Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to address this bill which I am sure everyone here finds extremely fascinating.
Bill C-58 was introduced on November 5. Now a mere 15 days later, which happens in this case to be only six sitting days, we are debating it at second reading. The Standing Committee on Transport may consider this bill as soon as next Tuesday which is eight sitting days after its first reading. Do I smell a whiff of prorogation in the air?
When I gave a few stakeholders a heads up as to what was happening, they were quite astonished and not at all amused. I understand that some of them are already prepared to appear on short notice and that they have contacted the committee clerk. The minister has been sitting on this legislation for several weeks, like a hen sitting on an egg and now suddenly it is full speed ahead.
This is reminiscent of what went on a year ago with the marine act, Bill C-9, essentially a good piece of legislation that was seriously flawed in a couple of places with regard to financing. There were stakeholders who were extremely upset about it but they were not heard. Now, a year later, the flaws in the bill are already coming back to haunt us, specifically relative to the port of Halifax.
This is a safety bill. Safety is a relative term. It means different things to different people. In the transportation sector the word safety is often used and has been used to promote some dubious proposals, demands and schemes. There are people who do not understand that there is no such thing as absolute safety.
If we wanted absolute transportation safety, I suppose we could all travel by foot, however we would still run the risk of breaking a leg. A less drastic but equally unacceptable measure would be to lower speed limits for all modes of transportation and make such things as airline tickets and automobiles beyond the purchasing power of most people. Certainly we would be safer but modern society with its emphasis on convenience, time and cost effectiveness would never tolerate such restrictions. The question then becomes one of what level of safety we are prepared to accept.
The Railway Safety Act is a relatively new piece of legislation. Bill C-58 seeks to legislate amendments recommended by the statutory five year review committee, as has been explained by the parliamentary secretary.
The review committee's report was tabled in parliament in February 1995. It recommended 69 amendments to streamline railway safety and to reduce the bureaucratic burden. The government introduced Bill C-43 in May 1996 incorporating 60 of the 69 recommendations, but the bill died on the Order Paper when the election was called in April 1997.
The 1995 report described the railway mode as an extremely safe means of moving freight and people in this country. Indeed the report found that Canadian railways have a good safety record when compared with other modes of transportation and when compared to other countries' rail operations. The report also noted that work related safety of railways and the manner in which their operations are carried out have clearly shown improvement. The picture painted by the Transportation Safety Board however is a little murkier.
Main track train derailments increased by 75% over the last nine years, from 101 in 1988 to 177 in 1997. We seem to be running tracks along the right of way instead of on the rails in this country. Occurrences of train collisions on main tracks have increased by 44%.
There is some good news. Accidents at road crossings have decreased by 39% over the same period. More good news is the total personal injury accidents for all types of rail related incidents have decreased by almost 80% since 1988. The number of total fatalities is quite low and it has not changed much in the last nine years.
In response to the 1997 fatal derailment of a VIA passenger train at Biggar, Saskatchewan, the minister announced that he would delay reintroduction of these amendments to the Railway Safety Act in order to further study other possible improvements.
Unlike its predecessor, Bill C-58 will now require railway companies to draw up and implement safety management systems. These systems will have to be vetted and approved by the minister. The minister may also order a railway company to take necessary corrective measures if he believes that the safety management system is deficient.
There is unfortunately no avenue to appeal a ministerial order to an independent tribunal, a tribunal similar perhaps to the Civil Aviation Tribunal. There is a rumour that Transport Canada is planning a Canada transportation tribunal for rail, aviation, marine and pipelines. I sincerely hope that the rumour is true.
One curious change from Bill C-43 was the omission of an amendment which would have explicitly given railways the right of way through road crossings. I am not a rail safety expert but it seems to me to be plain common sense that road crossing users should yield to a train. Trains are bigger.
Bill C-58 goes further than its predecessor in that it increases the powers of railway safety inspectors, particularly over road crossings. This includes broadening the inspectors' access authority and their authority to obtain documents in order to enforce the act. There are concerns again that there is no established independent venue to appeal the decisions of railway safety inspectors.
Another new amendment will insert a policy statement itemizing the objectives of the act directly into the legislation. These objectives include: promotion and provision of safety for the public and employees; protection of property; stakeholder collaboration and participation; the recognition that railway safety is primarily the responsibility of railway companies. Flexibility, efficiency and modernity are the new catch phrases for Canada's rail safety regulatory system.
In its 1995 report the review committee recommended that Canada's rail safety system be made non-prescriptive and industry driven. It advocated improvements to the overall safety framework but recommended leaving the details to the appropriate authorities. Bill C-58 therefore contains a number of technical amendments to streamline the regulatory process and reduce red tape.
The streamlined safety regulatory system proposed by Bill C-58 can be summarized as follows: the government continues to set rail safety standards; the railway companies decide after consulting with other stakeholders what safety rules are necessary and how best to meet those standards; and the government approves the rules, allows for exemptions, monitors for compliance and when necessary, enforces.
The new regime will also provide temporary regulatory exemptions to railway companies for the purpose of conducting tests related to rail transportation. The proposed regulatory regime will also require that the railways consult interested organizations as part of their process for creating operational safety rules and also when applying for exemptions from them.
Bill C-58 seeks to improve the provisions for the security of railway property. It includes a new designation, screening officers to screen persons or goods before they are taken on board a train or into a restricted area such as a freight yard. The terms of reference for screening are very similar to those currently practised by airlines and in airports.
With respect to road crossings, most MPs are probably already very familiar with the whistling issue. Many constituents and municipalities have sought help from their federal representatives to shepherd them through the whistling removal process.
Whistling through road crossings is an important safety tool, but the noise can torment people living close to a railway line. The new legislation is still somewhat convoluted, but any simplification of the removal process will be welcomed by communities requesting the cessation of whistling through residential areas, provided of course that other safety requirements are met.
Bill C-58 will also strengthen and clarify federal regulatory powers over road crossings, including legislating ministerial authority over the construction, alteration and maintenance of such crossings, and making regulations respecting the control of vehicular and pedestrian traffic on road approaches to crossings. Cabinet will have the power to require railway companies, road authorities or persons who have rights to a crossing to conduct a safety review of that crossing following an accident.
One significant change to existing rules is the section of Bill C-58 which will authorize road authorities to enter onto any land in the vicinity of the crossing to cut down overgrown trees or brush perceived to be a hazard to safe railway operations. However, the government has neglected to tie up some loose ends pointed out to it by stakeholders in committee the last time around. Specifically, municipalities expressed concerns over potential liability. They also wanted to know who will pay for brush clearing, the local taxpayers or the railways. Good question.
In conclusion, although Bill C-58 is necessarily limited in scope, in fact most of it, if we cut through all the thickets, seems to apply in one way or another to road crossings and is a step in the right direction toward greater railway safety. Although the proposed amendments appear to be good ones, the bill is highly technical. I want to hear from the stakeholders in committee before passing judgment. I do hope that we will be given the time to do that.