Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise for debate on this bill which incorporates amendments to the Railway Safety Act. We on this side of the House believe this will be a very useful piece of legislation and we propose that the bill be referred to the Standing Committee on Transport before second reading.
The Railway Safety Act is a relatively new piece of legislation which came into effect in January 1988. As is often the case with new legislation, the act required that a statutory review of its provisions be undertaken five years after coming into force. Such a review was carried out in 1994. The report of the committee that reviewed the Railway Safety Act was tabled in this House on February 15, 1995 and the government moved very quickly with a response which was tabled on June 8, 1995.
I am happy to say that the review found Canadian railways to have a good safety record when compared with other modes of transportation and when compared with other countries. On page 16 of its final report, the committee concluded that "railways in Canada operate safely. On the basis of numerous evaluative measurements and comparisons with other nations and modes of transportation, the railway mode is an extremely safe means of moving freight and people in this country". The committee also indicated in its report that the "work related safety of railways and the manner in which their operations are carried out have clearly shown improvement".
The committee looked at the statutory structure and emphasized that the underlying principles of the Railway Safety Act remain valid and these key principles can be summarized as: one, the government sets the standards; two, railway companies decide how to meet these standards; and three, government monitors for compliance and enforces where necessary.
The changes made with the passage of the Railway Safety Act in 1988 were significant in that they marked a deviation from the old command and control approach to railway regulation that had been the norm until that time. I am pleased that the review committee confirmed that this enlightened approach to regulation is very appropriate.
The committee made a number of recommendations for improving the railway safety regime in Canada. The amendments before the House represent the legislative changes that are required to implement many of those recommendations.
Let us address the consultative process. Last summer Transport Canada carried out extensive consultations on the form of the legislative amendments. An industry group was established with representation from the railways, railway labour, the Canada Safety Council and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to review the various proposals.
I am pleased to say that the parties worked diligently and achieved consensus. There was a high degree of unanimity on safety matters and the various views expressed are reflected in these particular amendments. Of course there was not complete unanimity, but this was an excellent opportunity for all points of view to be aired and to resolve many, many of the differences.
Our government has also discussed these amendments with provincial representatives who made a number of suggestions. These suggestions have been incorporated into the amendments.
The amendments to the Railway Safety Act that are being proposed cover the majority of the recommendations put forward by the review committee. One of the key amendments relates to the problem of train whistling in communities. The whistle is an important safety feature but it can be very disruptive for people who live close to a railway line. We are probably all familiar with some of our constituents who have approached us on this issue.
The government's proposal, which was endorsed by municipal representatives from across the country, is as follows: Where a municipality has passed a motion and where the location meets Transport Canada conditions for whistling cessation, the trains would be required to cease whistling. I believe this is a workable solution to what has been a very difficult problem.
Railway highway crossings contribute to the greatest number of rail related accidents, deaths and injuries. The review recommended that Transport Canada prepare a plan aimed at reducing the number of crossing accidents by 50 per cent within 10 years.
There are a number of items that will require additional legislative powers and these are included in the proposed amendments. They include measures to promote crossing closures as well as to control the way in which key crossings are used.
A number of the more technical amendments will streamline the regulatory process and reduce bureaucratic burden. They will reduce government involvement in unproductive areas but will allow government to continue to cover the essential items.
It should be noted that some of the recommendations, such as those relating to branch line abandonment, have already been covered through the Canada Transportation Act, Bill C-14.
A number of the recommendations, particularly those relating to co-ordination with provinces, grade crossing improvements and studying the effects of train whistle cessation at crossings do not require legislation and Transport Canada is already working to find a solution to these.
The Railway Safety Act has fostered consultation between all parties that have an interest in safety. A number of other legislative changes will streamline the regulatory process and provide even greater involvement of railway labour in the development of new rules.
The review committee recommended that the statutory framework be changed so that the railways could propose performance standards and a comprehensive safety plan, both of which would be approved by Transport Canada. Once again these proposals will permit this to take place.
We are also taking this opportunity to revise and update railway security provisions. Problems can arise from terrorist acts and occurrences such as bomb threats. We do not see these as significant threats to the railway system at present. This therefore is the time when we should take care to ensure that we have the right statutory underpinning should such powers be necessary in the future.
The security provisions in the legislation have been recast using our model, the Marine Transportation Security Act, a most recent piece of security legislation. We hope these provisions will not be necessary, but we are happy we will have them in place as a good basic foundation should such measures become necessary in the future.
Finally let us examine the broader aspects of the legislation. The review of railway safety concluded that our railways have a good safety record and that we have reason for confidence in the regulatory regime. When dealing with a topic such as safety, however, we must be diligent. We must continually be seeking better ways to do things. We should always strive to improve our record.
The government has taken a number of steps to revitalize Canada's rail sector, such as the privatization of the Canadian National last year. These initiatives will go a long way toward strengthening Canada's transportation infrastructure and establishing a sound base to carry our railways well into the next century.
However and in spite of these changes the government will continue to place emphasis on the most important aspect of all: safety. We will continue to be diligent where safety is concerned. The proposed changes before the House today will streamline and improve the legislative base for railway safety in the years to come.
I therefore urge all my hon. colleagues in this place to support the legislation and agree to refer the bill to committee.