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.