Canadian National Railway Co , the country's largest railroad, said on Monday it is continuing talks with the union representing about 3,300 conductors and other workers and is optimistic a contract deal will be reached ahead of a strike deadline early on Tuesday.
At one minute after midnight on Tuesday, the union and company will be in a legal position for a strike or lockout. But a work stoppage won't happen immediately because both parties must first give 72 hours' notice.
A strike or lockout would disrupt a crucial network for moving goods as diverse as cars and crude oil. Negotiations with government-appointed mediators resumed on Oct. 21 after earlier efforts with conciliators to reach an agreement failed.
The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference union, which represents conductors, trainmen, yardmen and traffic co-ordinators, has said talks stalled on CN demands for concessions that would force members to work longer hours with less rest time between trips. CN has said none of its proposals would compromise worker health or safety.
"CN remains optimistic that it can negotiate a settlement with the (Teamsters) to avoid labour disruption in Canada," railway spokesman Mark Hallman told Reuters.
He would not comment on whether CN, which reported bigger-than-expected quarterly profits last week, is preparing a contingency plan in the event of a strike or lockout.
A spokesman for the union could not immediately be reached for comment.
Any service disruption would be particularly problematic for Canadian grain growers, who must move a record grain and oilseeds harvest.
The Grain Growers of Canada asked the minister of labour in an Oct. 25 letter to take "early action to head off this work stoppage" and "swift and decisive" action in the event of a strike.
The Canadian government has intervened several times in recent years to force striking rail and airline workers back to work. Last May, it used legislation to end a strike at Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd, CN's smaller rival.
The contract dispute follows a recent CN derailment that renewed public concern over the safety of rail transport for fuel and other hazardous materials.
CN's mainline through Alberta was blocked for several days last week after 13 cars on a mixed-freight train derailed. One car containing highly flammable propane exploded and three others burst into flames.
There were no injuries, but the accident came just months after 47 people died when a crude oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.