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CN Rail locomotives are seen on Feb. 23, 2015, in Montreal. CN says it has started to call back most of the 450 workers temporarily laid off last month, when blockades brought the company's eastern network to a near standstill.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Canadian National Railway Co. says it is recalling most of the workers laid off when its tracks east of Toronto were blocked in early February in a dispute over a pipeline in B.C., although the company says it will take several weeks to resume normal operations.

Canada’s largest freight railway halted train traffic in Eastern Canada and issued about 450 layoffs after its tracks were blocked by protesters at several sites across Canada beginning on Feb. 6. The blockades were set up by backers of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who oppose a Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline being built on their unceded traditional territory by TC Energy Corp.

Police last week arrested several people and dismantled the most persistent blockade, in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont., allowing CN and passenger service Via Rail to run trains on the corridor connecting the East Coast with central Canada.

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On Monday, TC Energy Corp. resumed construction of the $6.6-billion, 670-kilometre pipeline from Dawson Creek to Kitimat, B.C., after weekend talks ended on Saturday between the hereditary chiefs and government representatives. The chiefs have not abandoned their opposition to the pipeline, and details of the agreement are not known.

“While we are keeping a close watch on our network for any further disruptions, we are mobilizing our employees to be ready to implement a focused and methodical recovery plan for our Eastern network,” said JJ Ruest, chief executive officer of CN.

CN said the blockades across Canada halted 1,400 freight and passenger trains and left cargo parked across its network. The Montreal-based carrier said that its carloads in the third week of February fell by more than 13 per cent from a year earlier, while revenue ton miles slipped by more than 9 per cent.

The loss of freight train service has slowed or halted the pickup and delivery of propane, chlorine, grain and other commodities, prompting fears of shortages, job losses and factory shutdowns.

As rail service is restored, Olin Corp. said it has restarted its drinking-water chemical plant in Becancour, Que. The chlorine factory, one of four in Canada, had been forced to halt production when the CN trains it requires to deliver the chemicals to distributors stopped arriving.

Via Rail also resumed partial service east of Toronto on Tuesday, restarting routes it suspended across Canada as it laid off almost 1,000 train crew members, service attendants and others.

As CN works to move the backlog of commodities, consumer goods and industrial components, it faces a darkening economic environment created by the COVID-19 virus. Efforts to contain the disease have prolonged factory shutdowns in China, sharply curtailing production as consumer demand is reduced.

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Danielle Jang, a spokeswoman for the Port of Vancouver, said 30 container vessels, which bring consumer goods to North America from Asia, have cancelled regular calls at the West Coast port due to the impacts of COVID-19. Chinese factory shutdowns have also reduced demand for coal, which is shipped through B.C.’s terminals.

Shipping container volumes at the four biggest ports in Australia fell by 5 per cent in January. “This is likely to continue following ongoing issues with the drought and stalling global supply chains following the coronavirus outbreak,” said Jakob Cakarnis, a Citigroup analyst, noting container shipping in the first half of 2020 is likely to be the weakest since the financial crisis of 2009. ​

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