Railway executive Edward Burkhardt, the man now at the centre of the storm in Lac-Mégantic, Que., says he would like to see changes to rail safety regulations to prevent accidents like the one that devastated the small Quebec town.
But there's something he believes should not change: the rules that allow some trains to operate with only a single crew member.
Mr. Burkhardt's Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc. is one of two railways with permission from Transport Canada to operate with a one-person crew. On Friday night, the sole employee on an MM&A train, engineer Tom Harding, parked the train in Nantes, Que., and went to a hotel. A little more than an hour later, the train began rolling down the tracks, derailing in Lac-Mégantic and triggering a huge explosion in the middle of the town. The confirmed death count is 20; dozens more are still considered missing.
At a press conference in the town on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Burkhardt was asked on whether having only one man on the crew contributed to the disaster. He defended the policy, while blaming Mr. Harding for failing to set enough hand brakes on the train.
"We actually think that one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because there's less exposure for employee injury and less distraction [for operators]" he said.
Canadian regulators grant railways the right to use one-man crews if they prove that one person can handle all the required operating tasks on a train. However, such permission is rare.
"Our rules and regulations do not stipulate one, two or three members on a crew," Transport Canada's director general of rail safety, Luc Bourdon, told reporters this week.
"In the case of one-man operation, a railway will have to provide to Transport Canada the conditions by which they will respect in order to do it safely. And if it's according to our regulatory regime, we've got no issues with that. And we're monitoring that on a regular basis," he said.
For instance, a railway needs to be able to demonstrate how a lone operator would handle a situation in which an obstruction might be blocking the tracks and numerous other situations down the line. Trains that are picking up and dropping off cars en route are too difficult for a single operator, Transport Canada added.
And then once the train had stopped, there are procedures for a lone engineer to follow, including performing a so-called "push-pull test" to make sure the train has sufficient brakes applied and is incapable of moving.
Similar rules apply in the United States, where railways does not have any explicit rules banning one-man crews, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration. "However, in order to fully comply with existing FRA regulations, the vast majority of U.S. rail companies do not use one-person crews," Kevin Thompson, a FRA associate administrator, said in a statement.
It is possible, although very unusual, to meet the regulations and have a one-man crew, the FRA said. Operators who qualify are likely making really short trips on small railways. The FRA does not keep statistics on how many one-man crews are operating.
"The FRA has had preventive measures in place to fully secure unattended trains for more than a decade. On a mainline, FRA regulations require that hand brakes on the lead locomotive be fully applied before a train is left unattended," Mr. Thompson said.
The increased use of single-employee crews in the United States has riled the labour movement, said Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United (RWU), a coalition of employees from various unions.
Mr. Kaminkow said his group is concerned about how some U.S. freight carriers have managed to get permission for single-person crews into the language of labour contracts. Working alone increases the chances of something going awry, posing a greater threat to the employee and the train's operations, he said.
Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. operate with two-person crews, an locomotive engineer and conductor.