Last week, CN conductors and yard workers went on strike. Pickets were set up at the entrances to CN facilities, and workers started walking the line looking not for higher wages, but for working conditions that are more conducive to getting rest. Fatigue, caused by working irregular hours, on changing schedules is a significant safety risk.
A tentative agreement was reached on Tuesday, but CN still ran trains because engineers are part of a different union, and management was filling the conductor positions. Container cars still moved to and from Halifax daily, and port statistics showed no increases in container dwell times at both terminals. Other trains however were cancelled and layoffs took place at the CN owned Autoport in Eastern Passage, and elsewhere in the company as a result of the strike action.
Lack of rest was cited as of one of the significant contributing factors in a February 1986 train collision in Hinton, Alberta. A CN freight train heading westbound, its crew having fallen asleep, missed a signal and collided head on with Via’s Super Continental. Twenty-three people were killed, and 95 injured. So significant was the wreckage, I can still recall the image of the stack of freight cars piled up that appeared on the front page of the newspaper the next day. I was six years old.
I’m told in the aftermath of that investigation, CN went through a cultural shift that gave crews more opportunities to rest. That culture then shifted again under the leadership of Hunter Harrison, who saw those changes as an impediment to moving trains quickly and efficiently, and undid it all.
Some called for the federal government to legislate an end to the strike, citing propane shortages. That didn’t prove necessary but would have been a bad idea regardless. Canadians should want hazardous materials transported safely, by well rested crews.
Rail tragedies in Canada
Canada has had two well-known and serious rail accidents involving hazardous materials – the 1979 derailment that led to the evacuation of over 200,000 people in Mississauga due to leaking chlorine and propane, and the 2013 derailment of an oil-carrying train in Lac Megantic, which killed 47 people.
The tracks through Lac Megantic were once part of Canadian Pacific. In 1994, CP sold off all its track east of Montreal. The part that formed the Eastern Maine Railway and the New Brunswick Southern Railway (NBSR) went to J.D. Irving. The rest was sold to what would become the Montreal Maine and Atlantic (MMA).
The MMA went bankrupt after Lac Megantic, and became the Central Maine and Quebec Railway.
CP announced last week that they have agreed to acquire the Central Maine and Quebec Railway. CP has plans to upgrade track to increase train speeds, and cited better access to the Port of Saint John as a reason for the deal. This leads me to believe CP has significant freight volumes to move, with priority. Otherwise they would have simply interchanged with the existing shortline in New York as they do now.
In my mind, the acquisition would suggest a container line is going to be moving containers through Saint John. DP World, the Saint John terminal operator, is already advertising direct connections to both CN and CP, so it suggests they are primed to take advantage of both national railways connecting.
Shipping line MSC already calls in Montreal and Saint John. Sea access to Montreal has become more problematic in recent years due to climate change. Winters have brought unpredictable and difficult ice conditions and summer speed restrictions designed to protect North Atlantic right whales have played havoc with ship schedules. Skipping Montreal on some routes by calling only in Saint John would keep the ships moving on schedule.
In other harbour news:
- The coast guard is taking steps to do something with the former HMCS Cormorant, which has been an eyesore in Bridgewater for more than 10 years. Last week they posted a security guard at the property, and issued a notice that the coast guard was going to deal with an imminent pollution threat.
- Irving Shipbuilding successfully launched the future HMCS Margaret Brooke last week, and also conducted two days of builder’s trials on the future HMCS Harry DeWolf. Both appear to have gone well.