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The Chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., Edward Burkhardt at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, who has now attributed some degree of fault to the engineer of the oil-bearing train that killed dozens of people in Lac-Mégantic, Que., has not got around the larger, essential point that the human factor was missing overnight, that one employee sleeping in a hotel was in no position to watch over the train – and its various brakes.

Mr. Burkhardt has in effect contradicted the engineer, Tom Harding, who has reportedly said that he applied 11 handbrakes; the chairman says he is "fairly certain" that was not true. He has withdrawn his previous impugning of firefighters in Nantes, Que., by suggesting that they "tampered" with the train, when putting out a fire. Nonetheless, there is some ambiguity in his statement that the firefighters did what they thought was correct. There may be a lingering hint that the firefighters unintentionally deactivated the air brakes.

The permission granted by Transport Canada to MMA – and to one other company in Canada, the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway – to operate a train with only one employee does not appear to have directly addressed the question whether or not a train had to be attended by some competent human being overnight – to which the answer surely ought to have been, "Yes." It is unsettling that Mr. Burkhardt still thinks that one employee on a train may be better than two – a source of confusion, he says.

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The president of the company, Robert Grindrod, has quite properly acknowledged that MMA is "at least to some extent to blame."

A train is a dangerous object. It seems inevitable that, in criminal or civil proceedings or both, the standard of negligence in such circumstances will have to be articulated. The existence of specific regulations or regulatory permissions should not be authoritative. The lives of as many 60 human beings matter far, far more.

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