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CN Rail President and CEO Jean-Jacques Ruest, seen during a business luncheon in Montreal on April 25, 2019, said in case of CN they lost the equivalent of 10,000 carloads, or roughly one million tonnes.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Canadian National Railway Co. lost capacity equivalent to 10,000 carloads, or one million tonnes of grain exports, in February because of rail blockades by protesters opposed to a pipeline project, chief executive officer Jean-Jacques Ruest said on Tuesday.

Activists disrupted passenger and freight traffic last month to show solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people, who are seeking to stop TC Energy Corp.’s Coastal GasLink pipeline from being built across their land.

“In the case of CN, we lost the equivalent of 10,000 carloads, or roughly one million tonnes,” Mr. Ruest said in an interview. “Of all the supply chains, the one that will take the longest [to recover] is the grain export.”

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The lost capacity represents roughly 1 per cent of Canada’s total harvest during the 2019-20 marketing year, which runs from Aug. 1, 2019, through July 31, 2020.

Canada relies on CN, the country’s largest railway, and smaller rival Canadian Pacific Railway to move crops, oil, potash, coal and manufactured goods to ports and the United States.

The blockades, which shut some lines for weeks, hit “every commodity,” creating backlogs of products sitting on CN railcars, along with product that “has yet to enter our network,” he said.

Mr. Ruest said CN did not move as much crude by rail as expected in February because of the blockades. He said he believes crude shipments will remain a driver of growth this year for CN, although weaker prices could affect output.

Global crude price benchmarks have tumbled this year by more than one-fifth, because of fears that the coronavirus outbreak could sap global demand.

Earlier on Tuesday, CN said more than 1,400 trains, including passenger trains, were delayed or cancelled because of the blockades, causing shutdowns of parts of the company’s network as freight is parked across the network, ready to be moved.

CN also confirmed a Reuters report from Friday that the company was calling back many of the 450 employees based in Eastern Canada who had been temporarily laid off because of the blockades.

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Mr. Ruest said he hopes protesters will not target rail amid tensions over other pipeline projects. Along with Coastal GasLink, twinning is under way with the Canadian government-owned Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific coast near Vancouver, which also faces fierce opposition from environmental and some Indigenous groups.

“It is a very costly way to resolve issues,” Mr. Ruest said. “I surely hope this is not the way of the future.”

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