North America’s railway industry collectively suffered the impacts of economic disruptions as a result of Covid-19, and Canada’s railways did not escape the hurt. For CN, revenue tonne miles in all categories were lower, except in grains and intermodal. Grain traffic, producing $608 million in quarterly revenues, was at all-time highs, allowing it to capture the second most important revenue category at CN from petroleum and chemicals, which retreated to third place. Intermodal, at $992 million in quarterly revenues, remained “top dog”. Grains and fertilizers revenue tonne miles grew by 14 per cent, but freight revenue per RTM declined by 4 per cent. For CN, coal was a particularly poor performer, losing 20 per cent in RTMs, and 13 per cent in freight revenue per RTM. Intermodal shipments represented 48.2 of all of CN’s carloads, and produced freight revenues of 6.23 cents per RTM, only 3.2 per cent less than CN’s top revenue earner per RTM, forest products.

During the quarter, CN’s revenues fell by 11 per cent, and operating expenses increased from 57.9 per cent to 59.9 cent. Cash flow from operations decreased from $1.7 to $1.2 billion, and “free” cash flow, the amount remaining from operating cash flow after subtracting net investments made during the quarter and dividends paid to investors, declined from $315 million to $90 million, because of unusually large capital expenditures. From Jan 1 to Sept 30, CN spent $379 million repurchasing its own shares, a reduction from the $1.26 billion spent during the same period in 2019, and paid $1.23 billion in dividends, an increase of $64 million over 2019.

During the quarter, CP’s revenues declined by 5.9 per cent to $1.86 billion. Operating expenses remained steady but, as a percentage of revenues, increased from 56.1 to 58.2 per cent. Cash flow from operations decreased to $493 million $823 million, and “free” cash flow declined from $246 million to negative $103 million. During the quarter, the company spent $400 million repurchasing its own shares, compared with $500 million during the third quarter of 2019. For the nine months ended September 30 it spent $945 million on share repurchases, compared with $964 million during the nine months ended September 30, 2019.

CP’s best-performing product category was grain, which registered a 12 per cent increase in freight revenues to $457 million, and is CP’s single most important revenue generator, responsible for just over 25 per cent of CP’s total revenues. Although the “energy, chemicals and plastics” segment enjoyed a very strong increase in freight revenue per RTM, RTMs in this sector took a nosedive, and overall freight revenues from this sector actually declined by 16 per cent.

At CN, efficiency indicators represented a mixed picture. Through dwell time increased to 9.6 hours from 7.7 hours, and train velocity decreased from 18.7 to 17.8 miles per hour. Operating expenses per gross tonne mile (GTM) were up nominally, but train lengths and weights improved.

At CP, published efficiency indicators were largely positive. Average train weights and length were up significantly, as was average train speed. However, terminal dwell time was up.

At CN, total number of employees on September 30, 2020, was 24,008, a decrease of 12.1 per cent compared to September 30 of 2019. At CP, total employment on September 30, 2020 was 12,166, a decrease of 7.2 per cent compared to September 30 of 2019.