Mr. Speaker, I am here today to say that I support Bill C-46.
The concern I have, both as vice-chairman of the transportation committee and one who instituted last October a motion passed by that committee with respect to rail safety, is with air, water and rail safety.
We have looked back and we have seen an increasing number of derailments across Canada, particularly in western Canada and particularly with Canadian National. We felt that it was time that we had an audit of its safety record because it appeared from the information we had that 2005 was a particularly bad year for derailments.
We have seen an example of a derailment in British Columbia, in the Cheakamus River, where the spill of caustic soda into the river basically killed the fish stocks for generations to come. We have seen an example, in the summer of 2006, where a locomotive left the tracks near Lillooet, which resulted in the death of two rail workers and the serious injury of a third. We have seen another incident in Lake Wabamun, in Alberta, where there was oil spilled into a lake. I could go on and on.
Basically, it was the trend toward those kinds of incidents that caused the previous Liberal government and the minister at that time to call for a two-phase review of rail safety, particularly of CN. One phase was to look at the issue of an actual audit of the figures and the second phase was to look at what was called the safety management system.
The reason I mention these in the context of the current bill is because these safety measures are largely what the labour concern of the workers is currently about. They have said it is not the money that they are concerned about, but it is their working conditions.
I would give the example where a decision taken by CN took away the ability of workers to phone in and say that they felt they were unfit to work on a particular shift. They work 12-hour shifts and the question is whether they get adequate time to rest before they have to take another shift as they can be called back on very short notice. They used to be able to say they did not feel fit to work as an engineer or to work as a conductor.
On most trains, and these can be trains that have anywhere from a few cars to 100-plus cars, there are two workers. There is an engineer and a conductor. So, we have two people running a train who are responsible for cars that are 130 tonnes each, in terms of loaded freight cars, and engines that are capable of producing anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 horsepower.
These trains have become a concern because of the lack of maintenance and concern about the track conditions and the rolling stock conditions as evidenced by the reports that were finally released, and these were reports that were called for by the previous government. A promise was made that these reports would be released to the public. They were not released to the public until just recently, through an access to information request. However, in that time it resulted in not only what is under the Railway Safety Act a section 31 order, which is from Transport Canada, but in fact a ministerial order, a section 32 order, where for the first time the minister himself had to order certain restrictions on the operation of CN.
The concern we have is that there have been outstanding notices on orders against the railway, 99 of them in this period and some of them in fact going back prior to the year 2000, that had not been answered.
The company claims that 2005 was a particularly bad year. Its record has improved substantially since then. However, the concern is that the level is still well above what it should be, and we see in these reports that we now have access to, phase one and phase two, that the safety issues the workers have talked about as their concerns are valid in my opinion.
We have situations where track has not been maintained properly. We have situations where the reporting of incidents is quite often mirrored on American railroad standards because they are lower than Transport Canada standards for either maintenance of cars or maintenance of engines. We have situations where 53% of the locomotives were deemed to have some kind of problem, ranging from relatively minor to inadequate braking; and that is of course what happened with the engine that jumped the track and the two men died down in Lillooet.
There was a decision, for example, when B.C. Rail, which was a relatively well managed system in the province of British Columbia, was acquired by CN. All the engines in British Columbia had dynamic brakes, a system whereby the electric motors in the trains can be reversed, or the polarity changed, and it can be used as a backup safety system to slow the train down. In fact, I am told by engineers and conductors that they can actually stop the train.
Those engines were sold. I do not know why but they were disposed of and other engines were brought in from other parts of Canada that did not have those features. In some cases there are still engines left, I gather, in which the dynamic brakes for some reason have not been adequately activated, or they have been deactivated.
I have a lot of empathy when I receive emails, letters and calls from rail workers who say that they feel concerned about their safety. That is at the heart of this discussion and the labour dispute that is currently going on.
Having said that, we have to recognize that safety is not just the safety of the rail workers, but it is also the safety of the communities through which the trains pass.
In my riding of North Vancouver we have chlorine tank cars passing through the community every day. We have seen what can happen in Mississauga with a propane tank or when there is a serious chemical spill. All we have to see is a major derailment to see how much destruction the cars can make when they scatter and the damage caused if they rupture, whether it is by a river or in a residential area, or whether it is injuries to railway workers or the public.
We have to ensure as a committee that we focus on this. The minister has commissioned a panel as well to report by October, but I do not think we can wait until October. We need to make this a high priority. Our committee began hearings yesterday and we heard from the first representative, a Mr. Gordon Rhodes, who was the lone survivor of that locomotive accident. It was very touching to hear his testimony about what it meant to him in his life and what it meant to him in terms of his concerns about safety and working on the railways. I have a lot of empathy for the workers.
On the other hand, I have to say, as the Liberal Party critic for the Pacific gateway, that I also have a concern that we continue to ensure that the movement of goods and services, both exports and imports, continue to flow because it is the economic lifeline of the country. We know, for example, that British Columbia is the gateway to the Asia Pacific which is a growing market.
Within 20 years to 25 years, it is estimated China will be either number one or tied for the number one economy in the world. We know that India has a growing economy. We know that Japan, Korea and Taiwan are economies that are important to the trade with Canada. We have to ensure that the facilitation of those goods, once they arrive at the ports, be it through truck, rail or air, is done as smoothly as possible.
We know the devastating effects of interference with that, whether it is a longshoremen or trucking strike that costs millions of dollars a week to have ships sitting idle in a harbour because they cannot be unloaded, or because of a trucking strike or a rail strike. It is just not satisfactory, let alone not being able to get Canadian goods, wheat and other products, to other parts of the world.
What will happen in the very fluid market that is international trade? The Chinese Overseas Shipping Company, COSCO, has nominated Vancouver as a port of first call. If it finds that when it has ships arrive in Vancouver, or Prince Rupert as we are growing a container port there, that it is not reliable because of a variety of reasons, it is going to end up bypassing Vancouver and will go south to Portland, Seattle or Los Angeles. We will just be out of the equation. In other words, we will cut our nose off to spite our face.
We as a government, and as a Parliament, need to ensure that there is adequate investment in port infrastructure. That includes highways, roadways and railways, and part of that aspect is to ensure that the railways are moving efficiently and safely, that we do not have derailments that can cause delays, injuries, and create the kind of tension that we are seeing currently within the CN Rail operation.
While I share and appreciate the concerns that the workers have for the issues currently part of the labour negotiations, and I have spoken with a number of them, I think there are ways in which we can deal with that through our transportation committee, through regulation, and through ensuring that the issues of rail safety are important to the government and to Canada, and that we follow through with appropriate action.
However, I believe that it is also important for the economy that we have the continuation of that service. We cannot afford to have it dismantled or disturbed and creating problems for small businesses as well as medium and large businesses who rely on imports and exports. A delay of a week or a month can be in many cases devastating for these businesses and for many other employees who are affected.
Having said that, I think the issues that have been raised with respect to the need for the back to work legislation are valid. The minister's representation earlier today stated that the discussions have been going on since last September. The contract expired in December. We have had petitions and information from businesses that are affected and from employees who are affected.
Ideally, the labour negotiation process should be allowed to work itself out, but there are some areas that are of national importance, almost what I would call an essential economic service. I feel that it is important for the government to be able to bring that stability in and to let the parties work things out in an environment that allows the service to continue. With the kind of agreement that we would have now, the back to work legislation, hopefully the union and the company will be able within the 90 days that are proposed in this bill to indeed come to a resolution, a negotiated settlement, before there is the imposition of an arbitrated settlement.
If it cannot happen, then we have to think what is good for all of Canada because it is not just British Columbia that we are talking about. We are not just talking about the port of Prince Rupert, the port of Vancouver and the businesses in B.C. We are talking about western Canada. We are talking about all across Canada.
In fact, through the rail system we move goods from Prince Rupert and Vancouver through to Chicago. We have a two day advantage on a natural sea route from Asia. We have that advantage over the U.S. We can get goods into Chicago two days faster than the Americans can by going to the U.S. ports. We need to protect that advantage and ensure that we take the steps and do what we can for a healthy economy.
Basically, what are important are the issues that the union has talked about: personal rest time and ensuring that they are safe as employees to work, that the equipment is safe, and that Transport Canada will ensure that its policies are followed to provide for a safe operation both for the employees, the railway and the communities through which it trains pass.
We have to tackle the issue of derailments. We have to tackle the issue of railway safety, but we also have to tackle the issue, as this bill proposes, to ensure that there is a continuation of those rail services and that the economic backbone of Canada, the economic spine of Canada, is maintained.
Therefore, I am pleased and prepared to support Bill C-46.