moved that Bill C-640, An Act respecting VIA Rail Canada and making consequential amendments to the Canada Transportation Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to begin the debate today on Bill C-640, the VIA Rail Canada Act. This bill, which is long overdue, directly addresses the cause of many of the problems that have been facing our public passenger rail service ever since it was created in 1977. The bill provides the main, most crucial measure needed to resolve those problems.
When VIA Rail was created with the goal of taking charge of the declining passenger rail service, which was then provided by CN and CP, it was given very few of the tools needed to carry out that enormous task. One of the fundamental tools was legislation that clearly and fully explained the rights, powers, obligations and mandate of the new crown corporation. VIA Rail was never given that. Instead, it was created in a rather ad hoc, ill-considered manner. In the end, it was basically like a rudderless ship, without any navigational aids or even an engine.
We saw the sad result. The management of VIA Rail has been unstable for nearly four decades. Its funding varies considerably. The company has barely been modernized. The fees for accessing the freight network are excessive. Passengers are made to wait for hours to give priority to freight trains. The worst part is that the public interest has been set aside countless times when, instead of providing support, governments have said that the only solution to VIA Rail's problems is radical cuts rather than rational changes.
This contrasts sharply with the U.S., where Amtrak, under similar circumstances, was founded to perform the same role as VIA. Before it ever turned its first wheel, in 1971, Amtrak was given the strong legislative foundation required to restore passenger rail. Its enabling act set the course for its growth into the useful, efficient, and cost-effective public transit service it is today. While it has not always been smooth sailing, Amtrak has weathered many financial and legislative storms because of its comprehensive legislation.
My member's bill is intended to do the same for Canadians. Like the act that launched Amtrak, it spells out what VIA must do to deliver nationwide rail passenger service that will play a strategic role in the economic, social, and environmental life of Canada. It would delineate a basic national network. It would set realistic and attainable performance standards. It would establish a mechanism to adjust VIA services, when necessary, here in the House of Commons. It would specifically end the backroom decision-making that has on several occasions wiped Canadian communities off the rail passenger map.
Many communities across this great nation depend on the services offered by VIA Rail to attract trade and commerce. In my riding of Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, passenger rail service was suspended beginning in 2011.
Many people come to my riding to experience its natural beauty and especially to reach destinations such as Percé Rock and Forillon National Park. I have known many an individual who has come to visit these landmarks, with the train trip being an integral part of the excursion. However, declining train frequency has led to a gradual decline in the number of passengers. Reduced track speed due to deferred track maintenance has further led to declines in use. More recently, VIA has closed or sold a number of train stations. There is no joy in waiting for a train in the dead of night in a rural region without the shelter of a train station. Fighting winter storms often leads to scheduling delays, while passengers wait on unsheltered platforms. This is no way to increase ridership.
Passenger rail is important to keep local economies moving. It also performs a basic public service.
Seniors and people with mobility challenges depend on passenger rail to reach destinations, such as clinics and hospitals. For many, such as in my riding, with public services such as hospitals so very far apart, the bus is simply not an option, and a flight is prohibitively expensive. The train is their best and sometimes only possible solution.
I have heard from people across this country about the need to improve passenger service. I have gone to train stops to ask people what they would like to see in passenger rail. I mainly hear that they seek a reliable, on-time, frequent service.
Rural regions with less than daily service typically see a gradual decline in the number of passengers. A recent example would be the Ocean, the Montreal to Halifax train. This route, the longest-running continuous train service in this country, having recently celebrated 110 years of continuous service, was cut from six trains a week to three. The effect was almost instantaneous. The passenger load dropped by nearly 40%. The route was even further threatened by the closure of its very rails in New Brunswick. After significant public pressure, the government did come up with a funding solution to keep the track open for the next 15 years.
As a member of the official opposition, I do not have a lot of opportunities to congratulate the government, but in this case, I will make an exception. The track, for now, is safe, but were it not for the public pressure that so many people in eastern Quebec and New Brunswick performed, the government surely would have let that track go.
Bill C-640 would also give VIA the fair and logistical rights it requires to operate effectively in the real world of competitive, multi-modal transportation. It proposes a cost-sharing basis by which VIA could partner with provincial or regional governments to add service to the basic national network. It would reaffirm the need for passenger trains to have reasonable priority over freight. It would also provide for the development of a fee schedule that would grant VIA access to the freight railway lines on terms that would be fair to all parties.
Around the globe, modern passenger trains are vital elements of the mobility strategies of nations with which we compete. If Canada is to be a part of this worldwide rail passenger renaissance, we must finally put VIA on a proper footing. That it has survived this long without a legislative mandate is a tribute to the inherent strength of the very concept of passenger railroads.
I have the opportunity to right a historic transportation wrong with this legislation, and I encourage others to support this bill. I certainly encourage the government to look at it again and consider sending this to committee for more debate.
I want to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of many people who have helped me draft this bill and who have also accompanied me in our passionate resistance to the decline of passenger rail in this country.
I would like to start with Greg Gormick, an expert in passenger rail, an expert who has worked tirelessly all his life to bring the issue of passenger rail to the forefront. He has been speaking in many communities bringing the issue of passenger rail forward. Without his clear and honest work, we never would have made it as far as we have.
The people who live in eastern Quebec and northern New Brunswick are especially to be applauded for the amount of energy they have expended trying to save not only their passenger rail but the very rail system on which they depend.
The passenger rail service in our part of the world has decayed substantially, and we need to see the government show that it is willing to support our remote communities with one of the vital links we have to the outside world.
We do not have an exemplary bus transportation system. We do not have an affordable airline system. What we do have is the potential for daily rail service. We have had it in the past. If a train were to run as often as it should, we would be able to get that ridership back up again.
The interest is there, the capacity is there, and the freight that is the very backbone of the sustenance to keep that rail system going in eastern Canada is also present. We have all of the tools required. The only element that is missing is the government's unconditional support.
Some may wring their hands over the so-called subsidy required by our passenger rail system while, ironically, they regard much more massive spending on highways and air traffic as investments. Every modern country with passenger rail has operating costs. Imagine if Canada decided to eliminate everything from our lives that requires public investment. We would scrap schools and libraries. The parks would be gone, as well as hospitals and firefighters and anything we could name. We need to invest in public infrastructure if we want this country to work.
Trains are solid public investments. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that every dollar spent on passenger rail service generates three to four times that amount back into the economy. That logic has simply not taken hold here. While VIA languishes and we debate its legislative future, Canadian-built passenger trains are thundering over steel rails of America, some of them at 250 kilometres an hour. American politicians of all stripes realize the issue is not whether America can afford to have passenger trains but whether it can afford not to have them.
The contrasts and contradictions between VIA and its expanding publicly owned American cousin Amtrak are shocking. The most fundamental difference between the two railways is legislation. Amtrak has it; VIA does not.
Bill C-640 would address this glaring legislative gap by providing a sort of bill of rights for passenger trains. It would give VIA the mandate it requires to deliver a large portion of the sustainable intercity mobility needed in 21st century Canada.
Visionary legislation set Amtrak rolling in 1971, and Bill C-640 could establish the mechanism to restore service to all communities that lost their trains through political expediencies here in Ottawa. Northwestern Ontario has had good news. After 104 years of continuous service, Thunder Bay lost its passenger service, the Canadian, back in January 1990 ,as a result of the Mulroney government's slashing of VIA's financing by 50%. In 2012, the current government cut $41 million from VIA's annual subsidy, which had been previously cut and frozen at $166 million by the Liberal government in 1988, with no provision for inflation.
I would like to make it clear that this legislation is the next step in VIA's evolution. VIA needs to know that there is a legislative framework that is going to keep this company rolling and that passenger rail has a future in this country. We have capacity in Thunder Bay and La Pocatière, Quebec, to build the rolling stock that we need. This bill would create jobs in areas that really need that support, and passenger rail has been proven to be a shot in the arm for the economies of the communities where trains pass through.
We need VIA Rail in our communities. It is a fundamental choice that Canadians must make. This bill is the first step. The government needs to take the next.