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( crossposted from my Gearhead Grrrl blog )

Back in the 80s when railroads were going bankrupt left and right, Ed Burkhardt got a heck of a deal on a Canadian Pacific line from Chicago to the Saint paul and some assorted branch lines. CP had just overbid on the remains of the Milwaukee Road, needed cash fast to pay for the railroad they expected to be overbid for, and Ed Burkhardt was in the right place at the right time.

But when it came to actually running the railroad he named the Wisconsin Central, Ed Burkhardt couldn’t do anything right. The IT system and paperwork were so hopeless that dispatchers asked train crews to creep by railcars parked in the sidings and read of the cars numbers… They had no idea what all railcars were on their line and what waylaid cargos they contained! For weeks on end, railcars and cargo rolled up and down the railroad, sometimes passing their actual destination multiple times. And those were slow trains of lost cars, pulled by a fleet of cast off locomotives so unreliable that they’d be sent out with twice as many locomotives as needed, in hopes enough would keep running to make it home.

Eventually Ed Burkhardt’s Wisconsin Central became a reliably mediocre railroad, well suited to low value cargo that was in no hurry to go nowhere. Then in 1996, after regular garden variety derailments and such, Wisconsin Central managed to pile up a few cars of quite flammable HazMat it a small Wisconsin town. The blaze was so intense that firefighters had to retreat and watch the fire burn out while over two thousand residents were evacuated for two weeks. Wisconsin Central paid out 27 million in damages, and a couple years later Ed Burkhardt cashed out, selling his joke of a railroad to Canadian National.

Now at this point a sane man would have figured out railroading wasn’t his calling and retire, but Ed Burkhardt and his backers went and bought some more railroads. Railroading, properly done, is a “hands on” business, to the point that the better railroads like CP send their dispatchers out to ride on the tracks they’ll be dispatching and a BNSF executive lost his life a few years back when a wayward truck hit the locomotive he was riding in. But Ed Burkhardt bought railroads in Maine and Quebec, New Zealand, Great Britain, and Eastern Europe… And is trying to run them all from an office in the suburbs in Chicago! And run it was, just like the Wisconsin Central, with a continuing perverse legacy of deferred maintainence and derailments. And just to juice the profits a bit more, they cut the crew to one and ran even longer unit trains of anything that paid, hazmat included!

So a couple days back a train on Ed Burkhardt’s MM&A Railroad in Quebec has one of it’s five locomotives catch fire… Yup, still running locomotives so unreliable that they send out twice as many as needed to move the train. The local fire service dealt with that, and the sole crew member considered his train parked and headed to a hotel for the night. Now parking a train is no minor endeavor- even if they’re just parking a piece of lightweight maintainence equipment on the siding in my little town, the BNSF crews will set both the air brakes and handbrakes, set a block called a “derail” on the track to keep anything from moving just in case, and padlock the switch so it can’t be miss thrown. With a train near a mile long and all by himself, the MM&A engineer would have had to walk nearly a mile with a heavy derail while setting handbrakes, then walk back near another mile to catch a cab to his hotel. I suspect a few of those steps may have been missed. Real railroads don’t leave trainloads of HazMat in the middle of nowhere, they hate to even park ‘em in their railyards where they can keep an eye on them.

Ed Burkhardt’s rail “empire’ is now effectively bankrupt, the damages from this tragedy far exceeding the value of the assets. Now you’d think Ed would finally ‘fess up that he’d screwed up as an opening plea in a possible felony prosecution. But no, Ed’s blaming everybody but himself and his joke of a railroad empire. Other day he hinted at sabotage, then his excuse was that someone shut off the fire damaged locomotive… If the brakes were set properly, that shouldn’t matter. Today Ed claims that it wasn’t the crude oil in his runaway train that fueled the inferno, it was four cars of propane that his train of crude hit whilst racing out of control that burned. And how did Ed divine this knowledge? A railfan along the tracks informed him… Yup, nearly two decades experience at mismanaging a railroad, and Ed Burkhardt still doesn’t know what railcars are on his joke of a railroad!

It’s the same in the pipeline biz… Some operators will go years without spilling a drop, and that drop will be cleaned up before EPA even gets started on the paperwork. Others buy a rusty old pipeline, up the pressure to make more profit, ignore the leaks, and lawyer up when the big spill happens. Same thing in trucking- I’ve been following the saga online of a manager recently hired to keep a fly by night trucking company from getting shut down by the DOT… My bet is the company wants him to get them just organized enough to avoid gettin’ shut down, then they’ll lay him off. And even after amassing a bad enough safety record to get shut down, these chameleon fly by night trucking operations seem to re-emerge with the same unsafe trucks and drivers under a new name… And the same corporate customers looking for the cheapest rates!

So the solution isn’t to plug the pipeline or derail the railroad… Heck, there’s idiots out there that could burn down a town with solar power and drop a wind turbine on a helpless crowd. The solution is to kick the cowboys, gypos, fly by night operators, and clowns that shouldn’t be entrusted with a tricycle out of the transportation industry… Let the professionals that follow best practices and don’t care if they charge the lowest rates take their place.  

Originally posted to GearheadGrrrl on Wed Jul 10, 2013 at 06:55 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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