Mr. Speaker, this is a bill which I feel I have to be more vigilant about, because it concerns me. I am the member of Parliament for a riding where rail transport issues are very important, and my constituents are really anxious for certain irritants to be resolved.
When I read Bill C-44, I can see that the government is trying to substantially improve the legislation. We must recognize that there is a lot of room for improvement at present. If passed, this bill will amend the Canada Transportation Act and the Railway Safety Act. It will also enact the VIA Rail Canada Act and make amendments to other acts directly affected by the new provisions we are about to vote on to ensure that the efforts put into this will not be thwarted by any contradictions.
In principle, the Bloc Québécois is in favour of Bill C-44. Without overlooking the legislation as a whole, my remarks will focus mainly on rail transport because, as I indicated, this is an issue that is very important to the riding of Lévis—Bellechasse.
There are three major rail transport issues in my riding, including the riding's largest city, Lévis. Needless to say that the infamous engine whistle is extremely disruptive, especially in the middle of the night. In the daytime, it is bearable, but at night, it often lasts longer than necessary and is even less desirable.
In my humble opinion, the legislation should encourage railway companies to leave the 19th and 20th century behind and resolutely move into the 21st century. There are now alternatives to whistling to announce an incoming train and make railway crossings safe. What once was necessary no longer is, especially since the population in urban centres has grown tremendously and railway traffic has increased outrageously in frequency.
In this era where stress is becoming the norm, the impact of sleep disruption, among other problems, should not be underestimated. This is also the era of job performance. How can we balance one against the other?
The second problem in my region, as in many other regions in Quebec and in Canada, is the yard. It is a pain, a real headache for the urban planners and the citizens of a city built around or near the station, as is often the case in North America.
Fortunately, the new act will give the Canadian Transportation Agency the power to examine complaints about noise. The agency could, for example, require the railways to take measures to reduce as much as possible the harmful effects of noise during the construction of a railway or, what interests me even more, during its operation.
By taking the operational and service needs of the railway companies and the interests of the affected communities into account, we are definitely going in the right direction to find a solution to the disputes related to the operation of a yard.
I am therefore pleased to see that clause 32 of the bill gives the Canadian Transportation Agency the power to examine complaints about noise and to require the railways to take measures to reduce as much as possible the harmful effects of noise. And God knows how much noise there is. I am especially happy that the criterion of minimal damage caused by the operation of a railway, the old section 95, is found in Bill C-44, giving the agency a real power that it did not have, contrary to what many believed.
Clause 32 confers upon the Transportation Agency the jurisdiction to settle disputes. Thus, the need to allow rail companies to do business and the right of people living along rail routes to peaceful enjoyment will be placed on equivalent levels. The agency will be able to require rail companies to take steps to limit the noise related to their activities. Financial imperatives will be taken into consideration, but will no longer necessarily take precedence.
Orders by the agency will be enforceable in the same manner as an order from a superior court, so people will need to proceed with caution. Non-compliance will lead to charges of contempt of court and the possibility of a prison sentence.
I myself feel that the provision on excessive noise ought perhaps to have been more extensive. It does not, for instance, allow restriction of other nuisances, although that would not be very complicated to do now. Like my Bloc colleagues, I feel that the Transportation Agency has the necessary legislative framework to be given jurisdiction over other types of nuisances such as vibrations. This would, among other things, be useful as far as oil and gas emissions are concerned, which are not covered by this proposed legislation.
It does not take a lot of imagination to understand how disagreeable those two substances can be when there is an unfortunate spill. We find our hands tied, because there are no provisions for helping people who are victims of such spills, nor to oblige prompt action by those responsible and, and more importantly, preventive measures.
This bill does not really have any teeth in it as far as operators are concerned in numerous negative situations.
This leads me to the third problem in my riding, which will clarify my previous criticism, I hope.
In order to facilitate the shipping of liquid cargoes to Montreal, a kind of semi-circular route had to be set up. One section travelled runs right through a marshy area, which makes daily operations even more vulnerable. There have been three derailments in recent years, and harmful substances have been spilled. Hon. members can well imagine the results. Will the agency have the power to force operators of a rail line to ensure that anyone using the rail service can do so without the risk of constant derailments and the hazards and inconveniences they entail?
There is more to environmental protection than air quality. Soil pollution, in this case, or in similar cases, is dramatic because there is always a risk of groundwater contamination. And this is only one problem that must imperatively be prevented in the future.
This is not the only inconvenience that we have with the bypass. The train has to go further and make a loop in order to come back in the other direction. This involves grade crossings and, thus, mandatory stops when the train uses this route.
In one area, vehicles may have to stop twice to let the same train pass. Worse than that, they may be stuck in the loop for many minutes, depending on the length of the train.
What do we do in an emergency? What do we do for ambulances carrying a very ill patient that remain stuck inside the loop? What do we do for firefighters responding to a fire alarm? What do we do for the police? We have to wait for the train to pass. This is a problem that I would have like to see resolved through this bill, to ensure that this never happens again. It seems to me that people's safety should be a priority.
To add to my previous statements, I hoped that the bill would be more binding on VIA Rail and give it a better legislative framework. This is a Canada-wide public utility and, consequently, it should be under more scrutiny, while maintaining some autonomy.
Upon its creation in 1997, VIA Rail was incorporated under the Canada Business Corporations Act. Today, clause 74 of Bill C-44 enacts the VIA Rail Canada Act. The constating documents of the Crown corporation are changed and its mandate is defined. This mandate is to manage and provide a safe and efficient passenger rail service in Canada. At least, this is what clause 8 of the proposed act says. As a whole, the rights and obligations of VIA Rail are maintained, but, under clause 7, the Minister of Transport is the appropriate minister in relation to the corporation.
The head office continues to be in Montreal. I am concerned about the fact that the governor in council can change that simply by order. This does not seem very democratic or very respectful to me. Let us hope that this situation never comes up.
On another matter, the fact that VIA Rail is not subject to the Access to Information Act is not the best idea. Although some commercial regulations may need protection, that is not a compelling enough argument to exclude this company from accountability in all other areas having to do with information.
At least the new VIA Rail legislation, because of its flexibility, will provide greater autonomy to make more appropriate decisions, which should make the administrators' task easier as it gives them a better framework. We made a wise decision in maintaining VIA Rail's rights and obligations; instead of a break with the past, we are ensuring continuity.
For these reasons that I have just outlined to my colleagues in the House, I will support the principle of separate legislation for VIA Rail.
Air transportation is not my chosen field, but I will give my opinion on it nonetheless. I am glad that marketing is heading toward being more truthful and accurate. Airlines will have to change their advertising methods and that will be for the best, I am sure. By requiring these companies to list the full fare including all related fees from now on, air travellers will be better able to assess the real cost, which can only be beneficial to everyone involved, including the carriers.
In the event of a problem, the transportation agency can require a carrier to take the necessary measures to compensate those affected when sales or transportation conditions are not respected. This a step forward since the commissioner could only make suggestions before.
Unfortunately, the transportation agency, which gained more authority when the complaints commissioner position was cut, will no longer be required to submit an annual report on the complaints or how they were resolved. On the downside, life will be easier for those in the wrong because it will become more difficult to address their lapses. Let us hope to find a corrective measure for this.
The commissioner had the authority to require a lot of information from the carriers when complaints were lodged against them. The transportation agency does not have as much latitude.
So, I wonder whether it is a good thing that the public no longer has access to a commissioner.
Perhaps we could have transferred all the powers of the commissioner to the Canadian Transportation Agency. We will see where this will take us.
Once again, the interests of transparency, to which we refer so readily, are still not protected in the proposed legislation. This is why I deplore this weakening of the role of the Canadian Transportation Agency in terms of its power to investigate and its visibility.
I want to talk about one last negative aspect of the bill. The regulations on international bridges and tunnels are almost dangerous. The government is being given quasi police powers that are simply unacceptable. There is no other way to qualify a power to investigate without a warrant. And what about such an authoritarian power of seizure?
As regards the protection of the environment, the bill proposes to review the transportation policy so as to bring it closer to the objectives of the Kyoto protocol. Indeed, by contributing to the promotion of railway transportation, we aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is something that all taxpayers will appreciate. If, in addition to that, we manage to reduce noise pollution, we will have made very significant progress.
I want to stress another positive aspect. I am referring to the provision which provides that, if a company wants to dispose of a railway line, it must first offer it to those in charge of transportation services in the cities concerned, particularly municipalities.
These changes would allow public transit companies to receive such offers. Some urban sectors that provide services to several municipalities would undoubtedly be very pleased at such opportunities. They would be able to get these corridors and use them for public transit purposes. This would be a judicious use of these abandoned railways.
If this is approved, it will probably help avoid many misunderstandings, problems and criticisms, while also saving time, work and energy.
For all these reasons, I will support the bill, even though I think that there is still room for a lot of improvement and that it would have been better to make these improvements before going further ahead.
For example, the minister could take the opportunity provided by the new VIA Rail Canada Act to promote transparency and accountability for this crown corporation, particularly as regards the appointment of its board of directors and its advertising which, unfortunately, is often confused with propaganda.
I must say that, as someone living in the heart of Lévis, I would love it if we could silence the train's whistle once and for all.