Industry warns of empty shelves because of rail blockades

Fresh food, personal hygiene products and baby formula are among the goods that could soon run out as halted railcars clog CN Rail’s network from coast to coast because of the pipeline protests.

Drinking water could also fall into short supply if chlorine for water treatment stays off the tracks, according to chemical distribution trade group Responsible Distribution Canada.

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“If something doesn’t happen now, we’re going to start seeing municipalities in Ontario beginning to have boil-water advisories going out,” said president Cathy Campbell. “This week it’s going to get very scary.”

Hand sanitizer, de-icing fluid for aircraft and chemicals used to coat cars and clean food processing equipment could prompt production line shutdowns, she said.

Canadian Propane Association CEO Nathalie St-Pierre said wholesalers in the Maritimes have begun to ration distribution while truck lineups for the fuel in Sarnia, Ont., are up to 10 hours long.

“It’s not like there’s 10,000 idled trucks sitting in some subterranean basement somewhere that can just be dusted off if there’s a rail stoppage. There’s just too much volume for that,” said Retail Council of Canada spokesman Karl Littler.

Industries from manufacturing to fertilizer say they respect the right to peaceful protest but argue it’s time for federal and provincial governments to bridge the impasse or enforce injunctions obtained by CN.

“We do feel like we’re sort of getting sideswiped by a protest that pertains more to natural resources products than rail,” said Littler.

Via Rail has cancelled all service on CN tracks in Canada, leaving only two northern routes open — between Sudbury and White River in Ontario and between Churchill and The Pas in Manitoba.

The ongoing shutdown impedes mills’ ability to ship pulp, two-by-fours and wood panelling to the U.S. and beyond, said Forest Products Association of Canada CEO Derek Nighbor, who called the CN line a “critical artery.”

“For every train car that we use for pulp, it would take four trucks to move that same carload. For lumber, it’s two trucks for every one train car,” Nighbor said.

“You’re now having mills that are having a hard time, getting close to not being able to run because they can’t get the chemicals or the fuel in,” he said. “That’s expensive — warehousing and storage, finding trucks.”

Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson said the backed-up rail lines are hampering producers’ ability to export commodities, and warned of “huge financial consequences” because farmers do not get paid until products get to market.

“Rail service disruptions can also have negative impacts on animal welfare issues, as propane shipments are crucial to keeping barns heated during the winter months,” she said.

While the repercussions of the rail shutdown are negative for the vast majority of businesses, the closure of Via’s Ottawa-Toronto and Montreal-Toronto routes has proven to be a bonus for Porter Airlines, which said more passengers have booked flights between those cities over the past week.

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