Debates of June 12th, 2003
House of Commons Hansard #117 of the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was infrastructure.
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The Acting Speaker (Ms. Bakopanos)
Pursuant to order made on Wednesday, June 11, the recorded division stands deferred until 8 p.m.
Main Estimates 2003-04
June 12th, 2003 / 6:30 p.m.
Lucienne Robillard President of the Treasury Board
That Vote 25, in the amount of $266,201,000, under TRANSPORT—Department--Payments to VIA Rail Canada Inc., in the Main Estimates for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2004, less the amount voted in Interim Supply, be restored.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Marcel Proulx Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to stand in this House today to speak to VIA Rail's funding requirements for the next fiscal year. As colleagues know, the Standing Committee on Transport took the decision to reduce VIA Rail's funding request by $9 million based on concerns that VIA Rail could not, in the committee's view, explain why it needed more money than last year.
As well, as many of our colleagues are aware, the Minister of Transport came before the Standing Committee on Transport this past Monday afternoon to discuss the impact of the proposed reductions and to address the concerns of the committee members. There was much in that speech that I would like to reiterate tonight, as I think it is important that all our colleagues have the benefit of that information.
In addition, the Minister of Transport recently tabled in the House of Commons two reports that speak to VIA's operating performance and financial requirements for the next five years. I refer specifically to VIA Rail's annual report for 2002 and the summary of VIA Rail's corporate plan for 2003-07.
VIA's corporate plan summary and its annual report contains information that addresses the standing committee's concerns and demonstrates that VIA is accountable to Canadian taxpayers.
Moving people and goods efficiently, safely, securely and in an environmentally respectful way is vital to our economy. As Canada's national passenger rail service, VIA Rail has an important role to play providing safe, high quality, efficient passenger service to Canadians. Moving people out of their cars and onto trains is one solution to the problem of congestion which we see each and every day in and around our cities and on our major highways. Not only is congestion a personal frustration but it also slows down our business.
Passenger rail also gives Canadians a convenient and economical choice—whether travelling for business or pleasure.
And, for many Canadians in northern and remote parts of the country, rail provides an invaluable lifeline, especially where no other transportation options are available.
The Government of Canada is dedicated to passenger rail and its revitalization—not only as a viable transportation option that is central to our identity as Canadians, but also as one that makes good economic and environmental sense.
A strong passenger rail system also contributes to building stronger communities. Passenger rail provides a vital link for the movement of people, encouraging business development and growth. VIA Rail connects some 450 communities with services that run across the country.
The Standing Committee on Transport was concerned that VIA could not explain why it needed more funding for the current year than for last year. The Main Estimates identify $266.2 million for 2003-04, compared to $255.7 million for 2002-03. The government provides funding for VIA Rail in the form of an operating subsidy and a capital budget.
VIA's operating subsidy has been fixed since 2000 at $171 million per year and, as such, VIA cannot request more than $171 million for its operational requirements. Further, VIA cannot transfer funding from its capital budget to cover operating requirements without government approval.
I will speak more about VIA's capital budget in a few moments. Before doing so, I think it is important for us to review VIA's operating performance over the last year and compare this performance to a decade ago before VIA underwent major rationalization.
More Canadians are using the train today than ever before. In 2002, VIA Rail carried 116,000 more passengers than in 2001 and over half a million more passengers than in 1990. As a result of this growth and improved yields per customer, VIA's passenger revenues grew by $17 million to reach $270 million in 2002. In fact, revenues have grown steadily over the past decade enabling VIA to steadily improve the cost-effectiveness of its services.
VIA's total operating funding requirement is now 63% lower than in 1990. It was as a result of this demonstrated growth and improved cost effectiveness that government decided in 2000 to fix VIA Rail's operating subsidy at $171 million per year for 10 years compared to $410 million in 1990.
VIA's cost recovery ratio now stands at 64.5% for the entire network, including the regional and remote services. This is an increase of 123% since 1990. Similarly, government funding per passenger mile has been reduced from 45.6¢ in 1990 to 15.8¢ in 2002.
In January 1998 the Standing Committee on Transport reviewed passenger rail service in Canada. At that time, the committee carried out public consultations and made 11 recommendations in its report, “The Renaissance of Passenger Rail in Canada”, in June 1998. The committee's report stated unanimously that the status quo was not acceptable.
The report concluded that government support, particularly in explicit long term policy commitment, was required to provide for a sustainable system of passenger rail in Canada.
The committee's first recommendation stated, and I quote:
That the government define and commit to long-term support, not less than 10 years, for passenger rail objectives in Canada, including the route network, level of service and long-term stable funding to allow stakeholders to recapitalize rolling stock and infrastructure and enhance passenger rail services.
Further, the committee's fourth recommendation stated:
That the government commit to stable funding for passenger rail in the amount of $170 million annually.
The government tabled its response in October 1998, broadly agreeing with the report's findings. The government committed to revitalize passenger rail operations in Canada by providing long term financial support for passenger rail, protecting truly remote passenger rail services and better defining access arrangements for passenger rail in the absence of an agreement with rail infrastructure owners.
To this end, in addition to stabilizing VIA's annual operating subsidy at $171 million, as recommended by the committee, the government announced in April 2000 that it would provide VIA with an additional $401.9 million in capital funding over the next five years to allow the company to address urgent capital requirements related to rolling stock, infrastructure, health and safety, and to provide for modest growth in services.
These funds are being invested in new locomotives, in new Renaissance cars for additional capacity, in the installation of waste retention tanks on existing fleet, in track upgrades and in the refurbishment of passenger stations. The government and VIA are continuing to implement this initiative.
VIA has already made improvements as a result of this funding. The company began operating 21 new high-speed locomotives in December 2001. It purchased 139 new passenger cars some of which are already in operation on the corridor. It has completed the refurbishment of several stations across the country, including Prince George, Thompson, Kitchener, Brantford, Toronto, Oshawa, and so on and new stations in London and west Ottawa.
The corridor fleet has been fitted with waste retention systems. And VIA has completely refurbished the existing Rail Diesel Cars that are used on the regional and remote services on Vancouver Island and in northern Ontario.
I understand that I am quickly running out of time. However, I would like to say that for 2003, VIA has also planned track infrastructure improvements of $7.6 million.
This provides a brief outline of the impact of a reduction in the amount VIA is asking for.
As members of the House will see from the Corporate Plan, VIA has to plan its expenditures over rolling periods of five years. Like other companies, VIA needs certainty that the requested funds will be available when needed to cover its contractual commitments.
In conclusion, the restoration of the funding requirements requested in the main estimates will help ensure that the investments announced in 2000 will continue to bear fruit for the benefit of Canadians across the country.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Jim Gouk Kootenay—Boundary—Okanagan, BC
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to respond to the request for the restoration of the money that the all party transport committee saw fit to reduce VIA Rail by.
I heard the hon. parliamentary secretary start off tonight by saying that he was proud to rise on this. Frankly, I find that very difficult to believe. The parliamentary secretary is a decent sort of person. I actually feel a great deal of sympathy for him. He is in a very tough role. He has to support the minister even though the minister is totally out to lunch on this issue.
I would like to raise two points tonight, one of them being VIA's funding, just to clarify some of the things that the parliamentary secretary felt he had to say, and also the role of committees in scrutinizing estimates.
First, I just want to ensure that people are clear. What is at stake tonight is $9 million of VIA's budget. There is a misconception out there that somehow this actually affects its entire budget of $266 million. It is $9 million, or 2.9%, of its budget.
A hundred seventy million dollars a year is the annual amount of taxpayer money that the government gives to VIA Rail to operate in Canada. That is in addition to the $401.9 million the government committed to VIA Rail for capital expenditures in the year 2000.
The committee's job is to find out if it is justified in giving the money that the various agencies want.
VIA came before the Standing Committee on Transport and informed it that its ridership is up. The parliamentary secretary himself said that. VIA had more riders last year than it ever had before. How did that work out in its bottom line? Exactly like the parliamentary secretary said. Its revenues were up as well. As a result, its operating deficit was $154 million.
As we have already both agreed, VIA's subsidy for operating, which cannot be moved over into the capital expenditures, was $170 million which meant it had $16 million left over. Taxpayer money was given to VIA to operate at $170 million, but it only needed $154 million of that money. What did it do with the money? Did it return it? Did it actually save the taxpayer a small amount of money and give that money back? No, it did not. Somehow it managed to squish that over, play with the figures, fudge on it a bit, called it corporate profit that it was reinvesting, even though it lost $154 million, and blew that money on some other part of its operation.
That is one of the things the committee looked at when VIA came before it to explain why it was asking for this money.
What VIA is actually looking for is not only to get the $170 million again, which is $16 million more than it needed last year, but it wants another $10.5 million on top of that. That is absolutely unacceptable. VIA did not justify the increased funds and, frankly, neither did the minister.
What did VIA do? There was one project I know it undertook last year. Perhaps that is where a chunk of this money went.
VIA Rail went out and hired a PR firm by the name of Hill and Knowlton. It sent this PR firm out to British Columbia to lobby communities to request the minister to have VIA Rail expand its service to operate on what is known as the southern route from Calgary to Vancouver. What is interesting is there already is a train that operates on that, run by the private sector, formerly run by VIA Rail. This private sector company bought it from VIA Rail.
Therefore VIA Rail wants to have these communities, which it paid this company to go out and lobby, say that they wanted VIA to come back and operate on the same track a private sector company operated, the private company that purchased the business from VIA Rail in the first place. To be kind, that is pretty tacky. Perhaps that is where a bit of the money has gone.
The private rail company that we are talking about in British Columbia is called the Rocky Mountaineer. The minister, when he came before the committee, said that in the past VIA Rail did not compete with the Rocky Mountaineer because the Rocky Mountaineer was a tourism service and VIA Rail was a passenger service. Rocky carries tourists and VIA carries passengers who have to go from point to point.
While the minister was discoursing on a separate part of some of the conversation with members at committee, he said that VIA's ridership might be down in this coming year. He explained why. He said because of SARS and other problems there were less tourists coming to Canada, and of course less tourists meant less riders on VIA Rail.
I naturally seized on this because it kind of conflicted with what he had said in the past. I asked him if he was saying then that passengers who VIA Rail primarily carried were tourists. I said that I had always maintained that.
My position is who would ride on the train outside of the corridor? Outside of commuter rail, who will ride any distance on the rail simply to get from point A to point B? It is expensive, it takes a long time and a lot of it is carried on at night. For example, it costs more to go from Edmonton to Vancouver on the highly subsidized VIA Rail than it does the highly taxed airline. People can fly cheaper than if they take VIA Rail. VIA Rail takes 16 times as long, and contrary to what a lot of people think, it is not environmentally friendly. Commuter rail is, where there is high density movement of traffic. However to go from Edmonton to Vancouver by rail is less fuel efficient than flying on an airplane.
The minister acknowledged, yes, that very few people would actually get on the train to go any distance to get from point A to point B. He said that they did it for the rail experience. That begs this question. Why then do Canadian taxpayers have to subsidize a tourism experience?
Let us look in terms of the actual value of what VIA Rail provides. The minister said that even if VIA Rail went in the southern route, it would not be competition with the Rocky Mountaineer because Rocky Mountaineer was a high end tourist attraction. It provided a wonderful, fancy, high end product while VIA Rail provided a more straightforward service. Therefore it was completely different, appealing to a different set of clients and therefore not in competition.
VIA Rail from Vancouver to Edmonton goes 24 hours without stopping. An upper berth, the cheapest thing someone can get, costs $619.53. The Rocky Mountaineer is $729.00 but VIA Rail is so heavily subsidized. In fact I suggested to the minister that if Rocky Mountaineer got VIA Rail's subsidy, for the amount of passengers the Rocky Mountaineer carried, it could pay every passenger $1,700 to ride on its rail system.
I will move on rather quickly because there is a lot that needs to be said tonight.
The minister has moved to overturn the committee's recommendation to restore the $9 million.
Committees are charged with the responsibility of reviewing the spending requests of various government departments and agencies. What the minister is saying is that review is a waste of time. Unless the committee rubber stamps whatever the government wants, the government will simply overrule those recommendations.
First, it means the whole committee process is a waste of time and money. Second, it means there is no real scrutiny of the spending of taxpayer money. In fact the Liberal government in the past quite clearly suggested better scrutiny by MPs might have prevented the billion dollar overrun of the firearms registry.
The transport committee was simply doing its job. The minister's response has been essentially that he does not want us to do our jobs; he wants us to do what he tells us. The transport committee did not ignore its responsibility when it voted to support reducing VIA Rail's increased funding request. We stood up for those who elected us to come here and represent them. I hope other members of the House will not ignore their responsibilities and those who elected them when they vote on the restoration of funds tonight.
A vote against this motion is a vote in support of the committee review of estimates, and a vote of support for Canadians who look to us to ensure that all expenditures are necessary and appropriate. The additional $9 million for VIA Rail does not meet that test.
This is a chance for Parliament to say that we occasionally do some meaningful work in here and the government will not overturn what Canadians have sent us here to do.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Michel Guimond Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-De- Beaupré—Île-D'Orléans, QC
Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure for me to speak to this aspect of supply. It has been all the more of a pleasure because in order to prepare my comments for this evening, I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the transport file.
Our usual transport critic is the member for Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, but he is busy tonight. He is attending a committee meeting and asked me to replace him here. I myself come from the Quebec City and Saguenay region; as such I can attest to how important it is for people who live in the regions, particularly in the Gaspé, the Lower St. Lawrence and also in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, to have efficient and viable train service.
First, I would like to congratulate VIA Rail management. When I was a member of the transport committee from 1993 to the late 1990s, I remember having listened to VIA Rail representatives in committee on several occasions.
Of course, we cannot forget that VIA Rail is a crown corporation, and that a large part of its budget is provided by taxpayers. As parliamentarians, we have the duty to ensure that the money paid out by the people we represent, through income tax and other taxes, is well spent.
I remember asking questions of the VIA Rail representatives on several occasions in committee. At that time, they were asking us to give them the money they needed to manage the business effectively and to give them some leeway. VIA Rail guaranteed that it would be able to make improvements to the quality of service thanks to more modern equipment that would allow it to be more reliable and punctual. By doing so, if it provided better service, it could attract more clients, which translates into higher revenues.
So, if we give VIA Rail the funding it needs, it will become more and more independent, or should I say less and less dependent on taxpayer dollars. That is the challenge.
I will be mentioning some people who do not necessarily share my political views, people who do not necessarily hold the same political opinions as the hon. members of the Bloc Quebecois. I will begin with someone who is currently the chairman of the board of VIA Rail, Mr. Jean Pelletier. As the lead administrator on the board of VIA Rail, Mr. Pelletier is responsible for seeing that the money entrusted to him by the taxpayers is well spent. He has to make decisions.
I will come back in a moment to the way he was treated by the Liberal members of the Standing Committee on Transportation. We know who Jean Pelletier is. We will not bury our heads in the sand; Jean Pelletier was once the current Prime Minister's chief of staff; he was appointed to his position by the Prime Minister. It is a political reward. I could go further with this, but I should mention the inappropriate way he was treated by the supporters of the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard, a leadership candidate and an aspiring Prime Minister. I will come back to this.
I would also like to congratulate Mr. Marc LeFrançois, who is the CEO of VIA Rail. The fact that I mention this has nothing to do with the fact that he originally comes from my riding. He is a son of the Côte-de-Beaupré, from L'Ange-Gardien, in fact. Since 1993, he has been working with his team. I am not trying to say that it was he alone, in his office at VIA Rail headquarters in Montreal, who made these decisions. It was a collegial process, a team effort. Still, I am able, as someone who was Bloc Quebecois transportation critic for eight years, to appreciate what has been done at VIA Rail, and what will be done if the necessary funding is made available.
I do not want to overwhelm you with statistics, Mr. Speaker, but I do want to point out that in the last 12 years, VIA Rail has reduced its annual operating costs by $73.4 million, which is a 15% reduction. The company has increased its annual revenues by $128 million, an increase of 90%. It now makes twice as much revenue per train, at a lower cost. It offers service that has to be called excellent, much better than it ever was.
During this period, the government's annual contribution to operating expenses—I talked earlier about how the more funds were provided by users, the less taxpayers have to contribute—decreased by $256 million, or 65%. The company's revenue-expenditure ratio has improved by 123%.
The purpose of the vote we are discussing tonight is to provide additional funds to VIA Rail so it can fulfill its obligations and, among other things, provide services.
It is unfortunate that the Liberal members of the Standing Committee on Transport tried to draw inexistent conclusions. VIA Rail committed funds to renovating the Renaissance cars acquired from Bombardier Europe. This is necessary in order to respect Transport Canada's requirements with regard to washrooms, suspension and so forth. The cost of these renovations was higher than expected.
The Chair is indicating that I have only two minutes left, so I will try to conclude as fast as I can.
Some Liberal members are upset with Jean Pelletier and also about the rapid rail project along the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. I can say that, for those of us in the Quebec City region, this is a priority. We want this high tech rapid rail service to stop in Quebec City. The region has expressed this wish on numerous occasions.
Sales increased by 10% in 2002. Therefore, according to the Liberal members, since VIA is making more money, it needs less from the government. The Minister of Transport came to tell the committee that he is asking cabinet for an additional capital investment for VIA of over $20 million. This money will be used to finish renovations on the 136 Renaissance cars purchased in Europe by Bombardier.
In conclusion, since I am getting the signal that I have only a minute left, I am asking my colleagues to promote a means of passenger transportation that is as economical as it is ecological. It is a shame that I do not have enough time because I could give lengthy illustrations on the ecological and environmental advantages. It is better to have rail transport than to have each individual use autoroutes 20 and 40 to go to Montreal in their individual vehicles given the greenhouse gas emissions.
We have to be consistent with our decision to ratify the Kyoto protocol. We have to make sure that VIA Rail, which has made improvements in its management, gets these supplementary budgets. I am not saying that everything is perfect because the world is not perfect. There is still room for improvement. Nonetheless, I want to make a case for VIA Rail to obtain these supplementary budgets so that it may provide railway cars that are worthy of the 21st century to the 30 million people who live in Canada.
Main Estimates 2003-04
The Deputy Speaker
I want to remind members to never take for granted that the Chair will recognize them. Members would be better advised to stand and be recognized. The hon. member for Perth—Middlesex.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Gary Schellenberger Perth—Middlesex, ON
Mr. Speaker, thank you for the advice.
I rise here this evening to speak on VIA Rail. The people of Perth—Middlesex are interested in seeing the VIA Rail service improved because it is such an essential part of life in the riding from both a tourism and an industrial perspective.
Perth--Middlesex is right in the thick of Canada's railroad heartland, the Windsor-Montreal corridor. Many municipalities in our area are very concerned about upgrades to VIA Rail. Cities and towns in southwestern Ontario such as Stratford, Kitchener and Windsor have had various meetings and are quite interested in high speed rail service and upgrades to be made, primarily because of the tourism sector and commuting to jobs.
Private sector railroads have done very well in our area. Through the little town I live in it is only a 50 mile run, but a private railroad took over from CN quite a number of years ago and has turned it into a very profitable enterprise, so I have a vested interest in closely monitoring the process of funding for VIA Rail.
As I watch the process unfold, some initial questions come to mind. Will this proposed $9 million increase in spending result in better service for my constituents? Will it meet the regulations in Kyoto? Will it help cut down on greenhouse gases? I would think it should.
The transport committee did not seem to think so or did not think the $9 million was needed. According to this committee, the folks from VIA Rail were never able to justify the increase in spending. The minister says he can. I do not know who to believe, but I know I am not very impressed with this process. I have watched what has happened in various committee processes and a lot of the time the recommendations brought down by the committees are ignored by this government.
I also know that I am not interested in scoring cheap political points by investigating the issue of the shadow government or the infighting between different camps in the Liberal Party, although I do think it is awful for government institutions to be used as battlegrounds to settle old scores in the Liberal Party of Canada.
We have a Minister of Transport allegedly threatening members with job losses in their home ridings if they do not support the spending increase and the government House leader trying to have the committee's recommendations thrown out as illegitimate. What is the actual benefit to the Canadian public in increasing the budget of VIA Rail by this proposed $9 million? What programs will be hurt because these moneys are earmarked for the VIA Rail increase?
We are told that passenger numbers and revenues are up, so if this is the case then why does VIA need more money, not less? Something is not adding up here. Why are the Prime Minister and his Minister of Transport willing to walk all over the findings of their own parliamentary committee? Why do they want this money put into VIA Rail so badly?
These are the issues and questions the House should be addressing. I have always been concerned that there is a lot of time spent in committee with a lot of good points brought forward. I have listened this evening to statistics and dollar figures and various issues mentioned. I have listened to how a private rail service in B.C. running from Vancouver to Calgary may have competition from VIA Rail again, a private company that originally bought out VIA Rail. Again, that is a terrible type of competition.
All the hon. members of this House first came to this chamber wanting to help people, wanting to do some good. It seems to me that some members of this current government would be well advised to take a refresher course in why they became members. It was not to settle old scores within the Liberal Party of Canada.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Bev Desjarlais Churchill, MB
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the issue of the $9 million going back into VIA Rail. I will acknowledge that one of the few times I made the mistake of not going to a committee meeting, the committee made what I saw as a horrendous mistake in suggesting that VIA Rail have its $9 million cut, and for a variety of reasons.
My colleague from the Conservatives has asked why VIA Rail needs this money and said it will possibly be giving some competition to a private company. He asked why, if passenger numbers are up and revenues are up, it needs the dollars. He does not have the advantage of having been on the transportation committee for the number of years that I have been there, and he probably does not have the advantage of having VIA Rail service in his riding like I do in one of what I consider probably the few remote areas that VIA Rail still serves. It is an absolute need that VIA Rail passenger service is there because there is no other land access into these communities.
I live in the Churchill riding in Manitoba. We have rail service from Winnipeg all the way up to Churchill and along that way we do not have a tourism train on the line. There is great tourism all along the way and up to Churchill, but the bottom line is that along that route are communities that do not have any access other than rail. It brings us back to the early days of the nation, when the train was there to bring the nation together. Over time we have had roads put in place so people maybe do not see the same need for rail service. Quite frankly, I think that because we have coast to coast rail service, although we do not have it in as many areas as we used to, we have an advantage going into the future, the advantage of a nation that already has those tracks in place. When we are trying to put in place good environmental transportation processes we have the rail service and I think we have to maintain it.
VIA Rail still operates much along the lines of a crown corporation. In Bill C-26, an act that was to come before Parliament, which our transportation committee wanted to travel on but was not able to, there were going to be some changes to VIA. The bottom line is there is a real need for VIA Rail. There is a need throughout the country, but especially in communities in which it is the only access.
Like a lot of services, when there are not huge populations travelling on that service it is more costly to operate, but quite frankly I think the people in those remote communities deserve that right of access, the same way those who got the additional highway right of access throughout the country have it, paid for by taxpayers' dollars in a good many instances. I believe that Canadians are willing to support VIA Rail passenger service into those areas and also to continue supporting VIA Rail service throughout the country.
I just want to mention one of the other issues that I think was important in restoring this funding to VIA Rail. A number of cars were purchased from the U.K. to be used by VIA Rail. It seemed like a steal of a deal, but they did not meet the same safety standards and the same stress and strength requirements for the cars. They did not meet the needs of accessibility for the disabled. Some changes had to be made to the cars as a result of security and the placement of certain facilities within the cars. As a result, it has become an endeavour that is a bit more costly than was intended and that is part of the cost, I believe, for this need for the additional dollars for VIA Rail. Quite frankly I am willing to put additional dollars into VIA Rail if it means accessibility for the disabled, if it means safe cars on the tracks and if it means improved security. I think there is a need to do this.
Throughout the VIA Rail system there is a variety of different cars, some old, some new, and some quite old. Some of the quite old ones end up going into those remote communities. It would be great to have even newer cars and better service in those areas, but what has had to happen is a decrease in that service as dollars became tight and companies were not able to continue there. There have been cuts. I want to see those cuts end and I want more improved service.
My colleague from the Alliance mentioned the Rocky Mountaineer, a privatized company. I have had the pleasure of riding on the Rocky Mountaineer and it is a great service. It is a great service, but it is also not the most cost affordable service if one has to travel by train on a regular basis. If people are on holiday and it is a tourism type of thing where they are going to get on the train and enjoy the mountains, it is great, there is no question about it, but it certainly is not accessible to people on an everyday basis. It is not affordable. I appreciated the service and thought it was great, but for the most part it is a tourism service.
If Rocky Mountaineer or another private company were to expand and go into purely tourism areas along the passenger rail line, I would see it like taking the cream off the milk. They will take the cream and that is all they are going to look after. They will leave the rest. Then someone else has to figure out how we are going to support the rest of the system. In my riding, the rest of the system is the communities for which that is their only land access. It is their only affordable access to get out of those communities and to get supplies for our fishermen in the area: by getting access to the trains going along there. Sometimes there is cargo aligned with the passenger train just to have the accessibility for the fishermen to get their fish stocks out to market. That is the reality of what happens in other parts of Canada when we get outside the urban areas.
It is extremely important that as a nation we continue to support VIA Rail and we continue to be willing to put the additional dollars into areas of remote access service. Quite frankly, there are areas of Atlantic Canada that lost rail service.
Main Estimates 2003-04
An hon. member
We sure did.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Bev Desjarlais Churchill, MB
And at a time when our nation is looking at improving itself from the environmental perspective and meeting Kyoto requirements, now more than ever we should be supporting rail transportation.
I listened to my colleague, again from the Alliance, who somehow suggested that it was more environmentally sound to have a short-haul plane in the air rather than having rail transportation. I do not know where he is getting his information from, but anything I have seen over the course of the last number of years does not prove that out. I am not opposed to short-haul air flights. I just do not think they are the be-all and end-all.
I think this country, this nation, can support a variety of transportation services and I think we should make them available so that travellers do have a choice. A lot of people coming to our country want to be able to hop on a train and go throughout the country because they prefer rail transportation. They are used to it in their countries and they want the same here.
I know I only have a few short minutes, but I just want to mention a wonderful experience I had as a caucus member. A few years back our caucus made a decision that we were not going to have our caucus retreat in just one little area of the country. We made a decision to do our retreat on the train and travel from coast to coast. It was an extremely wonderful experience to see our nation, each and every province along the way and experience it by rail. What I also saw, and I had my eyes opened because I did not travel by rail very often, were numerous people throughout this nation using rail transportation. Yes, I want to see a lot more people doing it, but there were a lot of people using rail transportation. There were students travelling to and from school, students who wanted to do that as part of their holidays. There were families travelling together where someone did not have to sit in the driver's seat and miss half the vacation. They could be together and enjoy our nation. For that reason alone, it is worthwhile to support VIA Rail.
I for one also very much support improved rail transportation, higher speed rail transportation between--and I know this will shock members because it is not my area of the country--the densely populated areas in Ontario and Quebec. To me it makes sense. We need to get that traffic off the roads if at all possible. If people want to travel by road, they should be able to do that, but if they want to travel by rail and not have to put up with the hectic traffic on the road, they should be able to do that as well.
I want to emphasize my support and that of our caucus for ensuring that those dollars go back into VIA Rail. In the future we will support VIA Rail as a public-run corporation for the benefit of all Canadians and all travellers.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Guy St-Julien Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik, QC
Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate the NDP member for Churchill for her excellent speech. She gave an accurate description of the facts that we see in outlying regions.
I am happy to have an opportunity to talk about the importance of re-establishing the funding requested by VIA Rail, as laid out in the main estimates for 2003-04.
In April 2000, the Government of Canada made an historic announcement to maintain national rail travel by investing $401.9 million in major capital projects by VIA Rail to modernize the corporation and make it more attractive and reliable for Canadians. This investment was to be made over a five-year period, from 2000 to 2005.
This investment was in addition to the commitment made by the Government of Canada to provide VIA with long-term, stable funding of $171 million per year over the next ten years, until 2010.
The reason VIA has had good budgets in recent years is because of the whole support team, the VIA Rail team, with people like Jean Pelletier, Marc LeFrançois, and all of the employees. It is not just because of the president. The president relies on employees to budget during the year.
Since this announcement, the House approved the main estimates for VIA Rail for fiscal 2000-01, 2001-02, and 2002-03. The capitalization plan for $401.9 million is part of the funding approved for 2000-01. A reduction in the funding requested for the current fiscal year will have a significant impact on the ongoing implementation of this investment, depriving Canadians from all regions of improved passenger rail service.
I want to touch briefly on the scope of the benefits resulting from this investment.
The 2000 announcement preceded the renaissance of passenger rail service in Canada. It was made in response to recommendations made by the Standing Committee on Transport, which asked the government to provide long-term stable support to meet the objectives for passenger rail service in Canada.
The new money was to be spent in key areas such as renewing the rail fleet, modernizing train stations, improving infrastructure, signalling along the Quebec City-Windsor corridor and implementing a environmental waste management system for the current fleet.
This five-year investment demonstrated the government's long-term commitment to maintaining a national passenger rail service, a service that linked the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to Hudson's Bay, a truly Canadian service.
It must also be kept in mind that VIA Rail has been trying for some years to improve its service in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, or in other words that part of its route that runs from Montreal to La Tuque and Senneterre. The train stops at Senneterre, but VIA Rail has been doing its level best to improve its service to the Val-d'Or to Rouyn-Noranda sector and Northern Ontario. They are currently being blocked by Canadian National. As hon. members may know, VIA Rail leases the track in certain sectors, but at present CN is charging VIA too much for using its tracks, and thus is blocking the plans for Senneterre—Val-d'Or and Val-d'Or—Rouyn-Noranda.
We all know that our national railways have always made a contribution to the building of this nation. Here in Canada rail is a vital link, not only geographically, but also historically. It is also vital for our very identity as Canadians. The investment of $401.9 million is helping to strengthen those ties by providing Canadians with a revitalized VIA Rail service, a truly Canadian service.
Canada has many transportation challenges facing it, one of the greatest of which is to provide Canadians with a safe, economical and ecological alternative to automobile travel between cities. This is a promise other countries have already kept, particularly in Europe and Asia.
One excellent solution to the congestion we see daily on our city and suburban streets and our highways is to encourage people to leave their cars behind and take the train. Rail travel can also help us reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in Canada because it is far less polluting than the automobile. Since over one-quarter of our emissions are from transportation, any measure we can adopt to encourage a more environmentally friendly option will be welcome.
For many Canadians in the north or in distant regions of this country, rail transportation is essential, particularly in places where there are no other options.
The hon. member for Churchill, from the NDP, said a while ago that the remote regions were important. The transportation system has to be efficient for the whole population.
For 20 years, VIA Rail has offered travellers economical, high quality, safe and reliable transportation.
In recent years, VIA Rail has done excellent work to reduce and control its costs, while maximizing its revenues, providing high quality service and relying on the inherent market forces of passenger rail service as one of the safest and most efficient means of transportation.
In the past 10 years, VIA Rail has worked hard to support the government's efforts to put its financial house in order. Its success is due to the whole VIA Rail team, as I was saying, from the president to the passenger service agent on the platform.
VIA Rail has considerably reduced its operating costs and increased its revenues. VIA Rail now produces twice the revenue with each train and does it at lower cost, offering what is arguably the best service in its history.
The figures attest to this. Since 1990, VIA Rail has worked hard to cut over $250 million from its annual budget, and it has done so while continuing to improve its services and add new products.
In 2002, its revenues were more than $270 million, $17 million more than the previous fiscal year. It achieved this despite the fact that government funding to VIA was at an all-time low, at 63% of 1990 levels.
Last year, VIA Rail had over four million passengers and registered 948 million passenger miles, for its best performance in a decade.
These figures testify to the enormous potential for future growth. However, this potential can only be properly tapped with the help of this significant and urgent investment in operating funds announced in 2000. That is why it is essential to re-establish the funding requirements for VIA Rail as set out in the Main Estimates.
The $401.9 million investment, along with the annual $171 million in subsidies to VIA Rail, put a stop to the deterioration of passenger rail service and gave VIA Rail the means it needed to operate safely and efficiently in the coming years.
VIA's capital investment program responds to the growing demand for a modern, efficient, coast-to-coast passenger rail service. It will provide modern equipment, better infrastructure, better station facilities, improved safety and environmental practices—all as part of a truly modern network of services linking communities across the country, provided CN allows VIA to use its tracks at a lesser cost.
VIA has purchased 139 ultra-modern, state-of-the-art passenger cars, expanding its total fleet by one third. The first new passenger cars were introduced on the Enterprise, the Montreal-Toronto overnight service, in June 2002.
VIA is also undertaking a complete overhaul and refurbishment of rail diesel cars used on Vancouver Island and in northern Ontario. The refurbished equipment will dramatically improve the reliability and comfort of these services.
Infrastructure improvements have already been made on rail lines between Montreal and Ottawa. These improvements will shorten the trip between Montreal and Ottawa by 25 minutes. The trip can now be made in 1 hour and 35 minutes.
VIA's capital investment program produces results for Canadians across the country. Improved facilities, better infrastructure, and new equipment will have a dramatic impact across VIA’s entire network.
By ensuring the continuity of the capital investment plan, Canadians will enjoy better access to trains across the network, more frequent, faster services, refurbished stations, and modern, comfortable equipment.
The Government of Canada, as most other countries, uses public funds because it owes it to the taxpayer, who has been subsidizing passenger rail service for many years, to do its best to make good on their investment by providing them with an attractive method of transportation that they will want to use.
This new major investment will provide the country with a national passenger rail service that is worthy of the 21st century, and one that all Canadians will be proud of.
Restoring the levels of funding requested in the main estimates will ensure that the promises made to Canadians in 2000 will be kept.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Brian Fitzpatrick Prince Albert, SK
Mr. Speaker, in addressing this transportation issue, there is an observation that I want to make. The government calls itself Liberal, but quite often when we peel back liberalism, what we have is a new form of socialism. I know that the member from P.E.I. would like that kind of talk. It means more government, more central planning, more spending, more bureaucracy, more interference in the economy, and more interference in the day-to-day lives of Canadians. That is the Liberal way more often than not.
The transportation sector is a good sector to look at when we look at the Liberal way. Anything that the Liberal government puts its hands on, it seems to turn it to rock. The airline industry in this country is in a shambles with the government's interference and the way it dealt with that area. Air Canada, the one airline that the government has been most active in getting involved with and helping out, is an absolute disaster.
I hear Liberals on the other side of the House talk as if, when they spend money, it is free money. That is a totally false concept. There are independent economists who have looked at government spending and in this country estimate that the cost to the private sector for every dollar extracted by the Liberal government is $2 in economic output. We lose two dollars for every dollar the government collects. We had better get some real value when the government spends money because I do not see it.
There is a cost of working this money through the bureaucracy, from the CCRA right through the bureaucracy, until it gets out the other end. Some people have estimated that 34¢ out of every tax dollar is absorbed in that system alone too. So this is no minor issue.
VIA Rail receives a huge subsidy from the government, a half a million dollars a day. It is competing against private sector bus lines and small short line rails throughout the system. It is also competing against this troubled airline industry. I have small air services in my riding in Prince Albert and I have talked to these individuals. This Liberal way has been absolutely disastrous for them. The $24 air security tax has been a killer. The Nav Canada burdens that are being imposed on these individuals are just killing those businesses and driving them out of business. This is the Liberal way. It likes to crowd out healthy, promising businesses and replace them with government-run systems.
I want to make it clear that commuter service in this country works fairly well where we have high density populations with all of the arguments about environmental concerns, deficiency, and viability. We do not need the government to do this. This is happening without the government. A confused commuter service, with this bloated VIA Rail, is really off the mark.
Obviously one of the solutions of this VIA Rail thing would be to do what the government once did. I believe it was Mr. Young, when he was the minister, who took the bull by horns with CN. CN was an albatross for this country because we were constantly subsidizing it and it provided lousy service. It had been in and out of taxpayers' pockets for years. He privatized CN and turned into probably the most successful rail system in North America, or probably the world. It was a shining example of the private sector. It provided better service and a better network than the government owned operation.
It still bothers me that the government is subsidizing an inefficient service that people are not choosing to use, except for the odd person who wants to take a holiday at the expense of everybody else at a huge subsidy.
There are lots of other ways to travel across this great country besides rail but we have to subsidize it because members on that side have some warm and fuzzy feeling about the railroad. They have probably read Pierre Berton's book The Last Spike and think that because it is VIA Rail the government has to stay in there and hold the thing together.
VIA Rail only serves a very small fraction of the country. People who travel across the country use motor vehicles, the buses and the airlines. It is a big country but VIA Rail only serves a small slice of it. At a half a million dollars a day we have to really wonder on a cost benefit analysis why we do not wake up to the fact that the plug should be pulled on this service. We should use that money for much more important things such as improving the infrastructure of our roads and highways across the country.
Even the gas tax motion that we debated earlier ties in with this. The government's priorities on spending and using tax dollars and so on in so many areas is an absolute disaster. It is really unfortunate. On random polls, the Liberals seem to have 40% to 50% of the people's vote. I wish a lot of people would wake up and realize what the government's policies are doing to our economy and the future of this nation.
Nine million dollars is a small matter. However, I want to emphasize that we elected 301 members of Parliament. The people entrusted us with the job. Those folks on the committee studied and looked hard at VIA Rail and came up with a proposal that would reduce the spending by $9 million and what happened? The elected elite dictatorship bureaucracy that runs this place walked in and found ways to override what that committee decided to do.
Government would be much better served to listen to what the committee members are suggesting and recommending. We would get better public policy and better government. But there are those in that elite element in government who believe they have to have control, and that it has to be centralized control. They have to plan everything. They are going to find the ways to waste our taxpayers' dollars and regulate us into the ground. They just do not want to let that go.
It is really dangerous if they see some Liberal backbenchers on the committees get a little bit of insight on positive ways of developing good policy. It bothers them that the door might open a bit and the whole system might come crumbling down upon them, which would really be good if it happened.
I congratulate the member from the Kootenays. I listened to his speech and I know what he has had to say on transportation issues and the VIA Rail. He is right on the mark. I wish some of my Liberal friends would spend more time listening to common sense like that instead of looking down and reading their notes and papers, or whatever it is that they do.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Larry Bagnell Yukon, YT
Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to talk about railways this evening.
I voted for the extra $9 million for VIA in committee, as it was in the original estimates, and I will be voting for it again. My reasons are simple. First, it is for capital upgrades, new cars, and for fixing up the stations. I am a big fan of the railroads and we have been playing catch up with the quality of the railroads in Europe and Japan for many years. We are doing a very good job and I want that to continue.
That could have been the end of my speech but I have nine and a half minutes left, so I will use the rest of the time to demonstrate seven principles which I believe should be followed in legislation in Parliament. I will then finish off with a very exciting rail project.
In a situation like this there are seven principles that should be followed. I am glad I have an attentive audience in the far corner that wants to hear these seven principles.
First, a number of things have nothing to do with leadership. There are all sorts of people in the House who in their shenanigans attribute everything to leadership and potential leadership. This is no exception. There are people outside the House doing that too. It does not make any sense. There are three candidates running for leadership and never once has any of the three candidates suggested to me what their position is on something or what the position is that I should take. I have already explained the position I took on this and why, and it is totally different from that of other representatives who have the same leadership favourite. It is just fantasy speculation and it should be cleared up because it is going to go on for another six months.
The second principle is that the government in general should avoid competition and subsidizing competition to private business. I think the member for Kootenay—Boundary—Okanagan made this point very well. Where that actually is the case, I agree.
Principle number three is that spending should be responsible. In the first vote we had on this, some members voted against the increase, and although I did not, I support what they did. They did what they felt they had to, and should do, because they were trying to be responsible based on the information they had at the time. They did not feel they had sufficient information to justify the added expense. They did not feel that the questions had been answered sufficiently. Based on that, as they were going to make a responsible decision on expenditure of money, they did what they felt they should do. That is perfectly reasonable because all parliamentarians should be responsible in the expenditure of money.
Principle number four is that committees should have some effect on whatever they are dealing with or they should not be tasked with dealing with it. People's time should not be wasted if they are going to be asked to do something and then it is ignored. For instance, if committees are going to look at estimates and have some valid input, then that input should be taken into account and should have some effect.
In this particular case it had an effect. The department and the minister, to his credit, realized that they did not have the information and that was the reason people voted against it. In a very unusual situation he came back to committee, not once but twice, to explain things, to give more information to committee members which they needed before they could make their decision.
Principle number five is witnesses, especially those who are responsible for expenditure of government funds, should have that information with them to answer the questions. If they do not have it themselves they should have the people with them who can answer those questions.
Principle number six is that when estimates are brought forward, obviously they have been developed with great thought and detail by experts in the crown corporation or the government department. That has to be respected and a very careful analysis has to be carried out before they are changed.
If something is going to be cut, the last principle is not to ask for a cut without asking what effect it will have. I do not want members of any committee I am on to ask for something to be cut without asking what the ramifications will be to that particular operation, to the government or the people involved. We have to know what effect a cut is going to have.
In summary of the process here, a number of committee members, not myself but other members, felt they did not have enough information and they suggested a cut. The minister came back and explained what the money was for, certainly to my satisfaction. The government had no choice but to bring in the option, as in the vote tonight, for people to vote to reinstate that amount. This is the only mechanism that could be used. Therefore, those committee members who are now convinced by the new information they have heard have a choice to make that vote.
Finally, in my riding there is a very exciting railway, the White Pass, that has been there since the gold rush. Riding on the narrow gauge is probably the most exciting trip in Canada and I hope everyone will take the trip up through the mountains.
Also on this topic, I mentioned in committee that there is a railway in Alaska and a railway in Canada that goes to northern B.C. and there is an opportunity to join the two railways. This probably would be the most exciting project in North America since Confederation. The minister says we have to dream dreams in this area and I hope I can have the support of the whole House for $6 million for a feasibility study for such a project.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Greg Thompson New Brunswick Southwest, NB
Mr. Speaker, this is an interesting evening talking about VIA Rail and the amount of money requested by the minister as opposed to a reduction that has been agreed upon by unanimous vote of the committee to reduce the budget by $9 million.
Later tonight we will have a confidence vote on this because the minister has said that this will not stand. He wants full funding which would amount to approximately $266 million. The committee reduced it from $266 million to $257 million. I am just rounding that off. What is a million among friends, as the Liberals would say. It is a reduction of $9 million or about 2.95%.
This is typical of the government. We have all party committees and this all party committee was unanimous in its decision to reduce the budget. That not being good enough for the minister, he decided to take it back to the House of Commons and then force all the Liberal members to get up and support his position to overturn the all party committee. This is typical of the heavy handedness of the government.
One of the reasons the committee chose to reduce the minister's budget by $9 million was simply because he never explained the need for an increase. In other words, the government does not have a plan of action to spend the $266 million. In fact if he had a plan, the committee would have approved it.
We can talk about the politics that are playing out within the Liberal Party on the committee, the Prime Minister's loyalists versus the member for LaSalle—Émard who is the next Prime Minister in waiting. I guess that is a reality being played out at the committee level. The fact of the matter is the committee made that decision. That is why we have committees. Members use their best judgment, and the minister has come into the House and has used his heavy hand.
That is the same heavy hand that his predecessor used in the House, a man by the name of Doug Young who was transport minister at one time. I just want to remind members of a story. I think we have an understanding of the need for rail service in the country. We know it is not cheap to have a transportation system in a country as big and diverse geographically as Canada.
However the Conservative government restored VIA Rail in Atlantic Canada when it came to office in 1984. The promise made by the Mulroney government at that time was, use it or lose it. In Atlantic Canada we used the rail service. We had a direct route from southern New Brunswick right through to Quebec. In fact the line used to come right through from Saint John to McAdam, New Brunswick, almost in a straight line as the crow flies. It was the shortest route to central Canada, with the line across the State of Maine and into to Sherbrooke, Quebec, and on to Montreal, Ottawa and so on.
People like myself, and the member for Saint John who fought tooth and nail for VIA Rail before she came to this place, had the best rail service we ever had during the period between 1984 and 1993. In fact VIA Rail built a new terminal in Saint John, New Brunswick to service its clients, the customers.
When Doug Young came to office, he took a hatchet to it to get even with the member who won the seat for the Conservatives in Saint John, in fact one of only two members in the House at the time. He put Saint John, New Brunswick on the chopping block. We have never had rail service since.
Since the days of Sir John A. Macdonald, members of Parliament have in their back pockets a VIA Rail pass that allows us to travel between their constituencies and Ottawa. That is just a little perk that members of Parliament are given. However none of us in Atlantic Canada, in the southern part of New Brunswick can use it.
If I get on the VIA Rail line today in New Brunswick, thanks to Doug Young I have to go from St. Stephen, New Brunswick to Saint John, New Brunswick by bus to get to Moncton, then get on the train. If I use that route, after 12 hours of travel, I am further from Ottawa than when I left home. Does that make any sense? That is the Liberal way: destroy services in rural areas.
The weakness in the budget the minister has presented is no attention has been paid to the rural areas of New Brunswick. What he did was take his ham hand, the toughness that he sometimes displays against his own members, and basically warned his own member in Thunder Bay, Ontario, who happens to be the chairman of the committee. He said that if he did not do things his way, he might lose the contract the government has issued to a company in his riding to restore rail cars.
That is the threat the minister uses over his own members. Is there any wonder the committee would vote against the request for an extra $9 million? Some of the promises he made at the committee, $9 million simply would not cover. The fact of the matter is he does not have a plan to spend the money. If he did have a plan to spend the money, he would have looked at those regions of Canada that badly need service, those regions that he, his predecessor and the government he represents, the Liberal government, took away in the first place.
We will not be supporting the minister's request for extra money because he has no plan for spending the $257 million that he presently is getting. It would be a mistake by the House to give him that extra $9 million. Let the actions of the committee and the vote on the committee stand. That is why we have them.
When the government whip is running around at committees to ensure there is full attendance on these various committees, we can now understand why government members are reluctant to attend their own committee meetings. Because the government will come right back to the House and overturn decisions that have been made democratically at that committee.
If we want to reform this place and turn it around so members do mean something when judgments are made and decisions are made, let us start right here tonight and say no to the Minister of Transport on the request for that extra $9 million.
Main Estimates 2003-04
Bill Blaikie Winnipeg—Transcona, MB
Mr. Speaker, I feel somewhat badly following the hon. member who made an eloquent defence of VIA Rail and an eloquent defence of committees of the House, except I have to beg to differ as to what we should do about it.
It seems to me that those of us who want to defend passenger rail Canada and defend the role of VIA Rail should be the people who are least inclined to support a reduction in the funding for VIA Rail. The member might see it differently, and people of goodwill can disagree as to what the best way of dealing with this is.
I and the NDP take a different view on this. Because we support passenger rail and because we are not of the same mind as the Alliance members, who think there is something evil about VIA Rail because it is publicly owned, we cannot see our way to supporting even a committee decision that calls for a reduction in funding for VIA Rail.
I also want to point out that the decision of the committee, although it is portrayed as unanimous, was not unanimous in the sense that the NDP member on the committee was not present for that vote. Had she been present, it would not have been unanimous. That is one of the reasons why we are here tonight. We want to make it clear that we did not support the decision by committee to pass a motion to reduce the VIA Rail budget by $9 million.
I find this somewhat uncomfortable because I have often argued in the House, and I make no bones about it, that decisions of committees should be more respected than they are. We all know we do not always agree with every committee recommendation that comes forward, and we need to be honest about that. I am sure some of the people in the Alliance, who were making the argument about respecting the judgment of committees a few minutes ago, are probably not making the same argument with respect to the decision that was taken by the justice committee this afternoon. They probably will not get up in the House tomorrow and ask the government to respect the decision of the justice committee in the same way they now ask the government to respect the decision of the transport committee. It all depends on whether one agrees or not, although overall I would still argue that more respect should be paid to the decisions of committees.
I listened with interest to my Conservative friend and I would agree that Doug Young is certainly a villain when it comes, not just to passenger rail but to rail in general. I think particularly of the privatization of CNR.
The darkest day that I remember for VIA Rail did not come under the transport ministry of Doug Young. It came under the leadership of Brian Mulroney in the fall of 1989 with a decision that was implemented on January 15, 1990, which was the biggest single decimation of VIA Rail that we had ever seen in this country.
For the member to get up and talk as if everything was just hunky-dory until 1993, I am sorry. I was not going to talk about this, but I have been provoked by the very selective memory of the member from New Brunswick who seems to think that between 1984 and 1993 there was no damage done to VIA Rail. In fact in the fall of 1989 I was at the transport committee when that announcement was made by Ron Lawless. On January 15, 1990 the then transport minister Benoît Bouchard also should have gone down on the list of villains, when it comes to the history of rail in this country.