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Rail company blames firefighters for runaway train disaster in Quebec town that left 15 dead & 35 still missing. Fire chief says they followed procedures set down by railroad.

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Despite being alerted by many of our readers, we’ve been slow in covering the runaway train collision that devastated the town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec (for earlier coverage check out So far 15 bodies have been found, but officials believe 35 others were caught up in the explosions and have not been found. Now the fingerpointing has begun. It appears the chain of events started with an idling, unattended locomotive that had a small fire.

The chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, Edward Burkhardt, accused firefighters of releasing the train’s brakes when it was stopped in Nantes, around 13 kilometers (eight miles) west of Lac-Megantic, for a crew changeover.

Those firefighters had been called to douse a small fire in one of the train’s five locomotives.

Burkhardt told the daily La Presse that Nantes firefighters “showed up and put out the fire with a fire extinguisher. To do that they also shut down the first locomotive’s engines. This is what led to the disaster.” He explained that the train’s brakes were powered by the locomotive and would have disengaged when it was shut down, causing the driverless train to start rolling downhill towards Lac-Megantic.

By the time the company was informed of the shutdown, the train — en route from the US state of North Dakota to a refinery in Canada’s eastern New Brunswick province — had already reached the town, he said.

Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., arrived  in Montreal late Tuesday afternoon and headed to Sherbrooke, near the devastated  town, after being pursued to his car by a throng of reporters.

In earlier media interviews, the Illinois-based Burkhardt had said he figured  he’d have to wear a bullet-proof vest to the town.

In Lac-Megantic, Grindrod attributed that evaluation to the fact that  Burkhardt “has a different sense of humour at some times” and didn’t really  expect to be shot despite the outrage in the town.

“What he was really saying when he said that, his real intent was that he  was going to face very stiff questioning and he expected a lot of byplay with  the citizens. He expected to have to answer a lot of very tough questions. He’s  not expecting bullets flying or anything like that.

“The firemen should have roused the locomotive engineer who was in his hotel  and taken him to the scene with them,” he (Burkhardt) told reporters after arriving at  Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. “But it’s easy to say  what should have happened. We’re dealing with what happened.”

The Nantes fire chief has insisted he and his men followed procedure set  down by the railway itself. 

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Comments - Add Yours

  • Legeros

    This headline and the SFO air crash stories gets me thinking about news and public opinion. It will be interesting to observe any long-term consequences as they impact the public perceptions or reactions of these two fire departments, or the fire service in general. And particularly if investigations disprove the theories or allegations.

    (What does history show along these lines? Have there been famous/infamous events that led the public to change their opinions of firefighters, based on subsequently disproved or discounted claims?)

    • dave statter

      Famous quote from Ronald Reagan’s Labor Secretary Ray Donovan on being acquitted of larcey and fraud charges – “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”

      • Legeros

        I need to dig through my firefighter lore–including a couple books on that from Fred Conway, if memory serves–to see if there are any reputation-based stories that have stood the test of time.

        Not quite related, but it comes to mind, is the myth of fire marks and that American fire companies wouldn’t render service if you had the wrong fire mark.

  • Anonymous

    Really makes you wonder.

  • mark

    Interesting, something stinks here, and I don’t believe it is the crude oil or the fire department.

    This guy had better have something to back him up, because an in depth investigation will easily prove him wrong if he is, which I tend to believe he is.

  • Patrick Lemieux

    First 10 minutes of the fire in Lac-Mégantic

  • IslaFire

    Easy solution. Tell the rail company that in the future, unless their burning property is threatening another property or public safety, they will not trespass on any railway right-of-way unless a company official is on scene.

    I find it difficult to believe that merely shutting down a locomotive also disengages the brakes. Furthermore, why was the locomotive running without an engineer? Should it not be policy that an engineer is always present when the locomotive is running?

    • Ted

      Have to agree with that! The engineer leaves the running train unattended and is in his Hotel Room. Really?!?

      I don’t leave my car unattended and running, unlocked!

  • Anonymous

    They should have gone to the hotel and gotten the engineer?
    They would have known that he was there?
    What about the railroad taking responsibility for their own property?!

  • Fire21

    I’m certainly not a train expert, but as I understand air brakes, it takes air pressure to RELEASE the brakes. I would think if the firefighters shut down the engines and the air pressure leaked off, the brakes should have remained set, not released. I’m sure there’s more to this story than just the railway chairman’s accusation.

  • Truckie

    Just read an update on FireGeezer also and all I can say is I don’t think there is enough dinero anywhere to cover all the litigation in this foul up…

  • Gregory Cox

    I think that there is a lot of additional information needed before anyone can judge who or what was to blame for the train running away. Some of the problem is that reporters are generally unfamiliar with train operations (as are probably most firefighters) so they don’t ask the right questions or include all the need information. (I’m speaking as a former reporter and current firefighter who has witnessed this lack of understanding firsthand)

    Freight train braking systems in North America are generally positive pressure air brake systems that require pressure in the brake line to keep the brakes from going on. When locomotives are running and attached to a train with the air lines connected, the air compressors on the locomotives charge the trainline and control through their air valves whether brakes are on or released. As the brake line charges, the individual air reservoirs on each car also charge — to apply brakes, the engineer reduces the pressure in the train line and the pressure in the car reservoirs push the brake shoes against the wheels. To release the brakes, the locomotives charge the brake line and the reservoirs and the brakes release.

    Besides the standard air brake system, locomotives also have their own independent brakes which are often used to temporarily hold a train in place while the trainline is in release (this avoids the delay of having to charge the whole train line to get a train moving again if they are waiting at a station or for a signal to change — which can take a long time with a mile or longer train). Some locomotives are also equipped with dynamic brakes which use the electic traction motors that power the train to help hold it back (similar to shifting down a transmission). The dynamic brakes don’t work unless the train is in motion but they help reduce heat buildup on the air brake shoes and give the engineman better control (sort of like shifting down your truck instead of just using the brakes).

    A parked train should have had the air brakes on and perhaps the engine brakes set also. Neither system would be sufficient to hold a train in place on any substantial grade without the engines running as the air brakes will eventually bleed off and the engine brakes only apply on the wheels on the engines. A parked train (as opposed to a waiting train where the crew is just waiting for a signal to clear)should have had sufficient numbers of hand brakes applied manually (using a club to tighten them) or retainers set on individual cars to keep the brakes from releasing. Chains are sometimes installed to keep a parked train or cars moored in place.

    Usually when a train is parked, the locomotives are locked with railroad padlocks to keep people from getting in and messing with the controls. If they are merely waiting for a replacement crew (train crews in the US can only work 10 hours without rest by federal law), they may be left running, particularly in cold weather as locomotives don’t use antifreeze) but locked. According to the news stories I’ve read, the engine crew left the locomotives and a local fire department put out a small fire on an engine, shutting it off to do so (locomotives have high voltage areas that you definitely don’t want to hit with water or CO2 when they are running) Obviously to fight a fire, they couldn’t do so if the engines were padlocked because they couldn’t shut them down. If left shut down, someone should have set sufficient numbers of handbrakes or retainers to keep the brakes engaged.

    The question not really answered is whether the brakes were accidentally released by someone unintentionally moving the brake valves on the locomotives, whether handbrakes or retainers were set, or whether someone tampered with the train and released the handbrakes or retainers.

    The bottom line is that the train wasn’t secured sufficiently to keep it from eventually starting to move, whatever the cause. At 100 tons/car, 73 loaded cars with roller bearing axles and 3 locomotives would have weighed more than 8,000 tons: even at just 5 mph, that kind of mass would have been impossible to stop without the engines running and a trained engineman at the controls.

  • ukfbbuff

    Ah, What about the “Deadman Brake”?

    Did the Locomotive Engineer Circumvent that?

    It’s my understanding that he has to depress it down, while enroute and if he takes the pressure off of it, the brakes automatically deploy.

    once stopped an no pressure on it, it should have worked as “Back-up” brake.

  • Dmgdriver

    The deadman prevents the train from proceeding under power, accelerating. As Mr Cox said the train utilizes positive pressure, as often shown as rail cars are moved, freewheeling around the yard, to build a train. When he fire department shut down the running locomotive, pressure bled off. In the U.S. the federal government requires the use of a wheel chock like system and is required on all U.S based trains. The difference between the one used on say, the fire truck and the one on a locomotive is that the one on a loco is weight bearing activated. If the loco brakes fail and it moves the system clamps onto the wheel and stops it from moving. Canada, at this point does not require this system. My gut says this is going to change