Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate on Bill C-43, an act to amend the Railway Safety Act and to make a consequential amendment to another Act.
I would love to share the optimism of the parliamentary secretary. Unfortunately, certain statistics tell me that, while this bill seeks to correct certain significant technical flaws and while the official opposition may help improve it during the review by the committee, some major issues linger with regard to railway safety in Canada.
Let me give you a few figures. In 1994, a total of 1,189 accidents were reported to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. That was 17 per cent more than in 1993. There was a net increase of 8 per cent in the accident rate, which climbed to 14,4 accidents per million of train-miles travelled.
Then there is the fact that most accidents on main lines occur at level crossings. This suggests that improvements could be made, and that human or technical errors are often to blame.
It is also reported that, each year, some 300 accidents involve transporter cars. Worse still is the fact that, in 1994, 114 people died in train accidents. These figures make us realize that the situation is much more worrying than the government would lead us to believe.
Some of the objectives of the bill are to: "provide for greater involvement by interested organizations in making rules about railway operations; provide for the regulation of the use of train whistles in municipalities; strengthen and clarify provisions dealing with railway security". No major initiatives are taken to correct existing problems.
The government's good intention to tackle the issue should be reflected in amendments to the bill that would give it more substance and to face the real issues relating to railway safety.
The bill is silent on a very real problem, particularly in Quebec. They say there are 3 to 10 times as many defects in the tracks located in Quebec, because they are older and less well maintained, a result of the available resources and the fact that rail has long been considered a sort of homespun way of travel and not given the chance to become a tool of development. Today, we are paying the price for this.
To add insult to injury, it has just been announced that the Charny maintenance shop, in the riding of my colleague from Lévis, is to be closed. The job loss is regrettable. True, 90 jobs in such a region is not all that significant, but on top of that there is the significant impact on safety, since now the only track maintenance shop for the whole of eastern Canada will be located in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Imagine, then, that on the CN lines in Quebec there are 51 defects per 65 miles, or 100 km of track, and on the CP lines 31 for the same 65 miles or 100 kilometres. Yet these figures are not
likely to improve in future because, as well as not having maintained the track properly, now they are moving the people with responsibility for maintenance further away, and their territory is being increased still further. This is tantamount to abdicating from any responsibility for safety.
The federal government must be judged clearly by the public on this. Yes, it is entitled to want to propose choices, to privatize companies. It is entitled to make those choices. We are entitled to judge the choices, or the way they were made, as the right ones or not, but there is one thing that must not be sloughed off: the responsibility for safety.
In this connection, Bill C-43 really contains no measures for dealing with the situation, or for improving it to any significant extent. A major debate needs to be held. There are, for example, newspaper reports stating that the Transportation Safety Board of Canada contradicts the CN on the number of accidents, yet this is the body responsible for providing a true picture of the situation and it is also less in conflict of interest than the companies operating the railways.
Questions will have to be asked in committee as to why the statistics I have just given you have not been able to be improved, and what should be done in future to remedy the situation. We are told that the number of railway accidents has been constantly on the increase for the past five years. This again comes from the Transportation Safety Board. They arrived in February 1996, when two derailments had just occurred in the Quebec City region within two weeks.
There is regularly talk about accidents, every month, as I mentioned in talking about level crossings earlier, for example. So clearly we have to look a lot deeper at the Railway Safety Act than the government is doing. At the moment, we could say it is doing nothing more than fulfilling its obligation to review the Act every five years. Review does not just mean simply making technical changes. The point of the review is to ensure that our railway system is the best it can be. If we have in fact under-used and under-maintained the rail systems in Quebec and Canada, we must ensure today, with the vision we want for our system, that we take every means possible to remedy the situation.
Railway transportation was declining 10 or 15 years ago. Today, it is on the rise with the use of containers. Furthermore, VIA Rail for one is trying to revitalize operations and must therefore break the vicious circle in which rail transportation is not used because it is inefficient and because it is inefficient less money is allocated to its operation and maintenance. The end result is poor service that fails to meet the needs of the people.
It will therefore be important, when this bill is being studied in committee-because the government has decided to go directly to committee rather than do an in-depth analysis at second reading-to study it thoroughly. There will be experts of different sorts, no
doubt employees who know something about such things. I think they should enjoy a certain impunity in committee, so that we get at the truth, can see things as they are, can propose amendments and make relevant changes.
This way, when the law is next reviewed, perhaps in five years, we will be able to say results were achieved and the statistics, instead of increasing by 17 per cent, will be stable at least. We will have made it so that the cause of accidents will only be unexplained human error, and not the system, poor operation or an insufficient investment in prevention.
In conclusion, the official opposition intends to be very vigilant and to ensure that our rail service operates totally safely for the welfare of individuals and for an improved economy.