Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of Bill C-52, an act to amend the Canada Transportation Act and the Railway Safety Act. The bill is returning to us from committee where we heard testimony from witnesses, representatives like Safe Rail Communities in the Toronto area, who share the NDP's view that “Although it has some promising elements...Bill C-52 could go further to ensure safety and accountability”.
Opportunities were missed here, but nevertheless I stand in support of the bill in light of the need for an immediate response to rail safety issues in Canada.
As I have mentioned in the House before, the growing frequency of train derailments since the disaster in Lac-Mégantic has led to many Conservative promises to rectify shortcomings with safety inspections and rail safety compliance measures. The Conservatives have yet to honour that commitment, and the bill goes nowhere near what they need to do to honour those commitments.
With three train derailments occurring in the span of a month last year, this is a pressing issue. It is one that the government has been scrambling to catch up with and has still not caught up.
So far, these accidents have occurred in rural areas. As the critic for urban affairs, I would note that the bill would do little to alleviate the costs and the human tragedy inevitably associated with a derailment in one of our big cities, one of our dense urban communities in this country.
Starting with the Liberal government, in 1999, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have let companies self-regulate and self-inspect their equipment and railway lines. This approach is clearly not working.
The bill put forward by the minister is an effort to address some of the liability and accountability issues associated with rail safety. It proposes several necessary fixes, but it is just a start.
It appears to me that the government is in no hurry to catch up on rail safety issues. We heard the member across the aisle today talking about the need for more study, while communities across this country are anxious about dangerous goods being transported by rail quite literally through their backyards.
The bill sets out to provide some compensation for victims of derailments after the fact. It is as if the government has accepted the inevitability of train derailments in this country. We not only need stronger laws, but we need stronger enforcement of laws and regulations, and we need penalties on those who break them.
It is clear to us and to experts such as the Transportation Safety Board that the government has very serious problems in terms of oversight inspections and audits. Nevertheless, the proposed changes in the bill remain necessary, and while not fully or nearly adequate, they have the support of this side of the House.
Bill C-52 sets out to do three main things. It requires minimum insurance levels for railways transporting dangerous goods. It establishes a disaster relief fund paid for by crude oil shippers to compensate victims of derailments, provinces, and municipalities, and it gives more authority to the minister, cabinet, and railway safety inspectors.
With respect to minimum insurance levels, the bill provides for a legislated minimum insurance coverage of $25 million for railway companies transporting minimal quantities of dangerous goods, and up to a maximum of $1 billion for railways that are transporting substantial quantities of dangerous goods. Railway companies will be liable for losses, damages, costs, and expenses resulting from a railway accident involving crude oil or other designated goods, up to the level of the company's minimum liability insurance coverage.
Based on the costs of train derailments like that in Lac-Mégantic, these measures appear to be justified.
After that disaster, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway exhausted its insurance coverage of only $25 million and went bankrupt. Yet damages paid by taxpayers with respect to that derailment have been to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Quebec government has estimated that the total cost will be well over $400 million.
The second thing the bill sets out to do is establish a pooled disaster relief fund to be made available if the minimum insurance levels are insufficient or exceeded. While this is a step forward, there are outstanding concerns that this also may not be sufficient in the event that another major disaster, particularly in an urban area.
When it comes to disaster relief, the first responders on the scene will inevitably be firefighters and sometimes the police. For that reason, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs asked that the committee consider a mechanism to fund training, such as through a small allocation of the disaster relief fund, since the bill did not address the serious firefighter training gap that currently existed in Canada. Indeed, equipping and supporting municipal first responders to rail emergencies is of the utmost importance, yet this important aspect is not addressed by the bill and there is no ability to fund training out of this pooled fund.
When my colleague from Brossard—La Prairie followed up at committee on the recommendation from the fire chiefs to use this relief fund to pay for this training, representatives from Transport Canada admitted that the resources had not been a key focus at this point of this bill, but that those questions would come up as they “work through the ways in which we can improve the system as a set of jurisdictions and responsible authorities”.
This is evidence of the government being excessively casual on this pressing issue of public safety. It reveals a lack of urgency from the government. It is a case of the Conservatives making promises but not following up with the necessary resources to back those promises up. It was the same lack of urgency exhibited by the minister in her recent announcement that Canadians would have to wait a full 10 years for the phase out of the dangerous railcars. That is far too long.
On the issue of authority to the minister, cabinet and railway safety inspectors, the bill implements a number of changes to the Railway Safety Act that would give more authority to the minister. As my colleague from York South—Weston has pointed out in practical terms, these are not real. However, railway safety inspectors would be authorized to order a person or company to take any measure they deemed necessary to mitigate a threat to the safety or security of railway operations. Therefore, providing extra authority to railway safety inspectors is a positive and gets us back to where authority ought to lie for safety, with the government and the inspectors it hires rather than safety management systems.
The amendments would also authorize the minister to order a company that was implementing its safety management system in a manner that risked compromising railway safety to take the necessary corrective measures. However, as my colleague has pointed out, it is not clear how the minister will understand or come to know what is in those safety management systems to act on those. Clearly, the missed opportunity here is that of increasing the number of inspectors. Since 2013, Transport Canada has hired just one additional rail safety inspector even though the amount of oil by rail has more than doubled in the last two years.
While the government has a responsibility to ensure that tragedies like Lac-Mégantic never happen again, we do want to ensure that railways have enough insurance to cover all costs in the event of a disaster, and the bill would do that.
Clearly, there is more to do. One of the things that is missing from the bill is defining “fatigue science” in the Railway Safety Act. It is our worry that its absence will not ensure that fatigue management is based on science. Fatigue has been said to be one of the contributing factors for train derailments. Therefore, the fact that the Conservatives refuse to do something about this issue is quite puzzling and disturbing.
On the environmental side, we want to see the polluter pays principle applied to ensure that the total environmental and cleanup costs of rail accidents are borne by the industry and not downloaded onto the taxpayers.
The most important thing, however, is that we pass this bill before the next election to ensure we take at least a small step forward, even though that step is inadequate.