He's considered a living legend among industry insiders – even those who no longer work for him still call him "boss."
A five-decade industry veteran, Edward Burkhardt was named Railroader of the Year, founded a railroad and an investment firm with international reach, and was even appointed chair of his Illinois town's public-safety committee. His success was tempered with drama and disaster, though: He was ousted from his own company and was in charge during a dangerous derailment in Wisconsin in 1996.
By Wednesday afternoon, the greying, 74-year-old Mr. Burkhardt found himself, again, literally standing at the epicentre of controversy: As chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, he faced a barrage of pointed questions about why a train carrying oil barrelled unmanned into Lac-Mégantic and derailed in a massive fire early Saturday morning, incinerating the Quebec town's core and robbing it of 20 souls and counting.
With a deep side-part and an American accent, Mr. Burkhardt was conspicuous even before a pack of reporters spontaneously surrounded him, recording candid quotes such as, "I feel personally rotten about it, but what can you do at this point?" and "People say, 'You're trying to duck out of this.' I say, 'No, I'm trying to be smart about how we allocate our resources.'"
He spent the first few days after the derailment fielding calls from the Chicago bureau of Rail World Inc., the parent company of MM&A and whose space doubles as the New Zealand honorary consul office – a post Mr. Burkhardt has held since the mid-1990s after playing a major role in privatizing that country's rail system.
A New York-born jazz lover who now lives in Kenilworth, Ill., and roots for the Chicago Cubs, Mr. Burkhardt's office window ledges are lined with model trains, which, according to a long-time colleague and friend, is fitting for the son of a doctor father who has himself known only the railroad industry.
"It's all he's ever done," said Cathy Aldana, Rail World's vice-president of research and administration, who worked with Mr. Burkhardt long before he founded the company in 1999. "I'm sure he's never had another job – even in high school and college, he worked in rail jobs through the summertime."
She said that before he studied industrial administration and rail transportation at Yale University, and before he founded Wisconsin Central Transportation Corporation in 1987, Mr. Burkhardt did manual labour maintaining rail tracks.
"That's common among railroad people – it's a calling," said Henry Posner III, chairman of Railroad Development Corporation and a former business partner who invested with Mr. Burkhardt in Estonian Railways when it was privatized between 2001 and 2007.
Mr. Posner said he and Mr. Burkhardt travelled six times a year to Estonia for board meetings, always flying economy class and competing to find the lowest fares. He said they made safety a priority at Estonian Railways, making the Lac-Mégantic tragedy particularly gut-wrenching.
This is not Mr. Burkhardt's first experience of the disaster of derailment.
While he was at the helm of Wisconsin Central, a train jumped the tracks at 5:50 a.m. on March 4, 1996, in Weyauwega, Wis., releasing hazardous material that caught fire and consumed rail cars loaded with liquefied petroleum gas and propane. The derailment, according to a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report, consumed a mill and forced the evacuation of thousands.
"There were no injuries directly attributable to the derailment, but three persons suffered minor injuries during the evacuation," the NTSB said, blaming the derailment on improper maintenance "because Wisconsin Central management did not ensure that the two employees responsible for inspecting the track structure were properly trained."
Three years later – the same year trade journal Railway Age named him Railroader of the Year – Mr. Burkhardt was deposed as chairman of Wisconsin Central. "That was a difficult time [for him]," Mr. Posner said.
He said Mr. Burkhardt's family – wife Sandra, or Sandy, and grown daughter Cynthia, or Cindy – has always been supportive. Sandy accompanied Mr. Burkhardt, for example, when Mr. Posner invited him to ride a special train on the Iowa Interstate Railroad from Peoria, Ill., to Rock Island, Ill., last October.
The Chicago Tribune, curious about Mr. Burkhardt's role as New Zealand's honorary consul, described him in a 2009 article as a "very pleasant man, born in Queens, N.Y." and a longtime Kenilworth resident "holed up in a spotless modern office tower."
THE MONTREAL, MAINE AND ATLANTIC RAILWAY
History: Began operation in January, 2003, after the bankruptcy of Iron Road Railways. It was formerly known as the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, which was incorporated in 1891.
Service area: 820 kilometres of track in Maine, Vermont and Quebec
Employees: About 170
Operations: About 15 trains daily, with a fleet of 26 locomotives
Port access: Searsport, Me., and Saint John, N.B.
Leadership: Robert Grindrod is president and chief executive officer, Edward Burkhardt is chairman
Ownership: MM&A is controlled by Rail World Inc., a privately held rail-management and investment firm based outside Chicago, with ties to freight railways in Poland. Rail World's president and chief executive officer is Edward Burkhardt. Quebec provincial pension-fund manager Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec was part of the investing group involved in the 2003 purchase, and says it retains a $1,000 stake in Rail World. Yves Bourdon, a former CN manager, has been on the MM&A board since 2003.