Canadian National calls back eastern operations employees

A photograph of a train traveling down a dirt field.

Canadian National (NYSE: CNI) has started to call back its employees who were laid off temporarily because of protests that disrupted the railway’s eastern operations.

Canadian National (CN) hasn’t faced significant rail blockades on its network for the last four days, and so it has started calling back most of its employees in eastern Canada, the company said on March 3.

The railway said over 1,400 trains, including passenger trains, were delayed because of the blockades. 

Protesters throughout Canada began setting up rail blockades on February 6 in support of a First Nations group’s objections of a proposed route for a fracked gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. While some rail blockades were isolated and relatively short-lived, others, such as one near Belleville, Ontario, lasted for several weeks, forcing CN to shut down it eastern operations.

The Canadian government and the Wet’suwet’en of British Columbia reached a tentative agreement this weekend that observers hope will quell any remaining protesting activity.

“As the situation is stabilizing, we have started calling back most of the temporarily laid off employees based in eastern Canada to move our customers’ goods as we continue to focus on a safe and progressive recovery,” said JJ Ruest, CN president and chief executive officer. “While we are keeping a close watch on our network for any further disruptions, we are mobilizing our employees to be ready to implement a focused and methodical recovery plan for our eastern network. The complete network recovery process will take several weeks.”

Ruest continued, “I wholeheartedly thank our customers, partners, stakeholders as well as all the various law enforcement agencies involved including CN Police Services for their patience, support and understanding during this unprecedented ordeal. I also wish to recognize the very helpful support of the provincial Premiers and their respective governments and the involvement of the Federal Government.”

As CN seeks to resume its eastern operations, the railway said it has its western operations have been on their “way to recovering” over the last two weeks. The railway is “rebalancing” its assets to service customer sites for loading, Ruest said. 

The rail service disruptions came at a challenging time for the railways because they’ve been hit with a combination of headwinds, including adverse weather conditions and a government mandate to slow down crude oil trains, according to Barry Prentice, professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba. The looming uncertainty of the coronavirus’ effect on the supply chain is also putting shippers at unease, he said.

“It will take a long time for things to recover…This event creates a memory in the traffic flow” of the supply chains, Prentice said.