Mr. Speaker, Bill C-322, which was introduced by the member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie, is based on one simple principle. It would authorize the Minister of Transport to order a rail company to construct a road crossing and authorize the payment of grants for that purpose.
This bill is about keeping Quebeckers and Canadian safe. Thousands of people are being forced to take long detours to get to work and access services. In many cases, those detours are unreasonably long, so some people avoid them by crossing the tracks where there is no crossing.
It is a simple image. What is important to understand here is that urban landscapes are constantly changing. I often use the example of a new park, where those who designed and conceived of the park planned the walkways and paved or laid stone in certain areas. A few months later, it becomes clear that the park's users have decided differently, and they create their own paths that reflect how they actually use the park. I am not saying that we should let people walk around as they wish and create the crossings afterwards, but we do need to take into account how people actually move, the development of certain neighbourhoods, and the shifts in urban landscapes so we can adapt to situations that reflect reality.
Transport Canada figures show that the risk of fatalities is twice as high at unprotected locations. In some spots, there are reports of hundreds of people every morning crossing the tracks where there is no crossing. For example, consider the railway right-of-way in Mile End in Montreal. In one day, 289 pedestrians and 81 cyclists were reported to have crossed the tracks at the wrong place, because they had no other real choice.
Despite pressure from businesses, cities, and citizens groups, railway companies often refuse to co-operate on adding crossings and yet this is critical to the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, as we just saw in the example.
The lack of safe crossings jeopardizes public safety and causes mobility problems in our communities. We New Democrats have introduced this bill because we want to improve safety for all Canadians and promote active transportation.
In its response to my colleague from Laurier—Sainte-Marie, the Liberal government seems to oppose this bill because it thinks the solution already exists under current legislation. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport said, and I quote:
...under the Railway Safety Act, the Minister of Transport has the appropriate tools and authorities to respond to safety concerns or threats to safe railway operations....It is for these reasons that the Government of Canada does not support Bill C-322.
The government would have us believe that everything is fine and that we do not need to amend the law to protect the safety of Canadians. However, nothing could be further from the truth. A Library of Parliament study shows that the Railway Safety Act is so vague and unclear that it is impossible to determine whether the transport minister does or does not have the authority to order a company to build a railway crossing under the existing legislation.
I asked the Library of Parliament to look into this because I wanted to get the most objective opinion possible on this bill and try to make sense of it. An examination of the existing legislation on railway safety shows that large sections of the text are quite vague to say the least. Actually, they are about as clear as mud.
Therefore, this is not just the opinion of the second opposition party. We are talking about the findings of a non-partisan study involving a rigorous and detailed review of the legislation. The concept of railway safety comes up at least 66 times in the act, but it is never clearly defined.
Just because the word “safety” is used so many times does not mean we have a clear understanding of what it means. Subsection 31(1) of the Railway Safety Act is very confusing because it is not clear whether the notion of railway safety is meant to be interpreted more narrowly here than in other parts of the act.
I will read subsection 31(1). I just want to warn my listeners that I might lose them here. I might even get lost myself, but that will prove my point about how the act that my colleague's bill would amend is very confusing. Here is subsection 31(1):
If a railway safety inspector is of the opinion that a person’s conduct or any thing for which a person is responsible constitutes a threat to the safety or security of railway operations or the safety of persons or property, the inspector shall inform, by notice sent to the person and to any company whose railway operations are affected by the threat, the person and the company of that opinion and of the reasons for it.
I imagine everyone gets the meaning of this paragraph. The words “or the safety of persons or property” might suggest they are there to add to the concept of the security of railway operations and therefore that the safety of persons or property is not necessarily included in that concept. What is more, nowhere else in the Railway Safety Act is the security of railway operations followed by the phrase “or the safety of persons or property”.
Let us take a deep breath and try to make sense of that. That is precisely what Bill C-322 wants to address and why it is important. It clarifies the minister's authority to order the construction of level crossings. Unfortunately, the government is hiding behind outdated regulations that prevent the minister from ordering new crossings to be built even though he has the authority to order them to be closed or modified.
Let us also admit that in reality, the public's bargaining power is disproportionate to that of the railway companies, to say the least. The agreement process for creating a level crossing is also problematic. The person submitting a proposal is supposed to negotiate an agreement directly with the railway company. If the company rejects the idea of building a new level crossing, then the applicant can call on the agency to mediate the negotiations or make an official ruling on the matter.
There is a growing number of examples of individuals, citizens groups, and municipalities pulling together to establish new road crossings, but at the end of the day, the rail company basically has the veto, and nothing happens, even though the risk to public safety, I would remind the House, is well known and even statistically proven.
The problem lies in the unequal balance of power between the parties negotiating the construction of a new crossing. When rail companies cite safety reasons, for example, to justify their refusal to install crossings without releasing the results of their safety studies, the government should have the authority to intervene to ensure public safety and to protect the public interest. That is what we are proposing in the next bill.
Unfortunately, I am running out of time, but I could have quoted many organizations that support the bill sponsored by my colleague from Laurier—Sainte-Marie. They are sending a very clear message that this is a crucial need, not only in the Montreal region, which is represented in part by my colleague from Laurier—Sainte-Marie, but also in many other parts of the country.
Indeed, as I said in the beginning, the urban landscape is constantly changing, and we need to adapt railways that have been there for more than a century to the reality of urban development.
In closing, the current situation is worrisome, and crossings need to be built in strategic locations so that pedestrians and cyclists can move around safely. Improving active transportation and people's mobility are important priorities, and this is true across Canada. This bill will help us achieve that.