If there was a point to James Footes’s luncheon speech to the Halifax business community Wednesday, it was lost somewhere between dessert and coffee.

Container traffic through the Port of Halifax continues its nearly 2½-year decline, and the Halifax Chamber of Commerce gathering would have been a good place for CN’s executive vice-president of sales and marketing to deliver an upbeat message that CN, the only rail line to the port, was determined to help Halifax turn things around.

By his own admission, he told reporters after his speech, CN’s volumes through Halifax are down about 15 per cent in the first five months of this year. But Mr. Foote, a former chairman of the Halterm board when CN owned a piece of the terminal company, took his 15 minutes of “commercial” time on the podium to talk about CN’s economic turnaround since it was privatized; how well CN’s business in Western Canada is doing; the state of the railway’s interests in the U.S.; and its efforts to deal with improving wintertime operations in Canada.

CN’s operational problems last winter prompted Caterpillar Inc, a major Halifax customer, to leave for Virginia. But Mr. Foote would not discuss Caterpillar’s situation or comment on whether the company is coming back to Halifax, as some sources have suggested.

Mr. Foote did say the railway’s business is “obviously declining in Eastern Canada.” He told reporters that changes to shipping and trade patterns have affected Halifax but said CN is working to rebuild business.

“We are aggressively looking at new markets, putting offices in India, looking for different areas where products may be coming through in the future, and that’s what is motivating us right now,” he said.

CN is being aggressive with customers and shipping lines that aren’t calling at Halifax, Mr. Foote said.

“I have a lot of people who sleep a lot on airplanes going around trying to interest people in coming here,” he said. “You have to work hard at it.”

But Mr. Foote said people at the Port of Halifax and the planned container terminal for Melford must play a waiting game for cargo to come.

The West Coast ports are full, he said, but “U.S. East Coast ports are not that critical” yet.

They will be, he added, when more cargo comes from India and other Asian countries through the Suez Canal.

Mr. Foote said CN has made no commitment to the Melford project other than “to run the best railroad possible if someone builds a new terminal.”

Nor did he take up the issue of CN building a distribution centre in Halifax, as CN president Hunter Harrison mentioned two years ago.

He said Mr. Harrison’s suggestion included finding someone who wanted to use a centre. “Our position is the same. If we had a customer who thought that was a good idea, we would make the investment.”

Premier Rodney MacDonald has talked about an investment in CN property in recent months, saying he would like to see an expansion of the rail cut, from the south end near the Halterm terminal to Fairview, so trucks and emergency vehicles could use it and avoid going through downtown Halifax. It was part of the premier’s gateway wish list.

But while Mr. MacDonald said he wanted to start work on the project by the end of the year, Mr. Foote said he knows of no formal discussions with the province.

“CN is willing to work with whoever it is that would want to do the studies necessary in order to see if the trucks can go that way,” he said.

“We have no problem with doing whatever study is necessary to determine the appropriateness of that. . . . Whatever project is done, we have to ensure we have a railroad that can operate in and out of there and (that) if any land is taken we are adequately compensated for it.”