Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to close this first debate on Bill C-640, VIA Rail Canada Act. This bill is very important to me personally. For one thing, it guarantees passenger rail service to my region, in the Gaspé. Regions like the Gaspé need reliable, affordable passenger rail service. In our regions, bus service is far from exemplary, and air travel is simply too expensive.
Our regions need a Canada-wide passenger rail system. It is more affordable than air travel, it is the best option for the environment, it would connect our remotest regions, and it would help develop the economies of the regions served. Let us be clear: this bill is in the best interest of our environment, our economy and our regions.
I cannot emphasize enough the benefits such a passenger rail service could have, not only in the communities that are served directly, but also for society in general. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, every dollar invested in passenger rail service produces between $3 and $4 in economic spinoffs.
However, our current system is not reaching its full potential. The status quo is simply not working. This becomes clear simply by comparing VIA Rail with the Amtrak passenger rail system in the U.S.
With Amtrak, a traveller can get from Seattle to New York in three days for the equivalent of 275 Canadian dollars, and departures are offered daily. With VIA Rail, a trip from Vancouver to Montreal takes a day longer than with Amtrak, four days in other words, and costs an extra $200, or $475. What is more, VIA Rail offers just three departures a week during the summer and only two departures in winter. In fact, it would be cheaper, better and faster to travel with Amtrak in the United States to get from Vancouver to Toronto.
In the United States, politicians of all stripes understand that a modern country cannot afford not to invest in passenger train services. In Canada, we recognize the importance of investing in public infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and fire stations. We even allocate a lot of money to road and air transport. Why then refuse to recognize the importance of passenger rail service?
It is not a question of nationalizing a private company because VIA Rail is already a crown corporation and is already subsidized by the federal government. Bill C-640 simply proposes to clarify VIA Rail's role, rights and responsibilities. Canadians deserve to know what they are getting for their investment and to have the power to ensure that their expectations will be met.
The VIA Rail Canada Act would give passenger trains priority over freight trains. This is not all that outrageous. Such a system is already in place in the United States. What is more, VIA Rail was created to free CN and CP from their obligation to provide passenger service. In return, CN and CP now allow VIA Rail to use their rail lines for a fee. It is important to note that VIA Rail pays more than Amtrak for those same rights.
Bill C-640 would allow VIA Rail Canada to negotiate on equal footing with these host railway companies and would ensure that it had scheduling preference in order to promote increased passenger use. Let us not forget that the preference of passenger trains would not apply if it were to unduly impair the freight service of a railway company. This is not about penalizing railway companies. It is simply about ensuring effective passenger transportation.
Bill C-640 would also establish a list of mandated routes. We are paying for a Canada-wide network so we expect to see a Canada-wide network, especially since the service would generate economic spinoffs in the communities being served. This model was very successful in the United States.
I would like to close by quoting the former president of Amtrak, David Gunn. He said:
No national rail passenger system in the world is profitable. Without public subsidy, there will be no passenger rail transportation systems....
We cannot get along without a national passenger rail transportation service in the 21st century. Privatizing VIA Rail is out of the question. The reason why the crown corporation was created was that the private sector was unable to provide this essential service. We must have a Canada-wide service. This bill is the first step in that direction.