Mr. Speaker, I am going to take a break from these rather technical discussions to talk a little about philosophy. I would submit that we sometimes have to look to philosophy to light our way and our common future.
We are considering a bill that deals with railway safety. The railways are inextricably connected with the building of this country. They are the key factor in the marriage of diverse regions that we call Canada.
Canadians and members of this chamber will know that any marriage that is successful is based on trust. It is the essential element of any good relationship. When one loses that element of trust, that foundation, no matter what we build on top of it, the relationship will crumble.
Many will say that we are past the days of railways and have moved on to other more flashy, more attractive means of transportation. We must not forget that railways are still a foundation of our nation and of our economy. Canadians need to trust that rail will always be there.
This bill is an important part of building Canadians' trust in our railways. I want to turn to the issue of trust in terms of the presence of rail rather than the security.
Too often, in the past, railway service has been a favourite spot for making cuts. In 1981, Prime Minister Trudeau made cuts to popular VIA Rail lines. His government reduced the operations of VIA Rail, a crown corporation, by 40%. When the Mulroney government came to power it restored the services that had been cut. However, heavy rail traffic resulted in one of the most tragic accidents in Canadian history: the collision of a VIA Rail train with a CN train in Hinton, Alberta. Twenty-three people died. That is one of the reasons behind the bill we are considering today.
Cuts were made to VIA Rail in 1989, 1994 and 2003.
Canadians love the train, but they think service is not as reliable as it should be. To restore confidence, there have to be investments and improvements in terms of administration.
I return here to the analogy of a marriage in the specifics of the bill before us. In any marriage, people make vows, usually with the intention of creating a bond that will last a lifetime. In the day to day, people make negotiations and compromises. Now the vows, negotiations and compromises do not mean very much if one of the parties does not intend on enforcing or following the rules.
That is why those provisions in Bill S-4, which touch upon enforcement, are important. Time will tell if the judicial penalties are effective. I believe it is important to pass this bill as soon as possible but I must admit to a bit of skepticism that it will solve all railway safety problems.
I believe the government's work in this area is not over and we will see in the years to come what other measures will be necessary. There are many tools in building trust so that Canadians feel safe about their railways. Mandatory voice recorders in locomotives, for instance, would be a beginning.
Another thing that would be helpful is separating out elements of budget bills so that proper debate and discussion could take place about security. Instead, the government goes on with its infantile method of putting everything into a omnibus bill and then claiming that we vote against particular provisions.
I will return once again to the marriage analogy. It is like the government is a cheating spouse and we, the opposition, who want to make this work, just want to search through the credit card records to find the hotel where our partner made a dalliance. Instead, we get flooded with all the household bills and office papers and are told that we are never supportive. It is bad faith.
The government should accept criticism where criticism is due instead of using this infantile “You voted against it” line. Canadians are intelligent. They see through this kind of politics.
As well, we have heard rumours that VIA Rail is going to be privatized. We often hear this government, and in particular the minister, proclaim that they do not interfere in the affairs of a private company. We can therefore expect this legislation to be meaningless, since it is coupled with that ideology of non-intervention in regulation of the private sector.
I am still skeptical about the effectiveness of enforcing a law like this. The government has already shown that it is powerless against the private sector. We hope it will change its mind in the case of railway safety. I would remind the minister that it is the job of government to provide services to the public, for the public welfare, and that this must be done responsibly. Sometimes the government does not believe in its own laws, as was the case with the 1988 Public Participation Act.
The minister has said before:
Railways are the backbone of our economy. As such, they are an important part of our history and our future. It is our shared responsibility to ensure they remain safe.
We in the NDP certainly agree.
I would like to conclude by talking about something important to many people in my home town of Saint-Lazare. It touches regulation directly.
Presently we do not have a mechanism which would get municipalities and rail companies to sit together and discuss issues such as vibrations caused by the speed of trains as well as a panoply of other issues. I have spoken with citizens and with rail company officials. They both tell me that they would like to see a mechanism through which dialogue could take place and that the federal government could play a role in this process. Bill S-4 does not have this provision.
These issues, the relationships between the municipalities and rail companies, directly affect the ridings of Vaudreuil-Soulanges and Glengarry—Prescott—Russell. The head of operations at VIA Rail, Mr. Marginson, indicated that there are 98 level crossings between Coteau and Ottawa.
Currently, companies are forced to contact private landowners if they wish to close a level crossing. The government must play a role to avoid the kind of conflicts and economic repercussions that are often the result of these disputes.
We all have the tools we need, but what is lacking is the political will to use them, because of this government's ideology and its belief that the state should not intervene.
I quote Mr. Cliff Mackay from the Railway Association of Canada, who said this about Bill C-33, the earlier bill:
Increased proximity between rail operations and everyday life in our communities across Canada is a risk factor that must be addressed to improve rail safety. We believe that Bill C-33 can be strengthened in this area. At the centre of these concerns involving proximity between railway lands and municipal development is the wide variation that exists across Canada with respect to land use planning regulations....Bill C-33 is silent on this issue at this time.
Unfortunately Bill S-4 remains silent on this issue as well.
We will support the bill but, as I said before, there are places where it could be improved.
Recommendation 34 that was made would require a process of consultation, which would have been an effective tool in reducing use conflicts and in turn increasing safety. Education campaigns are fine, but they rarely do the whole job.
Cliff Mackay also said:
We believe that one of the most efficient ways of improving railway safety in this area is to give the Governor in Council the power to make regulations respecting notices that should be given to railways regarding the establishment of a local plan of subdivision, or zoning by-law, or proposed amendments thereto, where the subject land is within 300 metres of a railway line or railway yard. We believe the 300 metres is a distance that makes sense from a safety point of view.
In terms of jurisdictional questions of this quote, they do it already in the air, not exact, for air infrastructure. Why not for rail? I admit maybe 300 metres is excessive. It could be less, but it was not really even discussed in a serious way, either as Bill C-33 or in its present incarnation, as Bill S-4.
For Pete's sake, all the companies were asking was that municipalities send a notice of when they were going to make changes that would fall within the area of this rail corridor. They were not even asking for any sort of decision on these questions. Those companies are forced to go to 10 provinces and 3 territories to negotiate an agreement with each one. It could be so much more simple and effective. That is what good governance means. It means the federal government takes its role seriously in bringing the country together.
In the future I hope the government will move from merely being a force for awareness of these issues to being a responsible public administrator that ensures that marriage between Canadians and their railway lines remains healthy for generations to come.