and difficult for the employees to accept this … it’s a very sad state of situation.”

Listen: Montreal Maine & Atlantic Chairman Ed Burkhardt talks about the Lac Megantic crash and rail safety

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