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Strike averted for GO trains

Five-year tentative deal reached at last-ditch talks
Job action by CN would have meant highway gridlock


Greater Toronto commuters can get GO-ing today, having dodged a transit strike for the second time in two months.

CN Rail’s 1,700 engineers — including the 100 who operate GO trains — reached a tentative five-year deal late last night, averting a national railway strike that would have led to traffic chaos in the GTA.

“We’re very relieved,” GO managing director Gary McNeil said. “It’s really good news for us. We can get on with business as usual and get back to providing the service we’re supposed to be providing.”

GO was caught in the middle of a dispute between Canadian National Railway and Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which represents the engineers. They had been without a contract since Dec. 31, 2003 and had set a strike deadline of 12:01 a.m. today.

GO handles 180,000 rides a day. Because CN runs six of GO’s seven rail lines, most of GO’s commuters would have been caught in the crunch. They would have been forced to drive, carpool or stay home.

This deal comes one month after TTC talks with its drivers and mechanics went down to the wire, forcing commuters to come up with contingency plans.

But with 40 minutes to the GO strike deadline, union president Gilles Hall posted news of a tentative deal on the union’s website, matched a while later by CN. Both sides said the wording of the proposed five-year agreement, retroactive to 2004, was being worked out and details of the contract were being withheld pending ratification.

“We’re very glad we’ve been able to reach this settlement without labour disruption and the attendant problems it would create,” said CN spokesman Mark Hallman. “It allows us all to get back the focus on our customers and their transportation needs.”

McNeil said half of GO’s management spent the last two days working up contingency plans with private bus operators and local transit authorities.

“It’s a major distraction, really,” McNeil said. “Our call centre was inundated with phone calls. Our website just about crashed from the number of people accessing it, finding out what was going on. It diverted at lot of attention.

“But now we’ve got a number of contingency plans. We’ve got one for a TTC strike, one for a CN strike.”

The contingency plan for a GO and TTC work stoppage was essentially to tell commuters to find another way to work. The near-misses show how the city’s economy and the commuters who support it are vulnerable to disruption, say experts.

A CN work stoppage would have meant companies would not be able to receive goods in time, which could result in idle factories and delay Canadian exports, said Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns. Commuters affected by the GO Transit work stoppage would also have decreased business productivity.

“It would have an impact through all business channels,” Porter said. “It would increase costs for business.”

Roads would have been jammed with more cars and parking lots overcrowded.

“To me, it obviously shows the need for more transportation infrastructure,” said Faye Lyons, spokeswoman for the Canadian Automobile Association. She said more highways, more roads and expanding the TTC to Mississauga would help.

“We do require more transportation infrastructure. We need more roads and expressways. People need transportation options in these situations. If there were more transportation options available to people, we wouldn’t be faced with congestion.”

Lyons said the only reasons more roads haven’t been built is a “lack of government will. They’ve got the money. They’re collecting it through our gas tax. They should be allocating a greater share of the provincial and federal gas taxes” to transportation projects.

CN employs more than 22,000 people in Canada and the United States, with more than 30,000 route-kilometres of track in both countries.

The company earned $6.5 billion in 2004 but has been on a cost-cutting tear, leading to low morale within worker ranks, said analyst Greg Gormack.

CN engineers were upset that CN wanted to eliminate “gain sharing.” The company was said to have offered each employee $10,000 to give up their lucrative year-end bonus.