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"The train had the engine shut down by the firemen, they didn’t do that for malicious purposes by it’s what happens," Burkhardt told reporters at the Montreal airport. "The firemen should have roused the locomotive engineer who was in his hotel and taken him to the scene with them. But it’s easy to say what should have happened. We’re dealing with what happened."
Lambert defended the fire department, saying that the blaze was extinguished within about 45 minutes and that’s when firefighters’ involvement ended.
The accident has thrown a spotlight on MMA’s safety record. Over the past decade, the company has consistently recorded a much higher accident rate than the national average in the U.S., according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.
Last year, for instance, the railroad had 36.1 accidents per million miles traveled by its trains. The national average for 2012 was 14.6.
Before the Lac-Megantic accident, the company had 34 derailments since 2003, according to the federal agency. Over that period, the company was involved in five accidents that had reportable damage of more than $100,000.
The severity of those incidents, however, is difficult to determine from the federal agency’s 10-year data overviews on railroad safety. But before the weekend accident, incidents involving the company’s trains had resulted in just one death. That 2006 accident involved a vehicle that struck a moving train at a highway crossing.
Burkhardt said the figures were misleading.
"This is the only significant mainline derailment this company has had in the last 10 years. We’ve had, like most railroads, a number of smallish incidents, usually involving accidents in yard trackage and industry trackage," he told the CBC.
Nonetheless, Burkhardt predicted the accident would lead to changes in the way railways operate, and indicated that MMA would no longer leave loaded trains unattended, a practice he said was standard in the industry.
The tanker cars involved in the crash were the DOT-111 type — a staple of the American freight rail fleet whose flaws have been noted as far back as a 1991 safety study. Experts say the DOT-111’s steel shell is so thin that it is prone to puncture in an accident, potentially spilling cargo that can catch fire, explode or contaminate the environment.
Associated Press writers Sean Farrell in Lac-Megantic, Charmaine Noronha in Toronto and Jason Keyser in Chicago contributed to this story.
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