CN launches recovery plan following strike

The company says rail movement should be back to normal speed in about two weeks now that strike has ended

Canadian National Railway has started a recovery plan after the rail network was largely shut down following an eight-day worker strike.

The plan means it will take CN roughly two weeks to get movement back to normal levels, Sean Finn, CN’s senior vice-president and chief legal officer, said Nov. 28.

Finn said it involves CN moving freight in a structured and disciplined manner to avoid congestion.

“It’s very much an art and not a science to recover from an eight-day slowdown,” he said.

The recovery efforts come after a strike that saw 3,200 of the company’s conductors, train workers and yard workers leave their posts.

The dispute caused farm groups and provincial governments to urge Ottawa to re-convene Parliament early and pass back-to-work legislation.

CN is a major carrier of Canadian commodities. Any disruptions, especially prolonged, can seriously impact the economy.

The union and CN, however, came to an agreement Nov. 26. Employees went back to work last week. The new agreement has yet to be ratified by Teamsters union members.

Provincial governments and farm groups welcomed the resolution, but they want product to be moving as efficiently as possible.

“With access challenges in key markets around the world and on-farm profitability at its lowest point in six years, farmers cannot afford any further delays, we have to get grain moving again,” Markus Haerle, vice-chair with the Grain Growers of Canada (GGC), said in a news release.

Finn said CN could only move 10 percent of its capacity during the strike.

He said the company had nearly 100 trains parked, with 40 of those being trains carrying grain.

“Everybody felt the impact,” he said. “We can’t operate railways to the same level of service with only 250 management employees running the trains.”

Finn said CN will try to regain fluidity in movement without creating congestion. It will require staging trains effectively.

Farmer groups want CN to prioritize the movement of grain, but Finn said no commodity will take priority over another, explaining the company makes decisions that maximize capacity.

“We don’t pick winners and losers. We will look at what demand is,” Finn said. “Customers will be calling cars in or ordering cars to deliver.”

The GGC has said propane shortages are heavily affecting producers, especially in Eastern Canada.

The organization said some farmers have been told it could take weeks before they get propane, stressing that grain also needs to be moved.

“We know that we have a narrow window before the very cold weather sets in — we have to get grain moving right away,” Haerle said.

The company said it’s going to take safely seriously now that workers are back on the job.

Safety issues and fatigue were main concerns from members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) union.

Finn acknowledged the concerns but didn’t specify what safety measures will be addressed, only saying that safety is a core value of the company.

“To us there is only one way to operate and it’s safely,” he said. “Employees must always take a safe action. If employees see things that are not safe, they are asked to report them to the supervisors.”

He pointed to work being done by the federal transportation ministry to analyze rest rules and fatigue, noting this is being done outside the collective bargaining process.

The GGC wants Ottawa to act more swiftly if another strike happens.

The TCRC, however, thanked the government for not intervening with back-to-work legislation. It said Labour Minister Filomena Tassi, Transport Minister Marc Garneau, and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service were instrumental in helping parties find common ground.

As for layoffs previously announced at CN, Finn said they have not yet been decided in detail, adding none of them were operating employees.

“We will have a broader discussion at year-end. It’s premature to discuss at this stage,” he said. “All the crews we need are being called back to run our trains based on the current environment where we’ve been shut down for eight days.”

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