WINNNIPEG -- A strike by 3200 Canadian National Railway workers – including conductors, trainpersons and yard workers – has brought CN freight trains across the country to a halt.

Workers walked off the job just after midnight after the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) served notice to CN on Saturday of intent to strike.

Passenger train service isn’t affected.

Workers, who’ve been without a contract since July, said scheduling and safety are the main sticking points.

The union said in a news release CN requires members to operate trains from outside the locomotive, hanging on to moving trains with one hand while operating a remotely controlled locomotive in the other.

“Railroaders are expected to do this in rain and in freezing temperatures, sometimes for distances of up to about 17 miles,” the TCRC said.

CN said a statement it’s disappointed the TCRC has initiated strike action. The company said the two sides would return to the bargaining table Tuesday, with the assistance of federal mediators and declined to comment any further. 

Federal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu said in a statement both parties are urged to continue negotiations.

“While we are concerned about the impact of a work stoppage on Canadians, we remain hopeful they will reach an agreement,” said Hajdu. “The Government of Canada supports and has faith in the collective bargaining process. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been working closely with the parties since June and remains available to assist them. 

“We are monitoring the situation closely.”

University of Manitoba supply chain management professor Barry Prentice said the challenge for companies moving goods by rail is finding storage if the work stoppage drags on.

“Within a week or so, they’re going to be feeling it. This sort of thing can’t go on for long,” said Prentice. “It will get gloomy fast. It sure is a tight supply chain.

“[Canola] crushing plants – they don’t have a whole bunch of storage.”

He said the good news for companies is some trains have been running ahead of schedule and historically speaking, rail strikes haven’t lasted long before the government has stepped in to order employees back to work. 

- With files from the Canadian Press.