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MMA Railway Has Laid Off 79 Workers
07/17/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway has laid off 79 workers, nearly half its 179 person workforce, as a result of the Quebec train disaster on July 6th. The president of the company did not return a telephone call to MPBN but he told the Bangor Daily News he hopes the layoffs will be temporary. Meanwhile, an attorney for the engineer responsible for the train the night of the explosion says his client is shattered and in seclusion. And as Susan Sharon reports he's raising more questions about why the locomotive had only one person on board.

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According to a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration it's a rare practice for a railway to use a one-man rather than a two-man crew. But Kevin Thompson told MPBN that a single man crew is legal. Most railways, he says, operate their freight trains with an engineer and a conductor on board. The engineer drives the train. The conductor is responsible for inventory and calls out signals along the way. Now, MMA's practice of relying soley on the engineer is one of the issues for investigators looking into the deadly crash that killed dozens of people in Lac Megantic.

Thomas Walsh says: "I understand that the MMA is pretty well a skeleton force."

Attorney Thomas Walsh of Quebec represents the engineer responsible for the the 72-car freight train that was loaded with oil. Tom Harding, a 20-year veteran, was working alone on the night of July 6th. Harding apparently believed he had successfully parked the train when he stepped off at the end of his shift. Later, the unattended train rolled down a hill at a high rate of speed. Several cars derailed and exploded in the town of 6,000 residents.

Thomas Walsh says:"That doesn't necessarily mean that had there been two [workers on the train] the accident wouldn't have happened; had there been three the accident wouldn't have happened but it's kind of a reflection of where the company's priorities are."

Published reports from 2010 suggest the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway's goal was to save money and improve efficiency by switching to one-man crews, something that raised concerns for employees at the time and still does for Doug Finnson. He's the vice president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference Union who was interviewed on the CBC Radio show "As It Happens" last week. He says the railroad of today is extremely complex with myriad rules and regulations.

Doug Finnson says: "And there are operating procedures that absolutely must be followed. The consequences of not following them are great. So when you have a single person operating a locomotive, for example, the opportunities to be distracted, the opportunities to have an incidence are greatly enhanced when you don't have that second person there doing the checks and balances of this very, very complicated system."

Earlier this month the president and CEO of MMA's parent company defended the use of one-man crews. Ed Burkhardt told reporters - the one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because quote " there's less exposure for employee injuries. And less distraction." Burkhardt suggested engineer Tom Harding did not follow proper procedures when he set the hand brakes. Attorney Thomas Walsh calls that a "rush to judgement."

Thomas Walsh says: "I think that it would probably be a little more humane to await the results of the investigation. So I just think that he came out a little quickly on that and he didn't give any facts, really, to base himself on."

Walsh says his client has not been doing well since the accident. He describes him as a "regular working guy" who rushed to help at the scene when he learned what had happened. Walsh says Harding has been a good employee whose only other incident involved a wheel of his train going off a track last year. He was given a drug and alcohol test at the time which came back positive. But Walsh says upon further testing the lab determined that it was an error.

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