Mr. Speaker, this is the first opportunity I have had to address this House since the tragic death of our friend and colleague Benoît Sauvageau. I would therefore like, on my own behalf and that of the people of my riding, to extend my most sincere condolences to his wife, his children and his entire family. I may not know them very well personally, but I know that they are people of great courage and great value. I hope that they will find the comfort they need as they go through this difficult time. For me, as a newcomer who knew him for too short a time unfortunately, Benoît will remain a model, an example of what a parliamentarian should be. In his work, he always showed respect for others. His strength and determination were exemplary. Benoît, you will remain in my heart and thought for a very long time.
I would now like to talk about Bill C-11, specifically the annoyances caused by railways operating in residential areas. I used the term “annoyances” because, unfortunately, this bill refers only to noise. Other annoyances are caused by railway operations, and I am being extremely polite in using the term “annoyances”. I often talk with people in my riding. When I meet with them, they tell me about the horrors and the problems the railways cause them. They often use much less polite, much cruder and more colourful language, which is certainly not appropriate in this House. This problem causes a great deal of frustration.
This is especially true because railway operations take place largely in the middle of residential areas, many of which are highly populated. That is the case in my riding, especially in Pointe-Saint-Charles, but also in Saint-Henri. There are historical reasons for this, since workers would often live near the railways, marshalling yards and companies that were set up in the area.
Today, in these residential areas, obviously fewer and fewer people are employed by the railways or work at related activities, but residents are still faced with these problems, because railways are sometimes just a few metres from their homes.
We must deal with this problem now. I have divided railway annoyances into three main categories. The first is noise, obviously. Vibrations also pose a problem, but I will come back to that. With regard to noise, it is not difficult to imagine the noise a train makes as it passes by just a few metres away. This noise is even worse on curves. In Pointe-Saint-Charles and Saint-Henri, where large curves run through almost the entire area, the metal always squeals. One of my constituents told me that his dog nearly went crazy every time a train passed by. The dog would jump up and down because the sound was so loud and hard to bear, especially since the dog could likely hear sounds humans cannot hear. That proves how serious a problem this is. People are not talking to us about it on a whim.
But that is not the worst of it. There is also the problem of locomotives accelerating. Companies are always looking to improve their profit margins, so the trains are getting longer and longer and heavier and heavier. Trains now need two or even three locomotives to get them moving, and that makes a deafening noise. Some of my constituents invited me to go see a train start up in Pointe-Saint-Charles, and I have to say that the noise those diesel locomotives make is impressive and astonishing. There are no electric locomotives in my riding.
It is astonishing, and much worse than a train moving at a constant speed. But even that is not the worst of it. The clash of cars as the trains are being hooked up in the marshalling yards is even more deafening.
Nowadays, thanks to innovation, this process is automated, so the cars connect more and more violently, making even more noise. This problem is all the more worrisome because the rail yards are continually switching cars night and day. For people who are trying to sleep, this is a much greater inconvenience than a constant noise, such as a highway or a river.
There are problems. A number of rail yards in Montreal have been closed. As a result, this kind of activity is concentrated in a few spots, which aggravates the issue. Railway companies have even been using lines in the middle of residential neighbourhoods to switch cars. This means the noise problem is affecting these neighbourhoods even more.
We hear the same thing everywhere from the oldest residents of the area, those who have been there the longest. They all tell me that the noise problem is getting worse and that it is nowhere near resolved.
There are problems with noise and with vibrations. This bill does not address these problems. Often, a row of attached houses will act as a wall of sorts and block the noise for people who live in the second or third row in the block. The vibrations, however, are felt through the ground and go much further. We know that this can cause all sorts of problems—particularly problems sleeping, when the house suddenly shakes in the middle of the night. This is the first kind of problem or disturbance I have identified among my constituents.
The second kind of problem has to do with health concerns and hazardous materials. Unfortunately, issues in relation to the transport and especially the storage of such materials are not addressed in this bill. Yet, these are a major concern to my constituents.
More and more trains and tanks of hazardous materials are stored right on the tracks, either on the edge of a residential area or, in some cases, right in the middle of the neighbourhood. This is very worrisome. Perhaps the engineer in me wants to conduct a risk analysis. Personally, if I absolutely had to direct hazardous materials through a residential area—and there were no way around it—I would at least ensure that such materials would spend as little time as possible in a residential area and that they would not be stored for several hours, let alone days, on the edge of such neighbourhoods. Children playing told me that they recognized the skull and crossbones and other symbols that identify toxic and hazardous materials, because they see them on tank cars that are practically parked in their yards. This is quite worrisome.
The third group of problems I have identified relates to maintenance of the land and infrastructures owned by the railway companies in local communities. This is of particular concern because a lot of railway companies regard themselves as being above the law.
They are right, in practice, because they do not have to comply with provincial laws and municipal bylaws. However, it seems to me that as good corporate citizens they should feel a moral obligation to abide by them. That is plainly not the case, however.
Let us take ragweed for example, the plant that gives a lot of people hay fever. In Montreal, all residents are asked to remove ragweed plants growing on their property. And so people make an effort to pull out the four or five or six or even ten plants that they have on their property, while across the street or down the block they see kilometres of rail lines, huge expanses of land, with ragweed reproducing at an unbelievable rate and no one doing anything about it, and the railway companies feeling no need to do their job as a good citizen and eradicate these weeds.
There are also examples where trees and shrubs on the edge of a railway company’s property intrude on the public roadway and impede visibility for drivers and pedestrians. People in the neighbourhood ask the company to do something, but plainly no one can find a way to send an employee out for an hour or two to clean it up and solve the problem.
This lack of concern means that the railway companies do not seem to feel a need to contribute to the local community and make the site where they are operating a pleasant and peaceful place for the public as whole.
I will conclude with another example, which I am familiar with because I lived for several years in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood which the rail line crosses. When I went to catch the Metro every day, I walked under the viaduct. I would always feel a little shiver, because there were holes pretty much all over, indicating that concrete had fallen off. I was always a little afraid that a piece would fall on me. The railway company never felt a need to repair its viaduct, to reinforce it, or paint it, or cover up the graffiti.
These companies clearly feel that they are above the law.
And so, in my riding, I decided to get the public involved, the people who were living in the midst of the problem and were affected by the situation. I had an opportunity to consult with the public, sometimes formally, by holding meetings, but sometimes informally, when I went door to door or took part in various activities. Nearly 100 people gave me their formal support and asked the Conservative government to act, to enact legislation that would have teeth and that could be used to solve the problems I have described. In the course of doing this, I also met with members of the Pro-Pointe group, which works to reduce the nuisances associated with railway operations in Pointe Saint-Charles, hence the name Pro-Pointe. I also met with people outside my riding, residents of Outremont, who are having the same problems. It is quite interesting to note that ultimately, everyone is affected by this. Regardless of social class, whether someone is rich or poor, whether they live in a big house beside a railway or a little apartment near a switching yard, noise is a factor that affects everyone, that wakes everyone up, that assails everyone. It is a problem for the public as a whole.
I also discussed this problem with local elected officials in the district. They stated that they feel powerless because it is impossible for them to resolve the matter and force railway companies to observe certain standards, and also because of the lack of response and conciliation which often are required in such matters. This is the attitude of many railway companies and creates a great deal of frustration.
Many people believe that railway companies are very poor corporate citizens.
I do not know if this holds true for all railway companies. I ask for nothing better than for them to prove me wrong. But that is the general perception. For this reason, people want more than just empty words. They want a more binding law, one that has some teeth. Many believe that it is no longer possible to achieve satisfactory results by taking the traditional and simple approach of asking in good faith that railway companies do their part.
In my opinion, there is important work to be done by the committee. I urge all parliamentarians from every party to respond to our constituents' call to do something to strengthen this law. If we do and if all parties work together to improve this law and to solve these problems, the general view of politicians can only be enhanced. We will have truly helped citizens and, as you know, that is our main reason for being in this place.
What exactly should the committee do to improve this legislation? First, we have to add some muscle. I will read an excerpt from clause 95.1, which contains the main anti-noise provisions, stating:
When constructing or operating a railway, a railway company must not cause unreasonable noise, taking into account:
It is already a rather loose concept. Nonetheless, this is the first point I will make about this issue. As I was saying earlier, there are other annoyances than noise. There is also the problem of vibration, the problem of hazardous materials being stored or present on the ground. We must also include the entire issue of good corporate citizenship, the proper maintenance of the land and infrastructure in the local communities. We must find a way to include all that.
What aspects should be included to determine whether a company is making unreasonable noise? This is what it says in the subsequent clauses:
(a) its obligations under sections 113 and 114, if applicable;
(b) its operational requirements; and
(c) the area where the construction or operation takes place.
I must say, when I consulted the public, this part left them a bit perplexed to say the least. They wondered whether these provisions were for the public's benefit or for the railway companies' benefit.
Paragraph (c) says we must take into account the area where the construction or operation takes place. What conclusions will the Canadian Transportation Agency draw from this? Will it say that if a railway company is operating in a residential area it must be more careful, or will it conclude that if people live near train tracks they should expect to hear more noise, and that under the circumstances it is normal, given where they are located?
The same goes for operational requirements. There could be a potential loophole. From the moment a railway company says there are operational requirements and that it has no choice but to go through these areas in the middle of the night, to make certain manoeuvres or to store its products in a certain location, this would look like a pretext to everyone.
In my opinion, this bill is a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to do in committee. I believe that all parties have the political will and I invite everyone to make their contribution in order to make this bill more effective. Will it cover things other than noise and will it really respond to the concerns of the public who expect us to something about this?