Profile: Who is MMA Railway chairman Ed Burkhardt?

Watch above: MMA boss faces media in Lac-Megantic (July 10)

TORONTO – Ed Burkhardt, the president of the U.S.-based rail company at the focus of the Lac-Megantic disaster, was under heavy fire as he visited the devastated town Wednesday.

Some residents heckled Burkhardt for waiting four days to appear in Lac-Megantic while many turned to social media to express their views after Burkhardt’s press conference.

Burkhardt said he stayed in his hometown of Chicago to deal with the crisis from his office, where he said he was better able to communicate with insurers, the media and officials in different places during what he described as 20-hour work days.

By the numbers: Lac-Megantic train explosion

Burkhardt answered dozens of questions at Wednesday’s news scrum. His comments were often drowned out by residents.

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Among them, an onlooker demanded that Burkhardt visit Lac-Megantic’s downtown core while another belted, “Go walk there!”

During the conference, Burkhardt, when asked if he was a compassionate person, said he “felt absolutely awful” over the train disaster.

“I am devastated by what’s happened,” he said.

Teenager and Lac-Megantic resident Alyssia Bolduc said Burkhardt’s appearance made her more furious.

“It actually makes us more angry that he’s here because I think he’s shameless,” said Bolduc during the presser.

VIDEO: Head of railway company heckled (July 10)

Widely regarded as a leader in railway management, Ed (Edward) Burkhardt, 74, graduated from Yale University in 1960.

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In 1996, Burkhardt served as the chairman and president of Wisconsin Central Ltd when one of the company’s trains derailed and exploded in the town of Weyauwega, Wisconsin.

Large amounts of propane and liquefied petroleum gas burned for more than two weeks, requiring the emergency evacuation of over 2,000 residents, including 1,700 residents of Weyauwega for 16 days.

At that time, assistant fire chief Jim Baehnman called the incident the “safest disaster in American history” due to the fact there were no injuries or deaths.

In report released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, experts determined the probable cause of the accident wasa switch point rail, which broke because of an undetected bolt hole crack. “Wisconsin Central management did not ensure that the two employees responsible for inspecting the track were properly trained,” the report read.

READ MORE: Railway owners in Lac Megantic explosion had brakes fail before

The report also revealed that many characteristics that were indicative of problems in the joint and bolt hole area were “tell-tale signs of a problem that should have been observed and acted upon well trained, vigilant track inspectors and their supervisors.”

In 1999, Burkhardt was asked to resign and leave the company after Wisconsin Central.

Several months prior to his ouster, Burkhardt was named Railroader of the Year by industry trade journal Railway Age and was named one of 16 “Railroaders of the Year” by the same magazine in December 1999.

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After his departure from Wisconsin Central, Burkhardt started Rail World Inc., a company that specializes in “railway management, consulting and investment corporation specializing in privatizations and restructurings.”

READ MORE: What the Lac Megantic means to the environment

In 2003, Rail World Inc. purchased Iron Road Railways, now known as Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. In 2010, due to “a desire to stem annual losses of $4.5 million, embrace newer technology and improve safety and efficiency,” Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway cut the number of staff on its trains by replacing them with remote-control devices.

The changeover was criticized by some as being unsafe as the number of freight trains carrying remote control would have one crewmember over two.

“So much could happen in a 12-hour shift on one of these trains, such as a washed-out track, downed trees or mechanical failure,” said Pan Am Railways engineer Jarod Briggs in an interview with Bangor Daily News. “What if the engineer onboard were to encounter a medical problem? Who is going to know about it?”

In 2009, Burkhardt pledged $75,000 to OnTrackAmerica, a non-profit organization committed to developing and implementing a comprehensive and sustainable plan for freight transportation in North America.

According to the organization, Burkhardt hoped that his efforts would “help prepare today’s students to be better equipped to successfully run tomorrow’s railways.”

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“I’d like see more opportunities like these,” Burkhardt said in the 2009 article. “We need programs to educate promising students to be better qualified to be the next generation of railroad senior management. We are looking for people who can take a leadership role in developing the incredible potential of our industry.”

Burkhardt is currently the chairman of the supervisory board of the Warsaw-based railway, Rail Polska. In 2001, Burkhardt led the privatization of Estonian Railways.

For our full coverage of the Lac-Megantic train explosion, click here.

– With  files form The Canadian Press

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