July 24, 2009 / 6:50 PM / in 8 years

Via Rail hit by strike, cancels trains

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Via Rail, Canada’s national passenger rail service, said on Friday it was shutting down service after mediated talks with the Teamsters union failed to resolve a contract dispute, and locomotive engineers walked off the job.

<p>A striking Via Rail locomotive engineer pickets at Central Station in Montreal July 24, 2009. REUTERS/Shaun Best</p>

The strike affects about 11,000 people who use Via daily and the impact was almost immediate. Conditions outside Toronto’s Union Station were chaotic just after midday on Friday as passengers struggled in the pouring rain to board buses chartered by Via.

Detroit residents Greg and Sally Buss said they would have to ask their children to drive to Toronto to pick them up. “We have to get back to work on Monday,” Sally Buss said.

Talks to avert the strike continued until 1 a.m. on Friday, but the two sides could not reach an agreement, said Teamsters Canada Rail Conference spokesman Stephane Lacroix.

Issues around scheduling and wages were unresolved, he said, noting the contract covering the 340 locomotive engineers expired December 31, 2006.

“The most important issue between us and them is that we’ve been negotiating since 2006,” Lacroix said. “It’s time for them to understand that we cannot negotiate forever.”

Via said in a statement that a federally appointed mediator is meeting with both sides of the dispute. Ottawa appointed the mediator on June 23 after a conciliator named in April was unable to find a settlement.

Ottawa wants to see a solution “in very short order”, said federal Transport Minister John Baird, but he said he was not about to introduce back-to-work legislation.

“We have a message to the union leadership - that is to put Canadian families first, put what is a fragile Canadian economy higher on the agenda,” he told reporters in Toronto.

Via operates about 500 trains each week over 12,500 kilometers (7,700 miles) of track across Canada that is mainly owned by Canadian National Railway.

Airlines including Air Canada and WestJet may be beneficiaries of increased traffic resulting from the strike. Privately held Porter Airlines offered stranded travelers a 25 percent discount on domestic flights.

Reporting by Susan Taylor, with additional reporting by Ka Yan Ng and Nina Lex in Toronto; editing by Peter Galloway

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