Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate my colleague for his tireless leadership on the rail issue, his involvement in the rail caucus and everything he does to try to improve rail and rail safety in the country.
It is certainly a shock that today a country as vast as Canada still does not have a high-speed rail link. We are even having trouble speaking about a higher speed rail, which would involve getting rid of level crossings in some of the corridors. This would help to improve rail safety.
With its far-flung population centres and vast land mass, Canada is unique in its geography. As such, our railways have always been an integral part of how we connect with each other across this massive country. Railways are not just a means of transportation, they tie us together at a much deeper level, as many of the speeches today have done, in particular, the member for Timmins—James Bay's speech just a while ago.
I know a great number of members in the House, myself included, rely on VIA Rail as a means to getting to and from our constituencies. In just the one year since I was elected I have already travelled over 25,000 kilometres on our rail network.
Railways are used every single day by thousands of people and it has been this way for hundreds of years now. The benefit of railways are clear. Trains are substantially more fuel efficient than motor vehicles when it comes to moving passengers, and especially cargo, over great distances. Of course, by potentially electrifying rail lines, greenhouse gas emissions could also be reduced in the coming years.
Despite the shortcomings of safety regulations, travelling by train is still roughly five times safer than using a car. It is still the main mode of transportation for Canadian goods. With 70% of all freight in our country shipped by rail, it is literally the backbone of our economy. Every interruption to our rail network comes at great cost to our economy. Rail lines provide crucial links to our biggest trade partner, the United States, and of course also connect to our ports in Halifax, Vancouver and Churchill, to provide access to important overseas markets for Canadian companies.
In large urban centres, commuting by rail is a vital component of our public transit networks, helping to get millions of Canadians to their workplaces every single day. VIA Rail connects to our country's most vibrant cities, carrying more than four million passengers a year. It could do a lot more with more government support.
The Railway Safety Act was implemented in 1989. It sets out a regulatory framework to address, for railways under federal jurisdiction, matters of safety, security and environmental impact. Transport Canada has noted that the Canadian rail industry has changed significantly since the act was amended in 1999. Operations have become increasingly complex and traffic is growing rapidly.
The department points out that in February 2007, the minister of transport, infrastructure and communities launched a full review of the operation and efficiency of the Railway Safety Act through an independent advisory panel. According to the department, the findings indicated that although the Railway Safety Act is fundamentally sound and efforts have been made to improve rail safety, more certainly needs to be done. The advisory panel's final report, Stronger Ties - A Shared Commitment to Railway Safety, published in November 2007, included 56 recommendations for the improvement of rail safety, some of which require further legislative changes to the Railway Safety Act. Then in 2008, the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities issued its own report, which included an additional 14 recommendations.
On February 26, 2012, a VIA Rail train derailed in Burlington, Ontario, killing three VIA employees and injuring 42 passengers. We are still in the early stages of investigation but the indications would seem to suggest that speed and a lack of signals inside the train may have played a role. The crash reinforced what the NDP has long said, that although railways in Canada are relatively safe, tragic accidents can and do still occur. These preventable accidents should be avoided at all costs.
The federal government has a key role to play in the effort to make train travel safer. Federal initiatives, like Bill S-4, would go a long way toward making train travel safer for passengers and rail employees. However, other initiatives, like the NDP's call for positive train control and calls for the Conservatives to reverse their cuts to VIA Rail and transport safety programs, including rail safety, would also help to create a safer rail system.
While we applaud the eventual passage of Bill S-4, it is unacceptable that the bill and the important provisions it contains has taken so long. Now more than ever we need to see these changes realized. The NDP welcomes the bill and we see it as a step forward for Canada's rail safety. However, it is time for the Conservative government to take action and satisfy the long-standing demands from the independent experts at the Transportation Safety Board. More talk is not what we need. Action is what we want.
By the time the bill is passed, it will have been five years since the recommendations of those experts were first published. That is too long when making changes where safety is concerned. Canadians are demanding that we make the railway safer and we are more than happy to oblige.
We are happy to see the bill before the House, but it is a pity that it has not been a priority of the Conservative government, the government that likes to boast that it is the champion of the safety of Canadians. Let it try to say that to the families and victims of the derailment in Burlington, or to the families who lost their homes in St-Charles-de-Bellechasse in 2010.
The safety of Canadians is important. The bill is needed for railway workers, passengers on the trains and people who live near railway lines. It is also important to our economy, as I said before. Every disruption to the rail network potentially affects millions of dollars worth of goods and time.
The government likes to advocate for smaller government and for getting the government out of everyone's business. Large oil companies and their employees, the shippers that use the rail lines, citizens who live near the railways and passengers who travel by train would all disagree. They understand that government does have a role to play. It has a role to play as a regulator and protector to ensure the safety of all Canadians. It is a shame that it has taken the Conservative government so long to provide this measure that would ensure safety is enhanced, and it could go further.
Unfortunately, in the ideological zeal of the government, safety and well-being are often left to free market forces to decide. The government expects industry to regulate itself, but that rarely happens and so unnecessary accidents and tragedies occur.
I would like to now focus on some propositions we have made since the bill was introduced.
The first proposition from our party is that the government should not cut safety from its budget. The upcoming budget would cut money that could go toward safety. The parliamentary secretary mentioned that the amount of money spent on something should not be the measure of its effectiveness. Yet the people who enforce safety regulations and who have developed new safety systems need to be paid. They need to be remunerated for their work and it is not work that anybody can do. It takes experts to do this work. We cannot shortchange them. Nor can we cut corners in this area. When corners are cut on safety, we see the results. People who work in the transportation sector say that it jeopardizes safety. The government cannot say it defends safety on the one hand and then cut safety with the other.
We also ask that the proposed cuts of $200 million to VIA Rail be reversed. VIA Rail has challenges and it needs to implement certain systems.
The NDP would like positive train control implemented in Canada. It was done in the United States. In California there was a tragic accident in 2008 and the leaders decided that positive train control should become part of the system. There are positive benefits to implementing it. Yes, it is costly, but there are companies in Canada that contribute to this technology. Therefore, investing in this technology to improve safety would also be an investment in our economy. It would stimulate the innovators who contribute to positive train control and other technologies that make our railways safer.
We would also like to see voice recorders in locomotives. This would help to find out what happened when things went wrong. When there is an accident, it is in the interest of everyone to find out the full story of what happened so things can be improved in the future.
We must always be vigilant in working to ensure that we never take our hands off and that we are always working to ensure that life becomes safer for Canadians as they travel, going about doing their business and contributing to the economy.