rail transport | Ottawa raises the tone against CN and CP

The country’s two rail companies are being lectured by Ottawa, which is calling for the bar to be raised after a winter marked by “worrying” service cuts. The Trudeau government is also warning the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) by believing it is prioritizing its finances at the expense of the service.

Posted at 8:00 am

Julian Arsenal

Julian Arsenal
The press

These criticisms appear in two separate letters signed by Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and addressed to CN and Canadian Pacific (CP) leaders. They were received from The press under the Access to Information Act.

Overall, the minister’s criticism is aimed at both companies. However, Mr. Alghabra is a little more scathing about Canada’s largest railway company, based in Montreal.

“I am concerned that you have made the decision to sacrifice service performance in favor of operating conditions and aggressive cost-cutting decisions such as laying off crews,” he wrote to CN. Shippers and the Canadian economy in general have suffered. »

The Transport Minister referred to the goals presented by former CN President and CEO Jean-Jacques Ruest last autumn. Under pressure from a militant shareholder, the company had announced an austerity plan to cut spending, cut more than 1,000 jobs – including 400 union members (track engineers and mechanics) – and potentially sell assets deemed non-essential.

Upon his retirement, Mr. Ruest was replaced by Tracy Robinson. The latter has not yet commented on how it intends to achieve the goals presented last autumn.

Other indicators

Visibly concerned about the disruptions of recent months, Mr. Alghabra warns CN and CP of changes Transport Information Regulations are expected to come into effect. This would require both companies to provide more information to federal agencies.

“To further shed light on the implications of crew availability, I intend to recommend the inclusion of new requirements for Class 1 freight railroads to report crew levels by province,” he warns.


Omar Alghabra, Federal Transport Minister

It is not clear when these changes will come into force. Mr Alghabra’s office said on Wednesday that consultations on the deal had just ended. Via email, CN replied that “last winter was one of the most difficult on record” and that the disruption “could not be substantially mitigated by the existence of additional crews”.

“Contrary to what the letter says, there have been no reductions in crew or staff involved in the operation of our trains over the past year,” the company said.

For its part, CP says it has raised concerns with Transport Canada about the proposed changes. According to the company, “no rail dataset” is able to “completely map” the performance of “the entire supply chain”.

Ottawa is missing teeth, says expert

For Jacques Roy, professor of transportation management at HEC Montreal, Mr Alghabra’s letters have “a little bite, but not much bite”. According to the expert, the Trudeau government, while expressing its dissatisfaction, does not dwell on the specter of possible major changes.

According to Mr Roy, the “first step” would be to force CN and CP to publicly disclose the performance – the punctuality rates – of their trains.

This shows [les lettres] at least there is a concern of the government. The query of personnel data becomes a control measure. It’s a message. The companies will not be happy. It’s internal trouble for them.

Jacques Roy, Professor of Traffic Management at HEC Montréal

Rail transporters can hardly escape the hardships of winter. Low temperatures affect a train’s air braking systems. Carriers are forced to use shorter trains with slower speeds. This often reduces capacity. The two major railway companies cited the bitter winter cold as the main explanation for the interruptions to operations.

However, four years after Traffic Modernization Actwhich required CN and CP to publish annual plans for winter grain transportation, Ottawa says progress is insufficient.

“CN has repeatedly reported grain order fill rates below 50% despite the much smaller harvest this year,” the minister wrote.

Mr Alghabra calls for “investments” as well as “operational changes” needed to raise the bar. However, he does not mention possible consequences if nothing changes.

In collaboration with William Leclerc, The press

Learn more

  • 10%
    From January through March, revenue tonne miles — a key industry indicator — for CN and CP declined 10% from Q1 2021.

    Source: Railway Association of Canada

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