Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate the NDP member for Churchill for her excellent speech. She gave an accurate description of the facts that we see in outlying regions.
I am happy to have an opportunity to talk about the importance of re-establishing the funding requested by VIA Rail, as laid out in the main estimates for 2003-04.
In April 2000, the Government of Canada made an historic announcement to maintain national rail travel by investing $401.9 million in major capital projects by VIA Rail to modernize the corporation and make it more attractive and reliable for Canadians. This investment was to be made over a five-year period, from 2000 to 2005.
This investment was in addition to the commitment made by the Government of Canada to provide VIA with long-term, stable funding of $171 million per year over the next ten years, until 2010.
The reason VIA has had good budgets in recent years is because of the whole support team, the VIA Rail team, with people like Jean Pelletier, Marc LeFrançois, and all of the employees. It is not just because of the president. The president relies on employees to budget during the year.
Since this announcement, the House approved the main estimates for VIA Rail for fiscal 2000-01, 2001-02, and 2002-03. The capitalization plan for $401.9 million is part of the funding approved for 2000-01. A reduction in the funding requested for the current fiscal year will have a significant impact on the ongoing implementation of this investment, depriving Canadians from all regions of improved passenger rail service.
I want to touch briefly on the scope of the benefits resulting from this investment.
The 2000 announcement preceded the renaissance of passenger rail service in Canada. It was made in response to recommendations made by the Standing Committee on Transport, which asked the government to provide long-term stable support to meet the objectives for passenger rail service in Canada.
The new money was to be spent in key areas such as renewing the rail fleet, modernizing train stations, improving infrastructure, signalling along the Quebec City-Windsor corridor and implementing a environmental waste management system for the current fleet.
This five-year investment demonstrated the government's long-term commitment to maintaining a national passenger rail service, a service that linked the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to Hudson's Bay, a truly Canadian service.
It must also be kept in mind that VIA Rail has been trying for some years to improve its service in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, or in other words that part of its route that runs from Montreal to La Tuque and Senneterre. The train stops at Senneterre, but VIA Rail has been doing its level best to improve its service to the Val-d'Or to Rouyn-Noranda sector and Northern Ontario. They are currently being blocked by Canadian National. As hon. members may know, VIA Rail leases the track in certain sectors, but at present CN is charging VIA too much for using its tracks, and thus is blocking the plans for Senneterre—Val-d'Or and Val-d'Or—Rouyn-Noranda.
We all know that our national railways have always made a contribution to the building of this nation. Here in Canada rail is a vital link, not only geographically, but also historically. It is also vital for our very identity as Canadians. The investment of $401.9 million is helping to strengthen those ties by providing Canadians with a revitalized VIA Rail service, a truly Canadian service.
Canada has many transportation challenges facing it, one of the greatest of which is to provide Canadians with a safe, economical and ecological alternative to automobile travel between cities. This is a promise other countries have already kept, particularly in Europe and Asia.
One excellent solution to the congestion we see daily on our city and suburban streets and our highways is to encourage people to leave their cars behind and take the train. Rail travel can also help us reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in Canada because it is far less polluting than the automobile. Since over one-quarter of our emissions are from transportation, any measure we can adopt to encourage a more environmentally friendly option will be welcome.
For many Canadians in the north or in distant regions of this country, rail transportation is essential, particularly in places where there are no other options.
The hon. member for Churchill, from the NDP, said a while ago that the remote regions were important. The transportation system has to be efficient for the whole population.
For 20 years, VIA Rail has offered travellers economical, high quality, safe and reliable transportation.
In recent years, VIA Rail has done excellent work to reduce and control its costs, while maximizing its revenues, providing high quality service and relying on the inherent market forces of passenger rail service as one of the safest and most efficient means of transportation.
In the past 10 years, VIA Rail has worked hard to support the government's efforts to put its financial house in order. Its success is due to the whole VIA Rail team, as I was saying, from the president to the passenger service agent on the platform.
VIA Rail has considerably reduced its operating costs and increased its revenues. VIA Rail now produces twice the revenue with each train and does it at lower cost, offering what is arguably the best service in its history.
The figures attest to this. Since 1990, VIA Rail has worked hard to cut over $250 million from its annual budget, and it has done so while continuing to improve its services and add new products.
In 2002, its revenues were more than $270 million, $17 million more than the previous fiscal year. It achieved this despite the fact that government funding to VIA was at an all-time low, at 63% of 1990 levels.
Last year, VIA Rail had over four million passengers and registered 948 million passenger miles, for its best performance in a decade.
These figures testify to the enormous potential for future growth. However, this potential can only be properly tapped with the help of this significant and urgent investment in operating funds announced in 2000. That is why it is essential to re-establish the funding requirements for VIA Rail as set out in the Main Estimates.
The $401.9 million investment, along with the annual $171 million in subsidies to VIA Rail, put a stop to the deterioration of passenger rail service and gave VIA Rail the means it needed to operate safely and efficiently in the coming years.
VIA's capital investment program responds to the growing demand for a modern, efficient, coast-to-coast passenger rail service. It will provide modern equipment, better infrastructure, better station facilities, improved safety and environmental practices—all as part of a truly modern network of services linking communities across the country, provided CN allows VIA to use its tracks at a lesser cost.
VIA has purchased 139 ultra-modern, state-of-the-art passenger cars, expanding its total fleet by one third. The first new passenger cars were introduced on the Enterprise, the Montreal-Toronto overnight service, in June 2002.
VIA is also undertaking a complete overhaul and refurbishment of rail diesel cars used on Vancouver Island and in northern Ontario. The refurbished equipment will dramatically improve the reliability and comfort of these services.
Infrastructure improvements have already been made on rail lines between Montreal and Ottawa. These improvements will shorten the trip between Montreal and Ottawa by 25 minutes. The trip can now be made in 1 hour and 35 minutes.
VIA's capital investment program produces results for Canadians across the country. Improved facilities, better infrastructure, and new equipment will have a dramatic impact across VIA’s entire network.
By ensuring the continuity of the capital investment plan, Canadians will enjoy better access to trains across the network, more frequent, faster services, refurbished stations, and modern, comfortable equipment.
The Government of Canada, as most other countries, uses public funds because it owes it to the taxpayer, who has been subsidizing passenger rail service for many years, to do its best to make good on their investment by providing them with an attractive method of transportation that they will want to use.
This new major investment will provide the country with a national passenger rail service that is worthy of the 21st century, and one that all Canadians will be proud of.
Restoring the levels of funding requested in the main estimates will ensure that the promises made to Canadians in 2000 will be kept.