VIA Rail Canada Act

An Act respecting VIA Rail Canada and making consequential amendments to the Canada Transportation Act

This bill was last introduced in the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session, which ended in August 2015.

Sponsor

Philip Toone  NDP

Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)

Status

Defeated, as of April 29, 2015
(This bill did not become law.)

Summary

This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.

This enactment establishes a legislative framework for the crown corporation of VIA Rail Canada and describes the scheme of governance and funding for it. It also requires VIA Rail Canada to maintain public passenger service for the routes set out in the schedule.

This enactment also amends the Canada Transportation Act to enable a railway company to electrify the tracks of another railway company, by applying to the Canadian Transportation Agency for this purpose. It accords scheduling and operational preference to public passenger service by VIA Rail Canada over freight service where there is a conflict between the two. It requires VIA Rail Canada and any other railway company to set out public passenger service performance standards and incentive payments in agreements between them and allows the Canadian Transportation Agency to investigate and impose monetary penalties for poor performance and delays. It promotes the transparency of agreements between VIA Rail Canada and another railway company to use that railway company’s facilities or services by requiring publication of these agreements.

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Votes

April 29, 2015 Failed That the Bill be now read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

April 24th, 2015 / 1:40 p.m.
See context

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Conservative Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss Bill C-640, an act respecting VIA Rail Canada and making consequential amendments to the Canada Transportation Act. The government remains committed to ensuring economic growth and long-term prosperity for Canadians. Given this focus, the government cannot support Bill C-640, because it would have a negative impact on Canada's economic competitiveness and risk its reputation as a reliable trading partner.

To illustrate the potentially negative implications of this bill, I would like to first highlight the important role that freight rail plays in Canada. For more than 130 years, railways have linked communities, supported trade and expanded the Canadian economy. The historic role of railways in our country's growth since Confederation is well known.

The importance of freight railways has only increased today. Canada's freight railway sector, which comprises more than 60 short lines and two class 1 railways, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, operates nearly 46,000 kilometres of track. Canadian businesses, producers and manufacturers rely on this expansive rail network every day to move a whole wide variety of goods to thousands of domestic and global destinations.

It is also worth noting that a substantial portion of rail movements contribute to our domestic and international trade. Clearly, the success of Canadian businesses is contingent on efficient, effective and reliable freight rail services. Grain farmers work hard to supply global markets with a world-class product. Lumber, pulp and paper, and other forest products from Canadian mills have a global reputation for being second to none in terms of quality. Demand for these products is increasing around the world. Global buyers in emerging economies are seeking high quality iron ore, coal and other commodities extracted from mines located across Canada.

Canada's manufacturing industries, including the automotive sector, continue to demonstrate strength and resilience in increasingly competitive global markets and integrated supply chains. However, success in all industrial sectors requires reliable and efficient freight rail service. Shippers would face broken sales contracts, declining market share and irreparable harm to their reputation as reliable global suppliers if they could not get their goods to market reliably and efficiently.

The government has taken important steps to ensure the efficiency, effectiveness and reliability of the rail-based supply chain. In 2010, the government initiated the rail freight service review. In 2013, the government passed the Fair Rail Freight Service Act, which aimed to support commercial solutions by providing shippers with the right to request a service level agreement, and a process to establish one if commercial negotiations fail.

Less than a year ago, the government passed the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act. which included additional measures designed to support the entire grain transportation system and achieve the goal of moving grain more efficiently and quickly. For example, the act required railways to move minimum amounts of grain; extended interswitching limits for shippers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba; and clarified operational terms in service level agreements. In combination, these efforts have contributed to a strong, dynamic freight rail network in Canada that is recognized around the world for its ability to move diverse commodities over vast distances.

A cornerstone of the development of Canada's transportation system is a policy approach that supports competition in market forces. Specifically, the national transportation policy outlined in the Canada Transportation Act indicates that the objectives of a competitive, economic and efficient transportation system are most likely to be achieved when competition and market forces are the prime agents in providing transportation services. Furthermore, it states that regulation and strategic public intervention should not unduly favour any particular mode of transportation.

What would happen to this critical rail transportation system if Bill C-640 were to be passed? Provisions in the bill would undermine the government's recent efforts to strengthen Canada's rail-based supply chain and would also run counter to foundational policy principles by undermining commercial solutions and unduly favouring one type of rail transportation over another.

Specifically, Bill C-640 proposes amending the Canada Transportation Act to give VIA general scheduling and operational preference over freight rail in the event of conflict. Let me be clear on what this proposal intends to do. Essentially, this amendment would give unfettered primacy to passenger rail operations at the expense of freight rail efficiency.

Currently, VIA and freight railways negotiate commercial agreements for track access that allow parties to work together to find an operational arrangement that works for everyone involved. This approach recognizes that the best solutions are those negotiated by the parties themselves.

If commercial negotiations are unsuccessful, the Canada Transportation Act provides VIA and other public passenger service providers with recourse to the Canadian Transportation Agency to secure access to track, equipment, or other facilities. This dispute resolution mechanism balances the interests of communities, consumers, and public passenger service providers with those of freight rail carriers.

I want to emphasize today that passenger rail service in many parts of Canada needs to be enhanced to meet community needs. My constituency of Sarnia—Lambton is a good example of this. Due to lack of ridership, passenger rail service provided by VIA Rail has been cut back in my community over the past few years, causing issues for students, the elderly, and others who utilize this travel option. I have worked hard to advocate on the need for these services for my constituents to decision-makers at VIA Rail and in cabinet.

I also want to give credit and recognition to a local group of individuals who have worked tirelessly to improve passenger rail service for local residents. Rail Advocacy in Lambton, or RAIL, as it is more commonly known, has accomplished numerous achievements in its advocacy efforts through a broad, community-driven consultation process and through working in a co-operative fashion with VIA Rail Canada. This group has presented various solutions that may work well for my community, and as mentioned, it has had success with its efforts thus far, as a recent meeting with VIA Rail Canada ended with a promise by VIA officials to visit Sarnia-Lambton and to seek to enhance the passenger rail options for my riding.

I support RAIL in its efforts and will continue to do so, because it is seeking proactive solutions, but not at the expense of one mode of service over another. It understands that any viable solution to the transit issues facing the region will require a holistic, integrated approach, likely requiring the attention of the three levels of government involved: federal, provincial and municipal.

Its solutions do not place freight above passenger rail. Rather, they include both aspects of the rail industry in the discussion, as both sides' co-operation is indeed required for a positive solution to be reached with regard to passenger rail enhancement across the region. These are solutions that do not require the hardships Bill C-640 would create. By this I mean that Bill C-640 proposes amendments that would be in stark opposition to long-established commercial principles, such as ensuring modal neutrality and balancing the interests of the parties involved.

Ultimately, the changes proposed in Bill C-640 would greatly impact a railway's ability to operate its network, leading to inefficiencies and reduced reliability. This would have a corresponding negative impact on shippers' ability to get their goods to market, thereby risking their global reputations as reliable suppliers, reputations they work hard every day to achieve and sustain. It would also move away from a proactive solution that needs to involve both freight and passenger rail entities.

In closing, I would like to reiterate that Canada's economy cannot risk the reckless approach proposed in Bill C-640. Canadian shippers work hard to grow their businesses and realize global economic opportunities. Bill C-640 would ultimately undermine this hard work, risk shippers' global reputations as reliable suppliers, and harm the overall competitiveness of the Canadian economy. For that reason, the government cannot support Bill C-640.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

April 24th, 2015 / 1:50 p.m.
See context

NDP

Laurin Liu NDP Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-640, An Act respecting VIA Rail Canada and making consequential amendments to the Canada Transportation Act.

I would first like to commend my colleague from Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine for his excellent work. He has worked very hard on this file. He wanted to bring this issue to the forefront in Parliament. We have been trying to pass these vital measures in this Parliament for about 20 years. The member has done excellent work by proposing these very important changes.

I would first like to comment on why this bill is so important. Many Canadians across the country must use the services of VIA Rail, and the NDP believes that Canadians deserve rail services that are shared, adequate, safe and efficient. We know that most MPs have used VIA Rail services. We know just how essential this service is, but we also know that there is a great deal of room for improvement.

It is time for Canadian passengers to have priority over freight, as is the case in the United States. Later, I will talk about Amtrak, which Canada could really look to for best practices.

My colleague also introduced this bill because we believe that VIA Rail has a duty to provide a minimum level of service and that it should not cancel routes without consulting the public and Parliament. This bill has a number of measures and I will talk about a few of them. This bill essentially provides a legislative framework for VIA Rail's mandate. It requires VIA Rail to maintain service and to maintain the frequency of certain routes that must be served. Later, I will also talk about some essential routes that have been abandoned by VIA Rail in recent years.

The bill also provides for a transparent and democratic assessment mechanism if VIA Rail wishes to cancel service. It provides a framework for VIA Rail governance and funding. We know that these two priorities are important if we want VIA Rail services to work. This bill ensures that municipal representatives have a say in VIA Rail services.

The bill also gives priority to passenger trains over freight trains. It imposes fines on rail companies for failing to comply with regulations that favour VIA Rail. It demands transparency with respect to the fees paid by VIA Rail to rail companies. Lastly, if VIA Rail wishes to cancel service, it must first seek approval from Parliament.

I would like to digress for a moment to also talk about Canada Post. We know that this topic has been debated in the House and there is a lot of talk about it in my riding of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles. The people of Rosemère have already lost their home mail delivery and people in Boisbriand will lose it this year. Of course they oppose this reduction in service, but we know that the Conservatives' approach, which involves cutting services and increasing prices, is not the right way to run a business. That is not the right thing to do to ensure that Canada Post remains a profitable business.

The government keeps repeating that people are sending fewer letters, for one thing. That may be true, but they are sending more parcels, they are doing more online shopping and they still receive bills by mail. Furthermore, municipalities still need to send their correspondence related to municipal taxes to their residents by mail. The reduction in Canada Post services is affecting a large segment of the population, as well as municipal budgets, which are already very tight.

I mention Canada Post because, similarly, it is not by reducing VIA Rail's services or access to it that the crown corporation will become more profitable.

Since 2011, VIA Rail has dropped major routes. The Victoria-Kootenay line was dropped in 2011. In December 2012, VIA Rail also stopped its passenger service on the Matapédia-Gaspé line, despite the fact that a major part of that line is now safe.

In 2012, VIA Rail announced that it was reducing its Ocean train service between Montreal and Halifax. I would like to mention that a number of my colleagues here in the House defended that train service and travelled from one end of the country to the other to mobilize people in order to protect VIA Rail services. I am talking about the hon. member for Halifax and other NDP members from the Maritimes. Following the derailment of a freight train in June 2014, VIA Rail stopped operating the Winnipeg-Churchill line indefinitely.

It is important to talk about these lines because Canada is a very diverse country and remote municipalities do not have the same needs as major urban centres. VIA Rail's service is very important to these remote regions.

Passenger rail service in remote areas is in free fall. Furthermore, in more urban areas, freight trains cause significant delays in passenger service. This is very inconvenient for people who use these services.

Basically, the bill supports the concept that management of passenger rail service must comply with section 5 of the Canada Transportation Act and section 5 of the Federal Sustainable Development Act, especially when it comes to the principles of accessibility, economic growth of urban and rural communities and sustainable development.

When I was researching this bill, I looked at Amtrak, a U.S. passenger train company. Amtrak, which serves our neighbours to the south, decided to increase frequency rather than reduce it, as a result of a study that showed that decreasing the frequency of passenger trains does not result in significant savings.

Quite the opposite is happening in Canada. In the case of the Halifax-Moncton-Montreal train, there was a reduction of almost 40% in ridership in 2012, while there was only a $1 million savings in fuel and operating costs.

Furthermore, the increased frequency of Amtrak trains in the United States has resulted in a significant increase in ridership and revenue.

I would like to comment further on the case of Canada Post. We know that if there is good management, more service and some guarantee of quality service, people will use the services available and the number of users will grow. Cutting services will not make an organization profitable. There are some interesting comparisons to be made with the case of VIA Rail.

We want VIA Rail to have a clear mandate to provide safe, adequate, efficient service. During question period in the House, NDP members have often called for VIA Rail to reinstate all of the routes that have been cancelled since 2011. We also want all changes to its network to be subject to public consultation and debated in Parliament. This is an important issue, particularly for my NDP colleagues who live in areas served by VIA Rail.

For example, the member for Churchill knows her community's needs. She is in an ideal position to understand the impact of service cuts at VIA Rail on her community and the ability of her constituents to travel and be mobile.

I see that my time is up, so I would like to conclude by inviting all of my colleagues to support a wonderful bill, Bill C-640.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

April 24th, 2015 / 2 p.m.
See context

Conservative

LaVar Payne Conservative Medicine Hat, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am please to have the opportunity to speak to private member's bill C-640, an act respecting VIA Rail Canada and making consequential amendments to the Canada Transportation Act.

An intercity passenger rail service with VIA Rail as the predominant service provider is an important component of our transportation system. VIA benefits our economy and society by connecting Canadians from coast to coast. Recognizing this, our government has and continues to support VIA Rail.

Our government provides VIA Rail with substantial financial support to operate and maintain its network. VIA was given a subsidy amounting to $305 million in 2013-14, a significant amount of funding. In addition, our government is making unprecedented capital investments in VIA Rail to allow it to make important improvements to modernize its operations.

Our government has made available more than $1 billion in capital funding over the past seven years to upgrade and modernize portions of VIA Rail's network and many of its rail cars and locomotives.

However, despite our government's demonstrated support for VIA, we cannot support the bill. The bill would introduce legislation that would not only increase these costs, but would fundamentally alter, for the worst, how the corporation would be operated and managed.

VIA Rail is a federal crown corporation. Like all corporations, both private and public, VIA is governed by a board of directors that is responsible for all decisions the corporation takes. Our government has made efforts to strengthen governance practices in crown corporations and agencies by setting guidelines and best practices for board membership and operation. These best practices include seeking candidates with a range of experience drawn from both public and private sectors. To this end, VIA's board of directors is made up of qualified citizens who represent the diversity of Canada. There are currently members from many regions of the country, with each member bringing their unique skills, experience and perspective to the board.

The bill proposes to limit the pool of potential candidates for selection as VIA board members to only those candidates who are already members of the Canadian Tourism Commission and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. This is curious logic, as by unduly limiting potential candidates for the VIA board, the bill works against these best governance practices.

Furthermore, as VIA board members have the responsibility to act in the best interests of the corporation and exercise due care and diligence, the proposal in the bill would put VIA directors in a real or perceived conflict of interest with their obligation as directors of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

The bill also promotes the addition of significant financial risk to the government by moving VIA Rail from its current non-agent structure to that of an agent of the Crown. Our government cannot support this proposal as being an agent of the Crown would increase the government's financial risk by exposing the government directly to all VIA's debts, losses and liabilities.

Bill C-640 would further add to the financial risk to the government by providing VIA with borrowing power. The proposed bill allows the corporation to borrow, issue or pledge debt on the credit of the corporation. It also allows the Ministers of Transport and Finance, in co-operation with the Governor-in-Council, to authorize VIA to borrow up to an aggregated total of $500 million from the consolidated revenue fund. Ultimately, however, the government would have to backstop these financial commitments.

Furthermore, the bill proposes to change the share structure to provide employees with a 10% ownership in VIA. This makes no economic sense, given VIA's reliance on federal subsidies to operate. Typical of most scheduled, intercity passenger rail carriers around the world, VIA has no market value as its debts and liabilities far outweigh its assets. With little prospect for share value appreciation, the granting of non-market traded shares as performance incentives to employees would likely be an ineffective and inappropriate use of taxpayers money.

The bill also attempts to define a new mandate and objectives for VIA. In fact, it makes many of VIA's objectives inflexible and removes VIA's ability to seek an optimal balance between its objectives. On the one hand, the proposed legislation mandates the current root structure, while on the other hand, it requires VIA to maximize its financial performance. In other words, the bill ties VIA's hands and sets it up for failure.

Our government believes that VIA operates most efficiently as an independent crown corporation. This means the government does not operate the railway. This means the government does not get involved in VIA's day-to-day operations. This means the government does not try to tell VIA how many times per day it should operate its services.

It does not mean our government provides VIA with the necessary resources and funding needed to achieve its plans. This process has been clearly evident in recent years, with our government providing significant capital infusions and increased operating funding to allow VIA to build extra capacity, replace equipment and align the delivery of its services with planned resources.

Our government believes the current method of approving VIA's direction through annual corporate plans is the best approach. Currently, VIA's object is:

To offer a national passenger rail transportation service that is safe, secure, efficient, reliable, and environmentally sustainable, and that meets the needs of travellers in Canada.

Overall, this approach provides the necessary flexibility in service delivery to Canada's passenger rail service.

Although passenger rail remains an important service, particularly in remote areas and to support tourism across Canada and along the Quebec-Windsor corridor, it is no longer a predominant mode of transportation in Canada. Travel by private car remains the overwhelming choice for most intercity travellers.

VIA Rail is ultimately responsible for making business decision on its operations, including how best to lower its cost to reduce its reliance on federal taxpayer dollars, while meeting its objective to operate a national railway system that is safe and efficient. This is why VIA rail has to continuously assess its markets and operations to decide how best to provide the most economically efficient service to passengers.

The bill would make the process for determining the optimal mix of routes and fleet resources more difficult to achieve and delay VIA from proactively reacting to changes in its marketplace. It would take away this essential flexibility for VIA, resulting in poorer financial performance and governance processes that would not align with best practices for crown corporation governance. It bill would result in higher borrowing, insurance and risk management, costs for VIA. The bill would also result in higher costs and risk exposure for the Government of Canada.

Our government will not support Bill C-640.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

April 24th, 2015 / 2:05 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Lise St-Denis Liberal Saint-Maurice—Champlain, QC

Mr. Speaker, the slow erosion of the passenger rail system in Canada is relentless. In Haute-Mauricie, cuts are being made to services for aboriginal people, services for those who travel to receive medical care, services for the many tourists and vacationers, and interregional services. We are facing an organized dismantling of rail transportation in order to decrease service delivery in remote regions. If the government wants to shut down the towns and villages in the regions, there is no better way to go about it.

We no longer see trains passing by. Our train stations are becoming museums in memory of our investments of yesterday in areas abandoned by government. Nevertheless, it is rather ironic to hear the Prime Minister boast about the advantages of occupying the areas adjacent to the Northwest Passage in response to thirsty nations' claims on our Arctic regions, when meanwhile the current government is abandoning our regions by closing the railway lines that forged our national and territorial identity.

How far will the destruction of our symbols and our infrastructure go? You have to be familiar with the regions to see the problems caused by the elimination of train service, and it seems fairly obvious that the executives at the head office have never set foot out of the Toronto or Montreal stations. The cuts made to the passenger rail system should not have an impact on local economies. Were they expecting the Holy Spirit to provide service to remote regions?

Despite the wishful thinking of VIA Rail executives and their obvious lack of sensitivity to rural populations, people are suffering from these haphazard cuts. They are selling stations for a dollar, abandoning one-hundred-year-old services, liquidating our heritage to the lowest bidder, replacing station agents with self-service kiosks—and you can forget it if you are not paying with plastic.

The bill introduced by the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine partially meets the expectations of local populations. Is it realistic to put restrictions on VIA Rail to give passenger service priority over commercial or industrial service? We are aware of the limits of such a measure, in light of who owns the railways in Canada. It seems to us that, in this context, the lack of a national strategy for passenger transportation will be a crucial consideration in developing new criteria and controls for VIA Rail.

Little by little, the train has become the means of transportation for urban dwellers, to the detriment of people living in the regions. We are one of the industrialized societies that invests the least in public transit. The dismantling of VIA Rail and its regional services was done without consultation. Changes in rates, schedules and the number of destinations are determined by bureaucrats who happily sacrifice regional development without listening to users' complaints.

How can we get VIA Rail back on track? How can we make the current government realize what is happening in the regions? We understand the gist of the member's bill. We can see the complete indifference of VIA Rail executives towards people in the regions. However, how can we compel this crown corporation and private rail companies without having a national rail transportation policy?

The number and scope of rail disasters should have prompted the minister to develop a serious rail policy. We are still waiting for the improvisation to stop.

We must conduct a comprehensive study of the negative effects of the cuts to passenger rail service in order to align those findings with the modernization of freight transportation.

The government is proposing that penalties be imposed on recalcitrant carriers as the ultimate fix for these carriers' possible mismanagement. The many planned restrictions with regard to services and the prioritization of passenger transportation are not realistic because passenger transportation is not as profitable as freight transportation.

Any passenger rail policy that is developed must align with the development of freight transportation. The co-existence of the two systems requires an assessment of the risks inherent in their respective areas of expertise, which are disproportionate. The prosperity of one must benefit the other.

Regional development, which relies on many industrial bases, is related to the needs of local populations. We cannot hope to earn a profit from our resources without giving small communities sustainable infrastructure.

For many, the end of VIA Rail means the end of many communities. Every generation must reinvent its prosperity. The same is true of the role of this passenger rail stakeholder.

For the time being, we are not assessing the magnitude of the social disaster caused by the disappearance of passenger rail service. We have not assessed the social costs of this disappearance. We believe, as does the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, that VIA Rail must be forced to provide services to remote regions. We believe that the current level of service is lacking. We are disappointed about the lack of regard for passenger safety on a number of lines of this so-called national carrier.

VIA Rail has a critical role to play as a passenger carrier in Canada, but resources are lacking as a result of the lack of interest shown by governments. In addition to imposing a new legal framework on the carrier, we must finally develop a real Canadian passenger and freight transportation policy.

The topic of land use must not be limited to the throne speech. We need to make our historical presence in the north and south a national priority. The almost total lack of rail service in the regions is a daily struggle. The local populations have been abandoned and must reluctantly leave their homes.

We believe that the thought process initiated by the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine is the first step toward the creation of a national inclusive transportation policy. The introduction of Bill C-640 enables us to begin a debate on the role of public services in Canada. This bill sets out responsibilities that are consistent with the historic role of parliamentarians in this place. We need to be able to debate the people's needs and report on the progress and setbacks in this domain.

This bill decrees rules of precedence and shared use for the crown corporation and private companies, rules that we have to take a close look at while considering the costs arising from such a policy.

However, private companies do not operate in a vacuum and must be accountable to civil society, particularly with respect to safety and the common good.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

April 24th, 2015 / 2:15 p.m.
See context

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to rise in the House today to support Bill C-640, the work of my colleague, the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine. He follows in a great tradition of rail advocacy by the NDP. I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Bill Blaikie, who along with his many principled contributions to the House as the member for Elmwood—Transcona and deputy speaker was and remains a fierce defender and advocate of preserving, diversifying, and expanding rail infrastructure in our great country.

Bill C-640 is an effort to turn the tide on the steady erosion of rail travel that began with the Liberals' deregulation of the industry and the privatization of the Canadian National Railway system in 1995.

Bill C-640 seeks to prevent VIA from cancelling routes and passenger service without consulting with Canadians and with Parliament. Canadians have the right to the highest levels of service, protection, and accessibility of travel that can be provided. Instead we have seen the erosion of infrastructure due to neglect and corporate offloading and the cancellation of services across the country.

Canada has a growing population comprising families with children, seniors, and citizens who need to travel and are very conscious of the environmental legacy we are creating for future generations.

With proper stewardship and a visionary plan, there is real potential to revive our once thriving rail travel industry. However, that kind of vision requires a federal government focused on national stewardship rather than what both Liberal and Conservative governments did when they sold off national interests and pandered to those who bankroll their campaigns. Even worse, this current Conservative government, as did previous Liberal governments, refuses to acknowledge that the economic and environmental benefits of a truly enhanced, integrated, accessible, and sustainable rail transit system far outweigh and outlive short-term political gain. It fails to understand that everyone, from the youngest Canadian to the seasoned commuter, benefits from the kind of forward thinking that ensures that rail travel is part of our future.

This reality is not lost on the citizens of London and southwestern Ontario. These are the Canadians who suffer from what is described in the Network Southwest action plan as a mobility gap. VIA Rail needs substantial modernization and service improvements to prevent a further decline in ridership. Investment and modernization would permit the enhancement and strengthening of rail service for future generations.

We have to be forward thinking. Rail travel is cost-effective in terms of the pocketbook and the environment. While high-speed rail is a longer-term vision, high-performance rail is able to operate on many existing main and secondary routes. High-performance rail is part of an interconnected alternative public transit system, and it provides infrastructure to feed future high-speed rail.

The Network Southwest report, written by Greg Gormick in March 2015, outlines the need for VIA Rail services to be upgraded to HPR standards as one of its three building blocks. The plan also includes feeder bus services to provide transit between trains and communities off the rail lines and mobility hubs to connect all transportation modes, including local traffic.

All of this can be done efficiently and seamlessly. There are already several successful models of rail-based regional public transport solutions in the U.S. One of the characteristics they all share is the joint support of federal and state governments. A joint approach by federal and provincial governments in Canada could bring about the mobility improvements needed in regions like southwestern Ontario, and such a transit solution could become a template for other parts of Canada.

A successful precedent for innovation happened after the federal Liberal government slashed half the rail passenger service in Canada in the1990s. In response to that void, the Ontario NDP government partnered with VIA and restored a London-Toronto train that was threatened by the axe. This restored service was a crucial link that the provincial government knew must be saved. It was a matter of determination and foresight.

Bill C-640 would allow Canadians and this Parliament to evaluate cases where VIA Rail plans to eliminate a required route and would call on Parliament to study, debate, and then vote on the recommendations in the minister's report, thus giving Parliament the final decision. Interestingly, that is what our system is supposed to do: ensure that Parliament, and not the party in power, has a role in vital national decisions.

VIA serves three well-populated corridors in southwestern Ontario, and there are many factors in favour of improving these routes. First of all, they service one of the highest population densities in Canada. They can be utilized by significant numbers of students in numerous colleges and universities, students who do not have access to cars.

These routes bring visitors to tourist and cultural attractions, including the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. They have close proximity to Toronto, which is a destination and an economic hub. They decrease often difficult travel on Highway 401 and the QEW. Both those highways can be very hazardous at any time of year.

I have had occasion to meet with numerous community organizations in London and area that rely on VIA Rail for their transportation. Groups like the University of Western Ontario Student Council and Fanshawe Student Union have a keen interest. A significant segment of the London workforce relies on VIA Rail to commute to the GTA. The intercommunity travel between London, Sarnia, Windsor and Toronto is vital to all of our local economies.

The London Chamber of Commerce and business leaders in the community know that without dependable VIA Rail service, many community jobs would be lost. Bill C-640 provides effective measures to ensure that that does not happen.

As the London Free Press reported on April 11, new rail investment would create 30 to 36 new jobs and $3 million to $4 million in economic spinoffs. Bus network improvements would add to those regional economic benefits as well. The cost associated with Network Southwest's five-year plan is equivalent to the cost of building just one kilometre of subway in Toronto and the benefits are huge. American studies indicate that for each $1 million invested in rail, 30 jobs are created and GDP increases threefold.

When we consider the drain on the Canadian economy associated with motor vehicle accidents and injuries which cost us $22 billion per year, these benefits are impossible to ignore.

Rail Advocacy in Lambton says of Bill C-640 that the concept of a national rail policy is, in their view, a necessary step in supporting a sustainable passenger rail system for all Canadians. It says that without this legislation, Via Rail and Canada's passenger rail system is doomed to die a slow death, with no hope of resurrection, unless immediate restorative action is initiated. It says that it needs an affordable, frequent, marketable passenger rail service that ensures no passenger is ever left behind. It also says that this legislation is the first step in a long-overdue process that will make VIA Rail a viable, productive, successful national transportation agency.

Mike from London, Ontario, has written to remind me that next year will be the 160th anniversary of the London and Port Stanley Railway, the third oldest in Canada, founded in 1856. Included in all the other travellers who rode that line were big band musicians and fans headed to Port Stanley's famous Stork Club. Reconnecting London and St. Thomas to Port Stanley's beaches and shops again would be a boost to our local economy.

I also want to mention the work that is being undertaken by the City of London. I am encouraged by London's Shift initiative that presents a bold and important vision for transportation in our city. It focuses on rapid transit as part of the transportation system that will help our city grow and prosper.

The Shift proposal calls for London to conduct a public environmental assessment that allows citizen input in planning and designing the network. In addition, it will assess the need for rapid transit, and how rapid transit can alleviate such problems as congestion, overcrowded buses and the high cost of driving. The assessment will determine which streets are suitable for rapid transit and how they can be designed to improve mobility for everyone, and determine the form or forms of rapid transit that should be used. Shift is a City of London initiative that has great potential.

The integration and coordination of VIA Rail routes and services is vital to moving the population of London in, through and around the community. Bill C-640 lays the framework for that progress to happen.

I am very happy to stand in support of Bill C-640. It is good for the people of London and southwestern Ontario. It is good for all of Canada.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

April 24th, 2015 / 2:25 p.m.
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NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to close this first debate on Bill C-640, VIA Rail Canada Act. This bill is very important to me personally. For one thing, it guarantees passenger rail service to my region, in the Gaspé. Regions like the Gaspé need reliable, affordable passenger rail service. In our regions, bus service is far from exemplary, and air travel is simply too expensive.

Our regions need a Canada-wide passenger rail system. It is more affordable than air travel, it is the best option for the environment, it would connect our remotest regions, and it would help develop the economies of the regions served. Let us be clear: this bill is in the best interest of our environment, our economy and our regions.

I cannot emphasize enough the benefits such a passenger rail service could have, not only in the communities that are served directly, but also for society in general. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, every dollar invested in passenger rail service produces between $3 and $4 in economic spinoffs.

However, our current system is not reaching its full potential. The status quo is simply not working. This becomes clear simply by comparing VIA Rail with the Amtrak passenger rail system in the U.S.

With Amtrak, a traveller can get from Seattle to New York in three days for the equivalent of 275 Canadian dollars, and departures are offered daily. With VIA Rail, a trip from Vancouver to Montreal takes a day longer than with Amtrak, four days in other words, and costs an extra $200, or $475. What is more, VIA Rail offers just three departures a week during the summer and only two departures in winter. In fact, it would be cheaper, better and faster to travel with Amtrak in the United States to get from Vancouver to Toronto.

In the United States, politicians of all stripes understand that a modern country cannot afford not to invest in passenger train services. In Canada, we recognize the importance of investing in public infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and fire stations. We even allocate a lot of money to road and air transport. Why then refuse to recognize the importance of passenger rail service?

It is not a question of nationalizing a private company because VIA Rail is already a crown corporation and is already subsidized by the federal government. Bill C-640 simply proposes to clarify VIA Rail's role, rights and responsibilities. Canadians deserve to know what they are getting for their investment and to have the power to ensure that their expectations will be met.

The VIA Rail Canada Act would give passenger trains priority over freight trains. This is not all that outrageous. Such a system is already in place in the United States. What is more, VIA Rail was created to free CN and CP from their obligation to provide passenger service. In return, CN and CP now allow VIA Rail to use their rail lines for a fee. It is important to note that VIA Rail pays more than Amtrak for those same rights.

Bill C-640 would allow VIA Rail Canada to negotiate on equal footing with these host railway companies and would ensure that it had scheduling preference in order to promote increased passenger use. Let us not forget that the preference of passenger trains would not apply if it were to unduly impair the freight service of a railway company. This is not about penalizing railway companies. It is simply about ensuring effective passenger transportation.

Bill C-640 would also establish a list of mandated routes. We are paying for a Canada-wide network so we expect to see a Canada-wide network, especially since the service would generate economic spinoffs in the communities being served. This model was very successful in the United States.

I would like to close by quoting the former president of Amtrak, David Gunn. He said:

No national rail passenger system in the world is profitable. Without public subsidy, there will be no passenger rail transportation systems....

We cannot get along without a national passenger rail transportation service in the 21st century. Privatizing VIA Rail is out of the question. The reason why the crown corporation was created was that the private sector was unable to provide this essential service. We must have a Canada-wide service. This bill is the first step in that direction.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 20th, 2015 / 1:15 p.m.
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NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

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.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 20th, 2015 / 1:25 p.m.
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Essex Ontario

Conservative

Jeff Watson ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, it is interesting to see a bill about support for VIA when that party consistently votes against the funding we put forward for VIA.

To the bill in question, first, I notice that the legislative framework that the NDP is proposing mimics the framework for Canada Post. I find that a little peculiar, because the business of sorting and delivering mail is substantially different from the business of passenger rail.

Aside from that, this bill proposes major restrictions on the independence and governance of VIA Rail such that it could not function properly as a corporation.

As well, there would be major legislated fixed costs to VIA if this bill were to pass. The most recent Amtrak statistics I have are for 2012, when Amtrak lost $1.4 billion. It loses somewhere in that range every single year. VIA had a subsidy of $305 million on behalf of taxpayers last year. Is the member trying to bury VIA or does he want the government to nationalize VIA?

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 20th, 2015 / 1:30 p.m.
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NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, first, VIA is a crown corporation. We do not need to renationalize something that already belongs to the Crown.

Second, regarding the subsidy that is paid through the U.S. for passenger rail, it has 10 times more passengers on its network than we do. Therefore, the actual amount paid per passenger is significantly less in the United States than it is here.

If our country were to start investing in passenger rail, we would have the domino effect of creating wealth across the country in so many communities that need it. We need to start investing, and we need to start investing now.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 20th, 2015 / 1:30 p.m.
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Green

Bruce Hyer Green Thunder Bay—Superior North, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have two quick points.

The first point is that recently I met with the very dynamic new CEO of VIA, Yves Desjardins-Siciliano. I was very encouraged by his personal commitment, and I believe him, to return passenger rail throughout Canada, but especially through Thunder Bay and the North Shore, which was a very profitable and popular route. He needs this legislation to empower his renewed vision for VIA across Canada.

The second point is that VIA is under the thumb of the freight railways, especially CN, on whose tracks its operates the bulk of its trains. The worst aspect of this one-sided relationship is that, contained in the 10 year train service agreement, VIA was left to negotiate on its own with CN in 2007, without help from the government. In the last five years, CN's charges to VIA have increased by 42% and will rise another 40% by 2018. There are other detrimental provisions in that confidential agreement.

In summary, the hard-working member has produced superb legislation. I and the Green Party will support it totally, and we thank him for his hard work.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 20th, 2015 / 1:30 p.m.
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NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member, and I do appreciate the work the member has put into this as well.

Let us be clear that there are communities in the country that would benefit directly through more investment in VIA Rail, Thunder Bay being one and La Pocatière, Quebec, being the other. Those are places where the capacity is already in place to build all of the rolling stock that we need to get this train moving again.

The Bombardier corporation has the technology, but what does it do with that technology? It sells the rolling stock to the United States. It knows to invest in the passenger rail system. Unfortunately, the government seems to have missed the track completely.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 20th, 2015 / 1:35 p.m.
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Essex Ontario

Conservative

Jeff Watson ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in debate today.

Passenger rail has played a critical role in our country's development, and the service provided by VIA Rail is of great importance and value to Canadians. That is why I am happy to have the opportunity to speak to private member's Bill C-640, An Act respecting VIA Rail Canada and making consequential amendments to the Canada Transportation Act.

As Canada's national passenger rail operator, VIA Rail provides Canadian travellers with safe, efficient, and cost-effective service. Our government recognizes the importance of VIA's passenger rail services in the lives of Canadians, as well as the critical links that VIA provides to remote communities and the important role it plays in the national tourism market. Our government continues to support VIA through annual subsidies for its operations, with last year's totalling some $305 million; as well major capital investments, which have totalled over a billion dollars since 2007.

It is because of this government's commitment to VIA Rail and its objectives that we cannot support Bill C-640. This bill seeks to establish a legislative framework for the business affairs of VIA and includes a number of prescriptive measures affecting numerous aspects of VIA's operations and governance structure. These include changes affecting the selection of board members, routing, scheduling, the content of commercial agreements and even VIA's status as an arm's-length crown corporation.

While the intention of these measures may be to support VIA's services to the benefit of Canadians, in actuality the bill would have the opposite effect, creating inefficiencies that would result in poor financial performance and a greater burden on the taxpayer. The critical drawback of this bill is that it would increase government and parliamentary intervention in VIA's business affairs. This is a misguided attempt to secure VIA services that would actually hinder VIA's operations.

The bill proposes to intervene in VIA's affairs, designating the routes that VIA must operate and the service frequency of certain routes. Specifically, it would make VIA's current network routes mandatory and increase the service frequency on VIA's heavily subsidized long-haul routes from Toronto to Vancouver, and from Montreal to Halifax. Further, the bill would require extensive oversight by the Minister of Transport and Parliament to allow VIA to alter any routes. Should VIA intend to eliminate any service, the Minister of Transport would have to ask the Canadian Transportation Agency or a third party to review and make recommendations to be tabled in Parliament. The bill would allow as few as 20 senators or 50 members of the House of Commons to file a motion to amend or revoke a recommendation set out in the report. This means that a minority of parliamentarians could delay change to VIA services that could be required to meet its objective of providing efficient passenger rail services.

This intervention in VIA's business affairs that Bill C-640 proposes represents a total reversal of the national transportation policy that has been in place since the Canada Transportation Act came into force in 1996. That act affirms that we are most likely to maintain a competitive, economic, and efficient national transportation system by allowing competition and market forces to be the prime agents in providing transportation services. Public intervention should therefore be reserved for instances when our desired outcomes cannot be adequately achieved through competition and market forces. Accordingly, our government's position is that it does not intervene in the day-to-day running of VIA Rail.

As an independent crown corporation, VIA is responsible for its own operational decisions. That includes scheduling and routing. This approach allows VIA the necessary flexibility to assess its own operations and to decide how it can best meet its objectives. This may involve adjustments to train schedules and staffing levels, or the reduction or ending of a service to better align services with actual market demand. Given decreasing ridership and increasing costs, the financial challenges of operating VIA's current network cannot be addressed solely through operating efficiencies. All of VIA's routes currently require some level of subsidization by taxpayers. In this context, VIA's services have undergone rationalizations to ensure that they provide value to taxpayers while at the same time maintaining a national network of services that are important to Canadians.

By mandating VIA's routes and frequency and requiring considerable government and parliamentary processes and oversight to alter them, the bill would effectively prevent VIA from making its own business decisions to ensure that it operates in a cost-efficient manner by matching its services to demand. It would severely obstruct VIA's ability to react to changes in its marketplace and to adjust accordingly.

The measures proposed in the bill encourage inefficiency and would inevitably increase VIA's costs, including from running too many trains with too few passengers, for example. These costs would be passed along to taxpayers, as more public funds would be needed to augment the current subsidy to VIA. It goes without saying that this would not be in keeping with VIA's objective to provide efficient and cost-effective services to Canadians.

Furthermore, the increased oversight regarding VIA's business affairs would mean an expanded role for Government organizations like the Canadian Transportation Agency. The new responsibilities proposed in the bill would require additional financial and human resources, thus adding more costs to Canadians without merit.

The proposal to make VIA an agent of the Crown raises further financial concerns. This measure could make the government directly liable for any debts and losses incurred by VIA. This would be compounded by the bill's proposed borrowing limit of $500 million for VIA. All of this could translate into greater risk exposure for the federal government, and ultimately the taxpayers of Canada.

The negative financial implications of the bill reach beyond the confines of VIA Rail. Bill C-640 could have a negative impact on the country's economic growth by disadvantaging our freight rail system. The bill would amend the Canada Transportation Act to give VIA general scheduling and operational preference over freight rail in the event of a conflict.

While it may be intended to support VIA's on-time performance, giving VIA unfettered priority and rights over freight traffic could significantly impair Canada's freight rail operators. We all know the critical role that freight rail plays in our supply chains, and our government has taken action to strengthen its effectiveness and reliability. The bill would undercut these advancements and could jeopardize the performance of Canada's economy and our reputation as a reliable trading partner.

Our government is committed to supporting VIA in its objective to provide Canadians with safe, efficient, and cost-effective service. Bill C-640, however, would impede that objective. By dictating VIA's operational practices and requiring increased government and parliamentary oversight, Bill C-640 would encourage inefficient practices, decrease value to Canadians, and increase the burden on the taxpayer. Further, the measures in the bill could have a negative impact on our economic growth. It is clear that our government cannot support such a bill, particularly one that would undermine the efficient operation of our national passenger rail service in this way.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 20th, 2015 / 1:40 p.m.
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Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to begin by commending my colleague from the NDP for bringing forward this bill. It is a welcome contribution to the very large and comprehensive problem of our rail system in its fullest context, that is to say, the passenger, freight, and commuter rail service systems. I believe the whole question of our rail system in Canada is very much at play.

I am pleased to follow up on the remarks of my colleague, the parliamentary secretary to the minister. Indeed, after watching the government for nine years, and many of its front-line ministers for a decade previously while they served in another right-wing government, when it comes to the question of VIA Rail and its future, I have concluded that it is the government's intention to attempt to privatize VIA Rail in due course.

When I began speaking this way several years ago with respect to Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, the Conservative members scoffed. They dismissed it. They said that I was an alarmist and that it was an attempt to frighten people. However, we know that the government followed the regular pattern it does when it wants to divest itself of a crown asset. That is how it goes about it, and that is what it did with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. As far as I am concerned, that is what the government is now beginning to do with VIA Rail.

In the context of atomic energy, the Prime Minister dispatched his then director of communications to make a series of public remarks about the state of that crown corporation. It was very disturbing to the thousands and thousands of Canadians who had helped build AECL and had, after 58 years, made it into one of the world's leading global nuclear research, nuclear power plant, and medical isotope-producing companies. The Conservatives began their pattern of running down an asset, called it a sinkhole and, of course, then sold it at a fireside price. That was 58 years of global tradition and Canadian leadership they sold for $100 million to SNC-Lavalin. That is what they do.

Therefore, I am having this conversation today and making these remarks in the context of my conclusion that if re-elected, the government fully intends to divest itself of VIA Rail and to move in the same direction with respect to Canada Post. We see the same techniques and actions being taken and have just heard similar remarks by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport. It is unfortunate because Canadians have come to depend on passenger rail as part of their tradition, as part of what they need, as part of their economy. Whether it is the use of passenger trains for hunting and other ecotourism opportunities in northern Quebec, or for passenger use in and around Sarnia or, as my colleague mentioned, for use on Vancouver Island, there is a present demand for passenger rail in this country.

My colleague has gone a certain distance in his bill to make some recommendations for change. I commend him for stepping up to the plate and recommending anything that might improve VIA Rail. I do not agree with all of the measures. I think there is an element of it that is perhaps too prescriptive, which may or may not fit more readily in the tradition of the NDP's view of how to manage a crown corporation. I commend him for making some positive recommendations for change. However, there are larger questions looming that I want to come back to, such as what I mentioned just a minute ago.

Right now the Canadian rail system is basically bottle-necked. This bill was deposited here on the floor today in the context of a major problem. We have too many demands on the rail system as it is presently constructed.

Given the existing rail capacity and the existing status of our railways—that is, the rail itself—and given the fact that we built our cities around the railways, which we never contemplated when we tried to unite this country a century or more ago by using rail, what we have is a bottleneck situation. It is being made worse by a massive 1,500% increase in the transportation of oil and fossil fuels by rail just over the last two or three years.

As I like to remind my colleagues regularly, even if we build every pipeline that the government has been contemplating now for a decade—a pipeline south, a pipeline west, and a pipeline east—and those three pipelines all carried fossil fuel, we would still be having—

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 20th, 2015 / 1:45 p.m.
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Conservative

Jeff Watson Conservative Essex, ON

Mr. Speaker, my point of order is to relevance. We are talking about passenger rail, not pipelines or oil by rail. I know the member is experienced when it comes to debate. He knows the rules of this House, and he should probably be instructed to at least stick to the matter currently before Parliament.

VIA Rail Canada ActPrivate Members' Business

February 20th, 2015 / 1:50 p.m.
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Liberal

David McGuinty Liberal Ottawa South, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is only the parliamentary secretary who does not understand the connection between the transportation of fossil fuels and passenger rail in Canada. What is he talking about? This is exactly the problem we are facing in Canada, a denial by Conservatives that we have a problem on the ground in the competition for the use of rail between passenger rail and other forms of rail use. What does he not understand about that?

The problem is that by 2024 we are going to be producing one million barrels a day of excess capacity of oil, and it is going to be shoved onto the railway system. The problem is that the government does not want to have an adult conversation about that and the fact that it is having a spillover effect. The parliamentary secretary hoots and hollers and continues to yell from his side because he does not want to have a real conversation about what is really happening on the ground.

We have a logjam. Our farmers in the Canadian prairies lost $3 billion in revenue as ships were sitting off the coast of B.C., because the Conservative government could not get that grain to market.

This bill is important. An adult discussion about passenger rail is very important in the context of the choices we are going to make as a country.

As I said earlier, some of the measures in the bill are highly prescriptive. For example, it mentions only the Canadian Tourism Commission and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities as sources of directors for the corporate board. I do not think that is comprehensive or perhaps realistic. I think the member might have his own views in that regard as well.

As for stipulating that track use by VIA Rail should take precedence over all other forms of rail use, I would like to hear more about that from our private sector operators and urban transit systems to see what the distributive effects of such a measure, if implemented, would have on an already bottlenecked system.

I think the bill is a good contribution to a much larger question about where we are going in this country for the next century, and not for the next six months, which is what the Conservatives would have us do. They are fixated on October 19, not on solving longer-term problems. Their fixation on this election is actually leading to poor public policy outcomes.

We need to have a discussion here on where we are going with rail for the next century, and the bill would help us have it. This is an important conversation for us to have. It is our responsibility as legislators, on behalf of all Canadians, to treat this issue responsibly over a longer term. Again, I think the bill goes some distance in raising questions.

The member has done a good job as well with the idea of having specific legislation that would govern VIA Rail. Let us begin by beginning, and it is a good beginning to have a legislative framework that actually embraces VIA Rail. There is the question of whether VIA should be coming back to this House in terms of its internal management systems, such as winding up with a route here or cutting back in staff there or changing the frequency of train service, and that is a discussion I think we should have at committee.

We will be supporting sending the bill to committee to have a more extensive discussion.