Mr. Speaker, at the outset, I want to mention that I was interested in the comment by my hon. friend from Mississauga East—Cooksville that when he was a student, he actually worked on steam engine trains. I look forward to hearing his interesting stories about growing up in Poland, where he had that experience as a young person in university at that time. I am sure he must have some interesting stories from that experience that perhaps we will hear in the House some time or that he and I might share on another occasion.
I am happy today to have a chance to participate in the third reading debate of Bill C-52 for a number of reasons. As the critic for the Liberal Party on natural resources, I recognize that the amendments to the Canada Transportation Act and the Rail Safety Act will have a profound impact in terms of shipping critical natural resources like oil, as has been discussed here today.
Unfortunately, my view is that this inept Conservative government, this Conservative regime, has completely bungled the Keystone XL project. It has bogged down the energy east pipeline project, and it should never have ignored environmental and aboriginal concerns and rubber-stamped, as it did, the northern gateway project.
The result of this ineptitude on behalf of the government in getting any pipeline project through has created a growing reliance on rail lines to get this valuable commodity to market, and hence, of course, related concerns about railway safety. These are concerns, I should add, that are in my view completely justified, given the government's track record on railway safety over the past decade.
I am also pleased to be able to speak today, because as a Nova Scotian, I am concerned about the future of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway, which has provided more than 135 years of rail service to Cape Breton Island. It has been very important for many industries in that area. In fact, in many ways, it made those businesses able to continue to succeed and employ people and provide benefits in their communities. It should be a concern to all of us when we see that rail line in deep trouble, because it is very much threatened today.
I know that the Minister of Transport, being a transplanted Cape Bretoner, is also concerned about the future of rail service to Cape Breton Island, as are my colleagues from Sydney—Victoria and Cape Breton—Canso. I know how critical CN Rail operations are for the Port of Halifax, my home city, when it comes to moving containers, and other goods as well, to destinations throughout North America.
Atlantic Canada has a long-standing and very deep appreciation for our national railways, which have connected us to the rest of Canada for over 100 years. Whether it is VIA Rail passenger service, which has unfortunately been curtailed significantly in recent years, or freight trains rumbling through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, two beautiful provinces, of course, along with all the others, railways are a critical part of our economic infrastructure and are an economic lifeline for my region.
As an aside, I should note that I was happy recently to have the chance to take the VIA Rail train from Halifax, along with a number of MPs, to show our unwavering support for the continuation of strong passenger rail service from Atlantic Canada to Montreal. I am pleased that it appears that we succeeded and that the service will be maintained.
As the member of Parliament for Halifax West, I often get calls about CN's main line, which runs through my riding. It runs through Clayton Park, Rockingham, Birch Cove, and right through the heart of Bedford. In fact, I can hear the train whistle from my backyard and often hear the train rumbling by at different times of the day and night.
When I am canvassing in my riding, which I do regularly, I also hear concerns from constituents about issues like the fact that they do not always know what is being shipped through the community on those railway cars, and that can be of great concern. Perhaps they are worried about the state of the maintenance of the tracks and overpasses that are part of the system.
I had a recent example of a rail safety concern, raised by a constituent, regarding the maintenance of culverts and overpasses. When we think about rail safety, we normally think of what happened in Lac-Mégantic. We think of toxic or explosive materials being carried in railway cars. We do not think of something as simple as a culvert under a railway.
In fact, I had a call from a constituent about the fact that a culvert under the tracks in Bedford was getting clogged with debris and was causing flooding.
In my province of Nova Scotia, we had a rough winter, but we also have the experience normally of temperatures going up and down in the winter. It can be very mild one day and very cold the next. We can imagine that if a culvert backed up, there could be a substantial amount of ice developing on a railway. It is a pretty scary prospect in the middle of a community if there could be a derailment. That is something that was important to deal with. In fact, I worked with Canadian National Railway and with the City of Halifax to get the culverts cleared, which they were. It brought to light a conflict about who was responsible for the maintenance of culverts and overpasses and what impact they can have on rail safety. It is an aspect we would perhaps not think of normally.
Like all Liberal members in this place, I share Canadians' deep concern about rail safety in this country. My friend from Trinity—Spadina spoke earlier to Bill C-52, and he spoke eloquently about the issue of rail safety being paramount in his riding, which has some of the busiest tracks in Canada. He noted the ongoing challenge of trying to moderate the speed of trains in his community, something my hon. colleague from Mississauga East—Cooksville was talking about a few minutes ago, and of trying to get a handle on the dangerous goods that travel through some of the most densely populated areas of this country.
We also know the real safety solution for this is one that pushes the issue into another realm of debate. Solutions include shorter trains, more highly regulated chemicals in those trains, perhaps transporting the diesel and the highly volatile chemicals only in the new and improved rail cars, and until that happens much lower speed limits being imposed.
The member for Trinity—Spadina also commented on the fact that during the recent by-election in his riding, the New Democrats claimed that they did not support any pipelines in Canada and that their preference was to ship everything by rail. I heard earlier today my hon. colleague for York South—Weston suggest that the oil that is being transported by rail could not be transported by pipeline. That is the first I have ever heard that suggestion. As the critic in my party for natural resources, I have been hearing and reading a lot about this subject of oil and gas and so forth for quite a while now, so I would be curious to hear what kind of oil it is he is saying cannot be transported by pipeline.
They do not say to just establish a responsible situation in terms of pipelines, where we have rigorous reviews, proper environmental assessments, community involvement and support, and consultation with first nations and if it passes all that, okay.
We do need pipelines in this country, and we use lots of products that move through pipelines. The NDP's attitude seems to be no pipelines whatsoever under any circumstances.
Of course, then we have the Conservatives, who say that any pipeline in any circumstance is fine. It is an interesting dichotomy.
Let us get back to Bill C-52. This legislation is about two things: first, changing the way we establish minimum insurance levels for railway companies that are regulated by the federal government; second, creating a new compensation fund that would cover damages arising from railway accidents involving the transportation of certain kinds of dangerous goods.
Rail safety has, of course, become a profoundly important issue for Canadians since Lac-Mégantic, and the Conservative government has been slow to react. It has come out with a series of dribs and drabs and a slow release of technical and regulatory amendments in bills like Bill C-52.
The sad truth is that the government's attempts to improve rail safety are in part its reaction to the horrific train explosion at Lac-Mégantic, where so many innocent people lost their lives and so many families were touched by tragedy. I know every member in this House was saddened and horrified by happened in Lac-Mégantic.
This legislation is dubbed the safe and accountable rail act. It is always interesting the names the Conservatives come up with. I think they sometimes spend more time figuring out what attractive names to use for their bills than they do actually thinking about the contents of the legislation.
This bill would amend two other acts, the Canada Transportation Act and the Railway Safety Act. With respect to the Canada Transportation Act, Bill C-52 would strengthen the liability and compensation regime for federally regulated railway companies. It would do this by establishing minimum insurance levels for railway companies and a supplementary shipper finance compensation fund. This fund would cover damages resulting from railway accidents involving the transportation of certain dangerous goods.
Among other things, the amendments would establish minimum insurance levels for freight railway operations based on the type and volume of goods being transported. They would require the holder of a certificate of fitness to maintain liability insurance coverage as required by the act and to notify the Canadian Transportation Agency without delay if its insurance coverage was affected. Certainly that makes sense.
The amendments would establish that a railway company was liable, without proof of fault or negligence, subject to certain defences, for losses. There would be be absolute liability 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. The amendments would also establish a compensation fund in the accounts of Canada, financed by levies on shippers, to cover the losses, damages, costs, and expenses resulting from a railway accident involving crude oil or designated goods that exceeded the minimum liability insurance coverage.
This bill would also amend the Railway Safety Act to, among other things, allow a province or municipality that incurred costs in responding to a fire that was the result of a railway company's operations to apply to the Canadian Transportation Agency to have those costs reimbursed by the railway company.
It would clarify the cabinet's power to make regulations regarding the restriction and prevention of access to land on which a line of railway was situated, including by means of fences or signs. In other words, it would make that area safer so that people would not go on the line and perhaps intentionally cause harm or be in a situation where they might be harmed themselves. It would also authorize a railway safety inspector who was satisfied that there was an immediate threat to the safety or security of railway operations to order a person or company to take any measures the inspector specified to mitigate the threat.
It would authorize the minister to require a company, road authority, or municipality to take corrective measures the minister specified were necessary for safe railway operations. It would provide the cabinet with regulation-making power regarding the submission of information that was relevant to the safety of railway operations. Finally, it would authorize the minister to order a company that was implementing its safety management system in a manner that risked compromising railway safety to take necessary corrective measures.
While Bill C-52 and other legislation address some of the measures the Liberal Party has been calling for in this area, in my view, they fall short of the Conservative government's promise to ensure the safety and integrity of Canada's railway system.
The facts speak for themselves. We saw three new derailments in February and March in Ontario alone.
Canadians have been duped with a piecemeal approach to rail safety. This latest bill is just the latest example of a government that still fails to take rail safety seriously. How else can we explain the fact that Transport Canada's rail safety division is understaffed, underfunded, and undertrained? It has been the victim of a revolving door of Conservative ministers, with five ministers in nine years.
Transport Canada is filled with very good public servants who are dedicated to ensuring the safety and integrity of our railway system. Make no mistake about that. However, it is too bad the government does not have the same level of integrity and commitment. As my colleague from Ottawa South, the Liberal Party transport critic, has noted in his comments on this bill, rail safety funding is down 20% over the last five years. During this period, when we have had so much more concern about rail safety, the Conservative government has cut funding for rail safety by 20%. How does that match the rhetoric from that side of the House?
Let me quote my hon. colleague from Ottawa South. He said:
What the Conservatives are doing by subterfuge, by stealth, by miscommunicating, by misleading Canadians, frankly, is they are trying to create an impression that they are on top of this profoundly important public safety issue called rail safety. They are not.
I wish the minister would listen to my hon. colleague from Ottawa South on this file, and listen to witnesses who appeared at committee to offer constructive criticism of Bill C-52. A number of key expert witnesses testified that they had never been properly consulted by the government regarding this legislation. At committee, they expressed profound questions about the insurance implications, distributive effects, employment implications, and trade competitiveness implications of this bill. Unfortunately, these concerns seemed to fall on deaf ears.
It is important to note that this comes at a time when Transport Canada has a lot of catching up to do since its budget was slashed by $202 million in the main estimates, which is 11%. These cuts follow a scathing Auditor General's report, which noted among other things that the government only performed 26% of planned audits. It did not audit VIA Rail at all, despite VIA carrying four million passengers per year. Would VIA Rail passengers, as many of us are—and I hope more Canadian will be—not like to know that at least someone once in a while audits to make sure that the required rail safety measures are in fact being followed? The fact that this is not happening with Transport Canada's audits is very disconcerting, but it is no wonder when the government is cutting the funds to do just that.
We need to recognize that there is a capacity deficit, and we need to ask what the government's real priorities are. Let us consider these two facts. On the one hand, the Conservative regime has budgeted $42 million for economic action plan advertising. Everyone has seen these wasteful ads and vanity videos. On the other hand, the funding for rail safety is $34 million. Here we have it: $42 million for partisan self-promotional advertising, and only $34 million for rail safety. How is that for priorities? This sadly indicates the misguided priorities of a failed government corrupted by 10 years in power.
My colleague from Ottawa South said that he asked the minister 10 times in committee why she cut Transport Canada's budget by 11%, and she denied the cuts every time he asked. However, the Parliamentary Budget Officer says that those are the numbers. Therefore, it is clear that the Conservatives have made some very poor choices and have their priorities badly skewed.
The Conservatives' failure is amplified by the fact that the Auditor General's report also revealed that the government does not have enough inspectors and system auditors to carry out critical safety functions. That is extremely alarming: not enough inspectors and not enough system auditors. This is rail safety that we are talking about. It is ironic that at the same time as the government has failed to provide adequate resources to ensure we have the safest rail system in the world, its failed pipeline policies have resulted in more oil being shipped by rail, thus adding to the potential for serious accidents.
Let me wrap up by saying that Canada was unified by our national railway, and many of us in Atlantic Canada and across our great land continue to live near the same rail lines. Many of us live in communities that grew up around rail lines. It is the federal government's responsibility to ensure the safety of people who travel on rails, live adjacent to railway tracks, and operate trains.
Although this bill does not go nearly far enough to protect Canadians, it does at least contain measures that Liberals have been calling for. We appreciate that. The Liberal Party will continue to pressure the government to make a greater effort to ensure rail safety is its top priority.