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A CN locomotive passes by freight containers at the CN Taschereau yard in Montreal.GRAHAM HUGHES/The Canadian Press

Contract talks between Canadian National Railway Co. and the Teamsters have hit a rut, and the union is blaming an impasse over rail safety, the industry's hot-button issue after a series of high-profile rail disasters this year.

The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which represents 3,300 conductors, train and yard workers and traffic co-ordinators with Canada's largest railway company, said Monday that CN's decision last week not to extend a conciliation process could lead to a strike or a lockout on Oct. 28. The collective agreement expired on July 22.

Union spokesman Roland Hackl said in a release the railway is "pointing a gun to its workers' heads to force them to make concessions" that would require CN employees to work longer hours, with less rest time between trips. That, the union said, leaves it gearing up for a fight to ensure the safety of Canadians and rail workers.

CN spokesman Mark Hallman said "none of [CN's] bargaining proposals would in any way compromise the health and safety" of its employees and would in fact improve health and safety, though he offered no specifics. Talks are set to resume Oct. 21 with federally appointed mediators and CN "remains optimistic" a deal can be reached without a labour disruption, he added.

Rail safety has come to the forefront since the derailment of an oil train in the heart of Lac-Mégantic, Que., and subsequent conflagration left 47 people dead. Other high-profile accidents, including a fatal train-bus collision in Ottawa last month, have led to calls for a range of measures to improve rail safety and exposed several regulatory rifts between railway companies, regulators and municipalities. Last month, Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. CEO Hunter Harrison warned another Lac-Mégantic-type disaster could happen if regulators don't impose tougher rules for transporting hazardous materials, while a Senate report in August called on Ottawa to force railways to retire tank cars that are prone to leakage in derailments.

The issue has also taken on added prominence in the Teamsters' communications about its talks with CN. In an update sent by the union to members on June 21, two weeks before the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, the word "safety" does not appear, with the focus instead on proposed changes that would affect scheduling, reduce staffing on trains and increase the company's flexibility in assigning work tasks. By last month, the union had recast its dispute with CN as an issue of employee and public health, with Mr. Hackl stating "the Lac-Mégantic tragedy can't be in vain; the health and safety of workers and the public are not negotiable. Period."

The negotiations come after a seven-year period in which the number of rail accidents in Canada has fallen steadily.

The renewed concerns about rail safety come after a period of improving safety performance for the industry: the number of accidents in Canada fell in six of the past seven years, dropping to 1,011 incidents in 2012 from 1,476 in 2005. "What the statistics indicate is that in general the railways are getting safer," said David Jeanes, president of Transport Action Canada, a national public transportation advocacy group.

However, he noted the number of accidents dropped only marginally in 2012 from 2011 levels, while the number of accidents as of July, 2013, was up 1.2 per cent from the same level a year earlier. "The question is, have attempts to reduce these issues gone as far as they can go, or has [the industry] in fact stopped spending enough on safety to get continuous improvement?"

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