My name is Allison Field, and I'm the director of government relations and communications for the Western Canadian Short Line Railway Association. Thanks so much for having us. We really appreciate being here.
Western Canada has 86% of the total field crop acreage in Canada. That gives you an idea of how much we produce here in terms of grain, and we're growing constantly. The grain we grow and the oil and propane resources we extract in western Canada need to move. As 2013-14 and this past year of 2016-17 indicated, our current transportation network can't manage the load. We need to start thinking more creatively as a nation to better use our transportation system so that we can be competitive on the world stage.
I'm not sure how familiar everyone is with short-line railways, so I'll just give you a little five-minute intro. I'll take you back to the 1990s. There was a lot of deregulation going on, and CN and CP decided to divest themselves of their less profitable lines. That left the western Canadian provinces in quite a bind. In Saskatchewan, for example, that meant losing 30% of our rail network. Farmers, small businesses and RMs were panicking. They decided they needed to do something, so they banded together and bought the short-line railways. They bought the short-line railways first and learned how to run the railways second, so that was quite the undertaking.
Now fast-forward 25 years. All of our 17 member short-lines are still viable enterprises. We have 70 businesses built on our lines. We employ over 200 people. We move about 20,000 cars a year. It's a really fantastic western Canadian success story in a lot of ways.
While I wish I were just here to brag, but not everything, unfortunately, is rainbows and unicorns. We used to move 40,000 cars a year. Our dream, or what we'd really like to do, is to become a very useful partner to the class 1s like the short-lines are in the U.S. In the U.S. they're used as feeder networks, really active feeder networks, to CN and CP, the main lines that are kind of like the superhighways to ports or to the U.S.
That's what we really want to be. To get there, we desperately need a large investment in infrastructure. When we took over those lines, you have to remember that CN and CP were getting rid of them. They hadn't been maintaining them like you would something you were going to be using for years and years. We didn't really know what we were taking on, because we weren't railroaders.
We've been band-aiding those lines for 25 years. Now we're getting to the point where it's preventing us from taking on new business. Our speeds are limited. Our train lengths are limited. Our train frequencies are limited. We have to stop work to do a lot of repairs. We're in a kind of catch-22 at the moment in terms of our infrastructure.
Then on the other side, access to government funding, although we do feel there has been effort made to support us, hasn't really been working out. For example, with the building Canada fund, short-lines were included in that in theory. That was great from the federal point of view, but we needed provincial support. We needed provincial support to make that application. Of course, that would mean competing with the provinces' other projects, so we didn't receive support anywhere and we couldn't access that fund.
For the RSIP, the railway safety improvement program for infrastructure, there were hundreds of approvals over the last two fiscals, and only three went to short-lines. They were for crossings, which we really appreciate, but we need more than just crossings help.
Finally, one short-line has been approved under the national trade corridors fund. That short-line is incredibly appreciative, but there are 56 short-lines across Canada, and we all need help.
Then with private financing, obviously they don't really want to fund us because we need a lot of capital money, but you can't use that for anything else other than rail. It's not like they can just repossess your house and sell it to someone else.
On the other hand, expenses are ballooning. Insurance rates after Lac-Mégantic went up significantly. There have been lots of regulations on safety, which is amazing, but the whole regulatory, red tape portion of it has required us to hire people and do a lot of extra administrative work. We just checked out how much more on average we've been spending over the last five years than we used to. Our 17 short-lines are all small businesses, small to maybe medium, and we're spending about $580,000 a year more now on overhead than we were before, based on insurance and regulatory things.
To properly serve our customers and current shippers and to attract new ones, and to provide competitive rates and services, we need some help. We don't want to be on long-term government assistance, but we need a short-term hand just to mitigate the effects of that aging infrastructure and increased regulatory burden.
Our first recommendation is that the government provide funding in the amount of $90 million in 2019-20, and $200 million over the following five years, for western Canadian short-line infrastructure improvements to enhance Canada's grain and oil transportation networks, facilitate export capacity and improve safety.
Second, we recommend that the government earmark funds for short-line railways within the new building Canada fund, the railway safety improvement program, the national trade corridors fund and other funds that come along.
Third, we recommend that the government amend the Safe and Accountable Rail Act to include short-line railways in the fund for railway accidents involving designated goods, because a big part of the reason our insurance went up is that we're not under that umbrella.
Fourth, we recommend that the government provide funding in the amount of $500,000 per year, for three years, for the Western Canadian Short Line Railway Association to develop a marketing department and a legislative department to further the competitiveness of both our short-lines and the small and medium-sized shippers on our lines.