Mr. Speaker, I will try to be brief. Today, we are debating a bill that will supposedly improve rail safety in Canada. One of the government's main responsibilities is definitely to ensure public safety.
There has been a spectacular increase in the amount of oil shipped by rail. In 2009 there were 6,000 cars transporting oil, whereas last year, in 2014, there were 110,000. Canadians certainly have the right to ask questions, especially whether their safety is really this government's priority. The Lac-Mégantic disaster showed that there are serious flaws when it comes to safety.
Today, we have before us a bill that will not improve rail safety, but will instead address the issue of insurance after an accident. This is a reactive rather than a proactive bill.
We do not improve the safety of Canadians by sending a cheque after an accident occurs. We must improve the public's safety. The quality of Canada's rail system is very questionable, primarily because of the bills passed by successive governments in the past 20 years. That is what I am going to talk about.
I welcome the opportunity to address the government's bill, Bill C-52, the so-called safe and accountable rail act, which is a revised version of the existing Canada Transportation Act.
The biggest problem I have with the legislation is that it is based on an act that was inadequate when it was passed in 1996 by a Liberal government, and in turn, that bill was based on an even worse act passed by the Conservatives in 1987.
What we are being asked to do now, frankly, is comparable to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We have a fundamental responsibility to ensure safety, not to spend hours discussing insurance liability for rail companies. That is certainly a first step, and it is why I am going to support the legislation, but it is a tiny step. We need to go an awful lot further.
The changes proposed today are only the beginning of an answer. Canadians need a new act that is based on fundamental elements that have been lacking all along. From the very start, the current act has lacked the basics necessary to maximize the performance and safety of our multi-modal transportation system and especially its rail component.
The maintenance and safe, effective operation of a national transportation system fully addressing the needs of this country, the private owners of the majority of that system, and the shippers and passengers who depend on it requires that it be conceived as a whole. The essential elements would be policy, legislation, planning, and adequate funding, which the government sorely lacks in many fields of its jurisdiction.
Legislation is but one element in the development of a comprehensive and effective national transportation system. However, the Canada Transportation Act lacks many of these building blocks, the most elementary being a basic national policy balancing public and private interests.
As is said in the introduction to this legislation's review discussion paper, Canada's transportation system is “substantially more market-based, deregulated and competitive” than it was in the period before the Mulroney Conservatives introduced their deregulatory act in 1987.
In fact, our transportation system today is largely based on a laissez-faire approach that reserves only a few areas for public oversight. Its most vital flaw is the lack of an underlying, proactive policy.
As a result, Canada's transportation system is a series of silos that have been cobbled together by multiple and often competing owners without a comprehensive plan. All of them have wound up being patched up with this makeshift legislative and financial band-aid to correct the flaws created by a boundless faith in this hands-off, strictly-for-profit approach. It is totally unrealistic.
The VIA Rail Canada program, funding for remote airports and roads, scattershot safety fixes, a last minute renewal of federal funding for the Algoma Central passenger service and the government's Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, these form a patchwork of intervention in a system that the government likes to think does not require intervention, yet it continues to intervene.
There is no central policy or plan at work here, and it has been said that this type of necessary intervention is too frequently only taken by governments such as this in the run-up to an election. Pardon the pun, but this is no way to run a railroad. It is certainly no way to run a country.
The Canadian approach is far different from that taken by other countries that view transportation not just as a business, but as a potent tool for national, economic, social and environmental growth and security. This especially applies to the rail sector.
The United States took a similar laissez-faire approach to railroading for decades. With the construction of its highway interstate network, the national rail system there drifted along without benefit of a clear policy, nor comprehensive planning, nor balanced or sustainable funding, very similar to Canada today. The result was the collapse of large parts of the system and the need for government intervention under crisis conditions.
The revision of the U.S. approach to railroading is now under way with the enunciation of clear, inclusive policies that are interlocked with legislation, planning and funding to realize this new national vision. The objective is to maximize the potential of rail in concert, not in competition, with the other modes.
Making changes to the limited amount of legislation embodied in this CTA is only a small part of the solution. Without a clear and comprehensive national policy, even the best legislation will fail because it is based on what amounts to an absence of policy. Revising the CTA in the absence of enlightened and proactive policies cannot and will not decisively correct its major deficiencies.
There are two specific areas that concern me greatly. The first is the safety of the transportation network that has evolved under the current CTA and the predecessor deregulatory act on which it is based. This especially applies to rail.
We have now gone through a wave of rail accidents that have demonstrated how much our system has declined. If this was only to include Lac-Mégantic, that would already be much too much, but we have experienced numerous major derailments, both before and after that disaster, that have demonstrated that our rail system is degrading, and degrading rapidly.
Just as bad, it is not being monitored adequately on behalf of the public. What we have now is a self-regulating rail safety network, and it is not working.
Our rail safety regime under the CTA is badly flawed. It provides inadequate protection for individuals, inadequate protection for communities and its workers. In the pursuit of profits, corners are being cut and this inadequate attention to safety is not being revealed until it is too late. What we have now is reactive rail safety legislation.
To be effective, there must be a new safety legislation within the CTA that is not only better, it must be vigilantly enforced. Any new legislation must recognize that the public interest can only be adequately protected when the regulator has the power and the resources to enforce the rules.
Some believe that compelling the railways to carry more insurance is the answer. This is the very basis of this current legislation. While it is part of the solution, this is reactive in nature and after the fact. It does not prevent accidents; it merely analyzes them after they have occurred.
Funds should also be invested in improved infrastructure and safety appliances, which would prevent fiery derailments that pose an unnecessary risk to public safety. I am extremely disappointed that the bill does not include the implementation of a safety system that would have a major impact on Canadian rail safety. PTC, positive train control, a highly effective high-tech system, has been mandated by the U.S. Congress for all main lines handling passenger trains and freight trains carrying dangerous goods.
PTC would have had substantial impact on the Lac-Mégantic tragedy. In fact, it could have prevented it by alerting employees of the impending catastrophe as soon as that train began to be under way. There could have been intervention at a critical time. At the very least, the PTC system would have allowed for the minimization of the eventual derailment that led to the devastating explosions and the horrible loss of life. This bill does not even contemplate the application or the requirement for advanced technologies such as PTC.
I would also point out that the requirement to safely equip and maintain operations with advanced systems such as PTC would generate a domestic economic uplift. It would stimulate Canadian railway supply industries and creates jobs, such as in La Pocatière, Quebec and in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Private railway funding of large insurance policies usually just goes to offshore insurance companies and does nothing really to improve safety.
Furthermore, legislation aimed at improving rail safety must recognize that it requires on-the-ground inspection by trained government personnel who have the power to rigidly enforce the rules. There must be an adequate number of them to do it on a constant and daily basis.
I also believe that CTA needs to be revised to play a major role in proper functioning of our passenger rail service, VIA Rail Canada. There is precious little in the act today aimed at establishing the mandate, rights or obligations of our national passenger service, or even other passenger or commuter operations. I attempted to correct this situation with Bill C-640, An Act respecting VIA Rail Canada and making consequential amendments to the Canada Transportation Act, which would have required consequential amendments to the current CTA. That overdue legislation was defeated by the current Conservative government.
There is little in the current act to protect and direct the provision of a proper rail passenger system. There is, in fact, only one clause in the current CTA that affords any legislative rights in delivering a necessary service to millions of Canadians. When it has been applied on a very few occasions, it has been helpful but it does not go far enough in establishing VIA's right to operate on the lines of the privately owned freight railways.
VIA, like the whole transportation system, will never function effectively as long as our national transportation system is based on legislation that does not allow for the protection of the public interest. Nor does it respect the fair rights of our for-profit freight railways. These two are not mutually exclusive. A strong and healthy transportation system is vital to improve Canada's global competitiveness, security, social well-being and environmental performance. We won't have that as long as we allow our multi-modal system to function in what amounts to a policy vacuum. That is what we have today under the CTA, and no amount of tinkering is going to correct it.
As other nations with which we compete have demonstrated, the federal government needs to become much more engaged, innovative and supportive in addressing the numerous challenges that stand in the way of delivering safe, modern, adequate and sustainable transportation services across our land. To be truly effective, the CTA needs to be revised on the basis of a comprehensive national transportation policy that takes into account the needs of all stakeholders, public and private. This is a matter well beyond any revision of the act, solely presented here before the hon. members. It must originate at the highest levels of our federal government and it must include a serious dialogue.
The current bill was presented to a parliamentary committee in two sittings. This very important piece of legislation was rammed through much too quickly. Many stakeholders did not have the opportunity to speak. We need to take all of the steps necessary. This bill is simply a first step.
Let us remember that when the minister recently, with her American colleagues, announced new regulations regarding the transportation of dangerous goods, the minister and her American counterpart said that from now on, in urban areas of 100,000 people or more, the speed limit for dangerous goods will be 40 miles an hour. The problem with that is that it is not the density of the population nearby that is the real problem; it is the quality of the railway itself.
There are many areas of this country where we have allowed companies not to complete sufficient rail maintenance. They have deferred it to future periods, and when the rail cars run on these inadequately maintained rails, there is risk of accident. The government then has to act in a crisis situation, such as it did in northern New Brunswick, where it had to negotiate under the gun with a rail company to ensure that the railway was going to be properly maintained over the next 15 years.
This should not be managed in a crisis mode. We know the problem is the quality of the rail itself. We know that private companies are self-monitoring. Without proper supervision by the government and its agencies, this problem is simply going to be compounded. Again, the amount of rail transportation of our oil products is skyrocketing, and the danger to the public goes up at the same rate.
We have to take our responsibilities seriously. The government has taken only a very small step in that direction with this legislation. We need to do an awful lot more to prove to the Canadian public that we are taking our job seriously.