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'Potential catastrophe': Rail blockades disrupt supply chains for food — which may lead to grocery shortages – Financial Post



Manufacturers are scrambling to deliver products, industry associations are warning of potential shortages of food items, propane, and chlorine for water treatment, and mining companies are curtailing production as rail blockades by Indigenous groups and environmental activists continue to paralyze Canada’s transportation infrastructure.

Canadian National Railway began shutting down all operations in Eastern Canada and Via Rail cancelled most passenger service nationwide Friday as protests in support of Wet’suwet’en Nation opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia moved into a second week.

Demonstrators have blocked railways in B.C. and Ontario, crippling crucial arteries for industrial supply chains that operate on a just-in time basis. And as trains ground to a halt, unions were notified by CN, Canada’s biggest cargo railway, to be prepared for potential layoffs.

“Rail is the backbone of infrastructure in this country, critical for industry but also for inter-city movement of goods,” said Brian Kingston, vice president of policy, international and fiscal Issues at the business council of Canada. “This is not the kind of thing you can take a wait and see approach on for too long because this is potentially a catastrophe for the Canadian economy.”

The crisis in the nation’s rail system is hitting at a particularly difficult time for the economy, already wounded by the coronavirus and still recovering from an eight-day strike that shut down CN’s operations in November. Half of Canadian exports move via rail to ports and then on to global markets, with CN alone moving $250 billion in goods annually, Kingston said.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer recently downgraded fourth quarter growth to 0.3 per cent from 1.6 per cent, citing the strikes at CN strike and General Motors. Projected first quarter growth was subsequently reduced too, to 1.5 per cent from 1.8 per cent — largely due to concerns about the impact of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

This is not the kind of thing you can take a wait and see approach on for too long because this is potentially a catastrophe for the Canadian economy

Brian Kingston

Those dampened figures cast doubt over the prospects for an already slowing economy, expected to grow at just 1.6 per cent in 2020, according to the federal government’s forecast, Kingston said.

“That’s half the speed of the average growth of the G20 so it’s not like were at the top of the table to begin with,” he said. “Then factor in the downgrade for coronavirus, plus this rail situation and it becomes very difficult to see how we achieve even that very modest growth forecast.”

Retailers and food producers warned that an extended strike could lead to shortages of groceries and household products on shelves, and the “spoilage of fresh foods.” While urban centres would not escape the impact, smaller communities would be particularly affected.

“This is not solely a food supply issue,” the Retail Council of Canada and Food and Consumer Products Canada said in a joint statement. “Among the type of goods impacted are items like personal hygiene products, infant formula, fire alarms and the type of cleaning and sanitary products that help deal with concerns about the spread of influenza and other infectious diseases.”

As in other sectors, firms were switching to alternate transportation already in short supply, including trucking, the statement said. But for some goods including bulk agricultural commodities, mining products and hazardous chemicals, trains are the only way to move products.

Chlorine to treat drinking water, jet fuel and chemicals used in de-icing fluid are all particularly dependent on rail.

“When you get into hazardous products like chlorine, you can’t put it on a truck and send it down the 401 (Highway) at 100 km an hour,” said Bob Masterson, chief executive of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada. “These things are very important to public safety and they’re not getting through. So how long can this go on before we are in a crisis? We are dangerously close to finding out the answer to that question.”

Meantime, some mining companies — which rely heavily on rail to ship raw materials into their operations and carry products out to market — are experiencing serious disruptions while others have had their service severed altogether.

In 2018, the industry was responsible for 20 per cent of Canada’s exports, valued $104.5 billion.

“Not all of that moves by rail but most does,” said Brendan Marshall, vice president of economic and northern affairs at the Mining Association of Canada.

“I’ve been talking to companies across the country and some have already begun operational curtailments knowing they only have so much storage space before they shut down.”

Worn down by a string of rail disruptions, some customers, he says, are considering shifting their supply source away from Canada, he added.

“This is indicative of the level of concern out there.”

Halted freight trains in in Tyendinaga, Ont.

Halted freight trains in in Tyendinaga, Ont.

Chris Helgren/Reuters

It’s too soon to say how much the blockade, now on its eighth day, will cost CN. But the impact on its operations is comparable to the recent labour strike, when 3,200 conductors and rail workers walked off the job during collective bargaining, forcing the railway to scale back operations to 10 per cent of capacity.

At the time, CN warned the labour action would cut earnings by an estimated 15 cent per share. In January, it reported revenue fell $224 million to $3.58 billion in the last three months of 2019, down 6 per cent from the same quarter in 2018. Operating profit fell 16 per cent to $1.21 billion.

The railway blamed both the strike and weaker economic conditions for the revenue drop, although it did not allocate a dollar figure to the strike. Once a tentative deal was struck, it took about three weeks for normal operations to resume. But new government rules that’s expected to slow down train traffic means it could take longer for CN to recover from the blockades.

Last week, Transport Minister Marc Garneau issued a ministerial order forcing trains carrying dangerous goods to slow down in response to three derailments of trains carrying crude oil over the last year. The 30-day order cuts the speed limit in half to 25 miles per hour from 50 mph across the country and down to 20 mph from 40 mph in metropolitan areas with populations over 10,000 people.

Passenger train carrier Via Rail also shut down the vast majority of its operations given its trains run on CN tracks. Tens of thousands of customers have been affected, with Via offering refunds for passengers whose travel plans were cancelled.

Via Rail did not reply to questions about how much the disruption is expected to cost.

With files from Emily Jackson and Julia Mastroianni

• Email: npowell@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

• Email: ejackson@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

• Email: JMastroianni@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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Oil prices fall as market weighs coronavirus demand impact – CNBC



Oil pumpjacks in silhouette at sunset.

Oil prices fell on Tuesday, tracking losses in financial markets on lingering concerns over the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak in China and its effect on oil demand.

Brent crude was at $57.07 a barrel, down 60 cents, or 1%, by 0348 GMT, while U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude fell 38 cents, or 0.7%, to $51.67 a barrel.

“Oil prices remain heavy as energy traders may have been overly optimistic as to the crude demand impact of the coronavirus, and in fading optimism that OPEC + will come through with deeper production cuts in March,” said Edward Moya, senior market analyst at OANDA.

“Optimism that China would see a return to normalcy in travel and trade next quarter was probably wrong… The rest of world is exercising caution on virus spreading fears and that will do no favors for crude’s demand outlook.”

U.S. stock futures slipped from record levels on Tuesday after Apple Inc, the most valuable company in the United States, said it will not meet its revenue guidance for the March quarter as the coronavirus outbreak slowed production and weakened demand in China. 

The number of new coronavirus infections in mainland China fell below 2,000 on Tuesday for the first time since January, Chinese health officials said, although global experts warn it is too early to say the outbreak is being contained. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said last week the virus was set to cause oil demand to fall by 435,000 barrels per day (bpd) year-on-year in the first quarter, in what would be the first quarterly drop since the financial crisis in 2009.

Still, with some Chinese independent refineries snapping up crude supplies after being absent from the market for weeks, traders held out hopes that China’s demand could recover in coming months. 

Investors are also anticipating that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its allies, including Russia, will approve a proposal to deepen production cuts to tighten global supplies and support prices.

The group, known as OPEC+, has an agreement to cut oil output by 1.7 million bpd until the end of March.

Oil output from Libya has fallen sharply since Jan. 18 because of a blockade of ports and oil fields by groups loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar.

Libya’s national oil corporation, NOC, said on Monday that oil production was at 135,745 barrels per day as of Monday, compared with 1.2 million bpd before the stoppage.

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Pier 1 Imports closing all Canadian stores as it files for bankruptcy protection – Global News



Home goods retailer Pier 1 Imports Inc. says it has filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States and plans to close all Canadian stores as part of its restructuring process.

The Texas-based company has been struggling with increased competition from budget-friendly online retailers such as Wayfair.

Pier 1 says it will pursue a sale, with a March 23 deadline to submit bids.

The company last month announced it would close 450 stores, including all its Canadian locations.

A Pier 1 Imports furniture and home furnishings store in Laval, Que. on Feb. 22, 2018.

A Pier 1 Imports furniture and home furnishings store in Laval, Que. on Feb. 22, 2018.

Mario Beauregard / The Canadian Press

Pier 1’s Canadian website now directs customers to a short statement announcing the closures and thanks them for their loyalty.

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The company is also commencing creditor protection proceedings in Canada.

Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP are serving as Canadian legal advisers.

In a statement Monday, the company said it will continue to shutter stores as part of its bankruptcy proceedings. The company, which was founded in 1962, is also closing two distribution centres.

Wayfair employees plan walkout after company sells beds to migrant detention centres: reports

A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In the meantime, Pier 1 said lenders have committed approximately $256 million in debtor-in-possession financing so it can continue its operations during the Chapter 11 proceedings.

“Today’s actions are intended to provide Pier 1 with additional time and financial flexibility as we now work to unlock additional value for our stakeholders through a sale of the company,” Pier 1 CEO and Chief Financial Officer Robert Riesbeck said in a statement. Riesbeck, an executive with previous corporate turnarounds, joined Pier 1 last summer.

Pier 1’s sales fell 13 per cent to $358 million in its most recent quarter, which ended Nov. 30. It reported a net loss of $59 million for the quarter as it struggled to draw customers to its stores. Pier 1 has been trying to declutter its stores, improve online sales and draw in younger customers.

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Pier 1’s shares have fallen 45 per cent since the start of the year. They closed at $3.58 per share on Friday.

— With files from The Associated Press. 

© 2020 The Canadian Press

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Bombardier to sell train unit to France’s Alstom, shedding biggest division – Toronto Star



MONTREAL— Bombardier, the supplier of Toronto’s signature streetcars and subways, has reached a US$8.2-billion deal to sell its rail business to French train giant Alstom SA. Both the TTC and Metrolinx say the sale won’t immediately impact their operations.

The company is narrowing its focus to commit itself solely to business jets while casting off its largest division, in part to help pay down US$9.3 billion in debt.

“Going forward, we will focus all our capital, energy and resources on accelerating growth and driving margin expansion in our market-leading US$7 billion business aircraft franchise,” CEO Alain Bellemare said in a statement Monday.

The news comes only weeks after the TTC took delivery of the last of 204 new Bombardier streetcars. All the maintenance of those vehicles is done in-house at the TTC, said transit spokesperson Stuart Green.

The $1.25 billion streetcar order was believed to be the biggest in the world when it was announced in 2009. But the 11 intervening years were an especially problematic chapter in the city’s long transit history with Bombardier.

The first two cars arrived in Toronto in 2014. But a series of manufacturing defects and missed delivery targets caused tempers to flare at the TTC and city hall. At one point the first 67 streetcars had to be recalled and repaired. Meantime, the TTC was desperately trying to extend the life of its old CLRV streetcars and run buses to supplement service on routes that desperately needed the new, bigger vehicles.

Toronto’s newest subways, the $1 billion Toronto Rockets, were also made by Bombardier. Ordered in 2006, they proved controversial for former Toronto Mayor David Miller, who defended the sole-source contract because it supported jobs at Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant. The subways arrived late due to the bankruptcy of Bombardier’s New York door manufacturer but entered service in 2011.

Metrolinx said that “initial indications from Bombardier suggest it is business as usual,” with its order for Bombardier light rail vehicles for the Eglinton Crosstown, GO buses and the operation of GO and Union-Pearson Express trains. Most of GO’s locomotives are built by U.S.-based MotivePower.

The Finch West and Hurontario light rail lines are being furnished by Alstom, said spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins.

“We look forward to continuing with all of our rail delivery partners to bring better transit to the region,” she said.

Toronto transit historian Ed Levy said the sale of Bombardier’s train division is the end of an era that was for decades a happy match between the city and the company.

“They really screwed up on the streetcar thing but not on the very large orders of the subway cars over the years. When they started doing off-shore stuff that’s where their problems began,” he said.

The acquisition also signals an effort by Alstom to scale up amid rising competition from China’s state-owned CRRC, the world’s largest train maker.

The transaction will see the Caisse de depot et placement, which owns a 32.5 per cent stake in Bombardier’s train division, become Alstom’s largest shareholder.

The deal converts the Quebec pension giant’s investment in Bombardier Transportation into Alstom shares, handing the Caisse about 18 per cent of the Paris-based company with an investment of up to $4 billion, depending on closing conditions. The transaction includes an additional Caisse investment of $1 billion.

Bombardier said net proceeds from the deal will be between US$4.2 billion and US$4.5 billion after deducting the Caisse’s equity position of roughly US$2.2 billion, as well as adjustments for debts and other liabilities.

The deal is expected to close in the first half of 2021 if it can move through regulatory hurdles.

Alstom’s purchase is expected to come under intense scrutiny from antitrust regulators in the European Union. Last year, EU authorities blocked a proposed merger between Alstom and the train division of German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG, arguing the proposed tie-up would result in higher price tags on signalling systems and bullet trains.

Montreal-based Bombardier has sold several divisions since Bellemare took the helm in 2015, including its turboprop and aerostructure segments as well as its commercial airline unit, once touted as the company’s crown jewel.

Bombardier announced last month it was working to reduce debt and pursuing strategic options, which analysts and other observers suggested could include the sale of the company’s rail or business jet units.

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Bombardier shares have fallen about 70 per cent since July 2018 while Alstom’s have risen by more than 50 per cent over the past two years, including 3.5 per cent Monday.

The announcement was made after the Paris Stock Exchange closed Monday. The Toronto Stock Exchange was closed for Family Day.

The new deal and other recent transactions will leave Bombardier with between US$6.5 and US$7 billion of cash on hand, “putting the company on a brand-new footing” to deal with its sizable debt, Bellemare said.

The company has already ramped up production of high-margin business jets, which it expects will drive double-digit revenue growth with 160 unit sales in 2020 amid a $16.3-billion backlog. But delays and “some volatility” continue to plague several “large, challenging” rail contracts, Bellemare said last Thursday.

While its business jets are now at full production, analysts highlight the cyclical luxury market of private planes in comparison to the relatively stable field of rail car and network construction, which is fuelled by government infrastructure projects.

Nonetheless, hefty production costs and lower margins remain an issue in the rail business, said Jacques Roy, professor of transport management at HEC Montreal business school.

“You can see the fixed costs increasing all the time, because they pretty much have to establish facilities everywhere they sell equipment,” Roy said, pointing to Bombardier’s plant in Plattsburgh, N.Y., which makes trains for U.S. clients.

“If they were a little bit better at this they would be able to compete with the Chinese. They could brag that, ‘Okay, we’re not as cheap as the Chinese, but we produce much better quality, we deliver on time.’ But they don’t. That’s a concern to me,” he said.

The rail and business jet divisions represent Bombardier’s only remaining revenue streams — about 53 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively, of $15.76 billion in revenue last year — after Bombardier sold its waterbomber unit, Q400 turboprop business, CRJ regional jet program and flight-training enterprise over the past four years.

And last week, Bombardier announced the sale of its remaining stake in the A220 commercial jetliner program — formerly known as the C Series — as it reported quarterly results last Thursday, marking the end of its failed bid to take on the commercial aircraft duopoly of Airbus SE and Boeing Co.

Bombardier, founded in Valcourt, Que., in 1942 as a snowmobile manufacturer, now stares down a US$9.32-billion debt load — nearly 60 per cent of it due within five years.

The rail business, Bombardier Transportation, is based in Berlin. In Canada, it employs some 1,000 workers at factories in Quebec’s Bas-St-Laurent region and in St-Bruno-de-Montarville, on Montreal’s South Shore.

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