In Debate: Bill C-52 Rail Shipping

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):

    Mr. Speaker, rail freight customers, from farmers to mining companies, are suffering because railway companies have a virtual monopoly when it comes to the vital rail lines that Canadians need to get goods to market.

    In most parts of the country shippers cannot choose between rail services because they only have access to either CN or CP. Even in the few places where both rail companies provide access, one is usually priced out of the market, leaving the shipper with no real choice.

    Shippers routinely suffer from service disruptions, delays and experience all kinds of examples of non-reliable performance by CN and CP. Deliveries and pickups are not done on time or are skipped completely. Frequently the number of ordered railcars is not matched by the delivered number of railcars and sometimes cars are badly damaged.

    When a shipper contracts a specific number of railcars, that shipper needs to know those cars will be available. Anything other than this kind of reliability is bad business and bad management. Unfortunately, we know that 80% of the service commitments for agricultural rail customers are not met by rail companies.

    After years of talking, the Conservatives have finally tabled legislation to address a number of key rail freight customer grievances after years of inferior service by the big rail companies. Bill C-52 is a step forward, but is far from a perfect solution.

    Key demands from the shipping community have, quite simply, not been addressed. Bill C-52 would also create loopholes because of its ambiguous language. The Conservative language is weak. Its protective measures do not cover existing contracts between shippers and rail companies and offers only a narrow, costly arbitration process for failed negotiations for new contracts. Key demands like the shippers' call to include penalties for rail companies in service agreements, performance standards and an easily accessible conflict resolution process were ignored.

    While NDP members will support this legislation, we will also push for amendments at the committee stage to protect shippers from the abuse of market power through the right to comprehensive service agreements and conflict resolution processes.

    Rail transport is the backbone of Canada's economy, with 70% of all surface goods shipped by rail. It is crucial to make rail freight services work for both rail companies and shippers. We cannot take the importance of the railroad for granted.

    It is also critical to note that current pricing for rail freight services is also damaging Canada's shippers. Bill C-52 explicitly excludes pricing, despite the calls from all parts of the shipping community to address the pricing regime. This has a significant impact on Canada's trade deficit, which is, by the way, ballooning. It reached almost $2 billion in November alone. We cannot afford to lose even more ground when it comes to global competitiveness for Canada's products.

    A broad range of industries are affected by the situation created by the virtual monopoly of current rail service providers. I have already mentioned agriculture, but we must not forget other key industries like forestry and mining as well as chemical and automotive businesses. Many of the goods produced by these industries are destined for export.

    Lacklustre rail services are hurting Canada's exporters' ability to compete in global markets. For example, soybeans from Argentina enjoy a competitive advantage in markets like Japan and China because they are delivered faster and more punctually than soybeans from Canada, despite the fact that the total distance that needs to be covered is significantly shorter for products from Canada.

    Rail freight is not only central to Canada's economy; we also need strong rail freight services to take trucks off the road and tackle greenhouse gas emissions. While the overall share of surface transport for goods remains high for rail, frustrated companies switch to trucking where possible and the environment loses.

    Rail freight is only one aspect where the Conservatives are slow to act. From new rail safety measures to cuts at VIA Rail and blocking the introduction of high-speed rail in Canada, Conservatives do not give Canada's rail network the attention it deserves.

    The bill has taken a long time to come to the House. For years, shippers have been unhappy but no concrete action was taken by the Conservatives. Since 2007 they employed a talk it out and wait tactic, starting with the promise of an expert panel review.

    The rail freight service review started in 2008. The independent panel tabled its final report in early 2011. Half a year later in the fall of 2011, the Conservatives initiated a mediation process that did not yield any results. Presumably with the tacit backing from the Conservative government, CN and CP were unwilling to make any meaningful concessions. The mediation process, led by retired Conservative politician and University of Calgary chancellor Jim Dinning, failed. Dinning released his report in June 2012 and the Minister of Transport promised government legislation on the topic to be tabled in the fall.

    Parallel to the end of the mediation process, fortunately, the member for Trinity—Spadina tabled private member's Bill C-441, the rail customer protection act, in June 2012. The private member's bill by the member for Trinity—Spadina, coupled with advocacy work from the shipping community, put pressure on the minister to follow up on his promise to actually table legislation. However, CN undertook a massive lobbying effort last year, first to prevent any effective bill, then to have it watered down. Dozens of documented visits to government offices and a media campaign show the determination of CN to keep the status quo.

    Rail customers have banded together now and are organized in the Coalition of Rail Shippers. The coalition is a loose and informal entity, but it wants something positive for its industry. It wants something positive for the people who produce the goods, who create the wealth in this country, the men and women who do the work to make this country tick and be productive.

    Shippers are having a hard time getting fair and reliable freight service, and that is simply unacceptable. We can and should do better for those that rely on our rail system. Our manufacturers, farmers and resource industries depend on our rail system. If rail were made more fair and affordable, consumers would also see an advantage.

    This is a country that emerged as a strong, independent nation because of the accessibility of our railways. Let us not abandon those who would continue to build our Canada.