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Oct 21, 2020

CN Rail won't 'chop, chop, chop' to drive efficiency: CEO

CN Rail won't 'chop, chop, chop' to drive efficiency: CEO

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Canadian National Railway Co.’s top executive said he isn't prepared to further slash costs to keep the railway's operating ratio low while risking the company's long-term future. 

"There has to be a balance between how hard this whole pandemic is on our people and also our financial performance. We can't do everything related to cost, which is 'chop, chop, chop,'" said Jean-Jacques Ruest, CN's chief executive officer, in an interview with BNN Bloomberg on Wednesday. 

"We have to look to 2021 and our long-term future and what we need in terms of talent and technology to get ready for 2021, and 2025 and 2030." 

Ruest's comments come amid early signs that the company is seeing improvement in the Canadian economy and that conditions will continue to improve toward the end of the year.

“Broadly speaking we're cautiously optimistic about 2021, but right now there's good momentum that 2021 should be better than 2020,” Ruest said.

Though CN's revenue fell about 11 per cent to $3.41 billion in its third-quarter as it continued to deal with COVID headwinds, the rail company saw record movement in grain make up for shipping volume declines led mainly by petroleum and coal products.

Ruest said shipping volumes appear to be returning in the company's current quarter, although he remains cautious about the speed of the recovery.

“The expectation is volumes in 2021 will actually be further improved than it is right now,” he said. “So from a volume point of view, it’s an indication that things are getting sequentially better. All that again with a word of caution.”

Ruest says many of the company's employees that were furloughed due to the pandemic are back at work, though there are some that need to be recalled in Eastern Canada and the U.S. 

“Technically the winter does require more employees no matter what the business level is, so we’re actually currently hiring,” Ruest said.

Roughly 3,000 employees were furloughed earlier this year, with about 1,000 others being permanently laid off. CN said it had 24,008 employees at the end of its third-quarter, down from 27,290 from a year earlier.