Mr. Speaker, on March 17, I rose to ask the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food if he would be changing the Canada Transportation Act to provide some rebalancing in the relationship between shippers and railways by including a shipper's right to performance guarantees with appropriate penalties for poor rail performance.
The question arose because of the abysmal performance that the railways have shown over the past winter, leaving almost 50 ships waiting in the harbour in Vancouver for which farmers, through the Canadian Wheat Board, were paying demurrage costs.
The problem with the Canada Transportation Act is that there is no way for the shipper, in this case the farmer or the Canadian Wheat Board, to extract penalties from the railways.
The act was fairly silent on this. The justice system has ruled that farmers are not shippers. It has also ruled on other occasions that the wheat board is not a shipper. Therefore it is virtually impossible for the people who are damaged by non-performance to arrange contracts with the offending party to make certain that performance does take place.
I did not ask the question in a vacuum. I had done considerable research and found that the elevators in western Canada were full of the grades of grain required for the ships. The terminals which load the grain after it is received at the port from the railways, from the prairies, were empty and unable to fill the ships. It does not take a genius to decide that something had gone wrong with the rail system.
I found that the rail system had performed very badly. It had made some attempts to correct the bad performance. It had brought in locomotives from the United States but for some reason it did not bring them up to performance standards for northern conditions. Apparently they were filled with summer fuel and they froze. They would not work. They were usually left out in the middle of somewhere which clogged up the system at the same time. While 50 to 100 cars were sitting full, there was no transportation to pull them. When the railway did start pulling them the transportation conked out. Taxis would have to go to rescue the crew. Other crews would come in to try to get the engines drained and working.
The management on the railway's part was absolutely abysmal. It is not that it was not being well paid with the new CTA changes. It no longer is bound by the 20 per cent limit on the amount of money it can claim back for investment costs. Those are now estimated to be somewhere between 30 per cent and 40 per cent.
Under the old act the railway was required to provide certain performance guarantees which the government was able to manage
by the payout of something in the order of $700 million annually. With that club over its head there was a lot better performance.
Now that the club is gone, now that there is no possibility of signing performance guarantee contracts with the wheat board or the farmer, there has been no compliance and there has been no performance.
While the railway can complain that the weather was bad, it is bad every January and February. The farmers manage to get their grain through that weather to prairie elevators. Why could the railway not run similar equipment with diesel fuel like the farmers do through the mountains?