"We've had a very good safety record for these 10 years," Burkhardt said. "Well, I think we've blown it here."
Joe McGonigle, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic's vice president of marketing, said the company believes the brakes were the cause.
"Somehow those brakes were released, and that's what is going to be investigated," McGonigle said in a telephone interview Sunday. "We're pretty comfortable saying it is the brakes. The train was parked, it was tied up. The brakes were secured. Somehow it got loose."
Lauzon, the fire chief, said firefighters in a nearby community were called to a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. Lauzon said he could not provide additional details about that fire since it was in another jurisdiction. McGonigle confirmed the fire department showed up after the first engineer tied up and went to a local hotel. Someone later reported a fire.
"We know that one of our employees from our engineering department showed up at the same time to assist the fire department. Exactly what they did is being investigated so the engineer wasn't the last man to touch that train, we know that, but we're not sure what happened," McGonigle said.
McGonigle said there was no reason to suspect any criminal or terror-related activity.
The train's oil was being transported from North Dakota's Bakken oil region to a refinery in New Brunswick. Because of limited pipeline capacity in the Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are increasingly using railroads to transport much of the oil to refineries.
The Canadian Railway Association recently estimated that as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil will be shipped on Canada's tracks this year — up from just 500 carloads in 2009. The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight train accident in Canada under investigation involving crude oil shipments since the beginning of the year.
Harper has called railroad transit "far more environmentally challenging" while trying to persuade the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Greenpeace Canada said Sunday that federal safety regulations haven't kept up with the enormous growth in the shipment of oil by rail.
"We think it is safe. We think we have a safe operation," McGonigle said of carrying oil by rail. "No matter what mode of transportation you are going to have incidents. That's been proven. This is an unfortunate incident."
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies and Charmaine Noronha contributed from Toronto.