In Debate: Modernize and Rebuild VIA Rail C-640

2015-04-24 14:18 [p.13017]
Mr. Speaker, I am happy to rise in the House today to support Bill C-640, the work of my colleague, the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine. He follows in a great tradition of rail advocacy by the NDP. I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Bill Blaikie, who along with his many principled contributions to the House as the member for Elmwood—Transcona and deputy speaker was and remains a fierce defender and advocate of preserving, diversifying, and expanding rail infrastructure in our great country.
Bill C-640 is an effort to turn the tide on the steady erosion of rail travel that began with the Liberals' deregulation of the industry and the privatization of the Canadian National Railway system in 1995.
Bill C-640 seeks to prevent VIA from cancelling routes and passenger service without consulting with Canadians and with Parliament. Canadians have the right to the highest levels of service, protection, and accessibility of travel that can be provided. Instead we have seen the erosion of infrastructure due to neglect and corporate offloading and the cancellation of services across the country.
Canada has a growing population comprising families with children, seniors, and citizens who need to travel and are very conscious of the environmental legacy we are creating for future generations.
With proper stewardship and a visionary plan, there is real potential to revive our once thriving rail travel industry. However, that kind of vision requires a federal government focused on national stewardship rather than what both Liberal and Conservative governments did when they sold off national interests and pandered to those who bankroll their campaigns.
Even worse, this current Conservative government, as did previous Liberal governments, refuses to acknowledge that the economic and environmental benefits of a truly enhanced, integrated, accessible, and sustainable rail transit system far outweigh and outlive short-term political gain. It fails to understand that everyone, from the youngest Canadian to the seasoned commuter, benefits from the kind of forward thinking that ensures that rail travel is part of our future.
This reality is not lost on the citizens of London and southwestern Ontario. These are the Canadians who suffer from what is described in the Network Southwest action plan as a mobility gap. VIA Rail needs substantial modernization and service improvements to prevent a further decline in ridership. Investment and modernization would permit the enhancement and strengthening of rail service for future generations.
We have to be forward thinking. Rail travel is cost-effective in terms of the pocketbook and the environment. While high-speed rail is a longer-term vision, high-performance rail is able to operate on many existing main and secondary routes. High-performance rail is part of an interconnected alternative public transit system, and it provides infrastructure to feed future high-speed rail.
The Network Southwest report, written by Greg Gormick in March 2015, outlines the need for VIA Rail services to be upgraded to HPR standards as one of its three building blocks. The plan also includes feeder bus services to provide transit between trains and communities off the rail lines and mobility hubs to connect all transportation modes, including local traffic.
All of this can be done efficiently and seamlessly. There are already several successful models of rail-based regional public transport solutions in the U.S. One of the characteristics they all share is the joint support of federal and state governments. A joint approach by federal and provincial governments in Canada could bring about the mobility improvements needed in regions like southwestern Ontario, and such a transit solution could become a template for other parts of Canada.
A successful precedent for innovation happened after the federal Liberal government slashed half the rail passenger service in Canada in the1990s. In response to that void, the Ontario NDP government partnered with VIA and restored a London-Toronto train that was threatened by the axe. This restored service was a crucial link that the provincial government knew must be saved. It was a matter of determination and foresight.
Bill C-640 would allow Canadians and this Parliament to evaluate cases where VIA Rail plans to eliminate a required route and would call on Parliament to study, debate, and then vote on the recommendations in the minister's report, thus giving Parliament the final decision. Interestingly, that is what our system is supposed to do: ensure that Parliament, and not the party in power, has a role in vital national decisions.
VIA serves three well-populated corridors in southwestern Ontario, and there are many factors in favour of improving these routes. First of all, they service one of the highest population densities in Canada. They can be utilized by significant numbers of students in numerous colleges and universities, students who do not have access to cars.
These routes bring visitors to tourist and cultural attractions, including the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. They have close proximity to Toronto, which is a destination and an economic hub. They decrease often difficult travel on Highway 401 and the QEW. Both those highways can be very hazardous at any time of year.
I have had occasion to meet with numerous community organizations in London and area that rely on VIA Rail for their transportation. Groups like the University of Western Ontario Student Council and Fanshawe Student Union have a keen interest. A significant segment of the London workforce relies on VIA Rail to commute to the GTA. The intercommunity travel between London, Sarnia, Windsor and Toronto is vital to all of our local economies.
The London Chamber of Commerce and business leaders in the community know that without dependable VIA Rail service, many community jobs would be lost. Bill C-640 provides effective measures to ensure that that does not happen.
As the London Free Press reported on April 11, new rail investment would create 30 to 36 new jobs and $3 million to $4 million in economic spinoffs. Bus network improvements would add to those regional economic benefits as well. The cost associated with Network Southwest's five-year plan is equivalent to the cost of building just one kilometre of subway in Toronto and the benefits are huge. American studies indicate that for each $1 million invested in rail, 30 jobs are created and GDP increases threefold.
When we consider the drain on the Canadian economy associated with motor vehicle accidents and injuries which cost us $22 billion per year, these benefits are impossible to ignore.
Rail Advocacy in Lambton says of Bill C-640 that the concept of a national rail policy is, in their view, a necessary step in supporting a sustainable passenger rail system for all Canadians. It says that without this legislation, Via Rail and Canada's passenger rail system is doomed to die a slow death, with no hope of resurrection, unless immediate restorative action is initiated. It says that it needs an affordable, frequent, marketable passenger rail service that ensures no passenger is ever left behind. It also says that this legislation is the first step in a long-overdue process that will make VIA Rail a viable, productive, successful national transportation agency.
Mike from London, Ontario, has written to remind me that next year will be the 160th anniversary of the London and Port Stanley Railway, the third oldest in Canada, founded in 1856. Included in all the other travellers who rode that line were big band musicians and fans headed to Port Stanley's famous Stork Club. Reconnecting London and St. Thomas to Port Stanley's beaches and shops again would be a boost to our local economy.
I also want to mention the work that is being undertaken by the City of London. I am encouraged by London's Shift initiative that presents a bold and important vision for transportation in our city. It focuses on rapid transit as part of the transportation system that will help our city grow and prosper.
The Shift proposal calls for London to conduct a public environmental assessment that allows citizen input in planning and designing the network. In addition, it will assess the need for rapid transit, and how rapid transit can alleviate such problems as congestion, overcrowded buses and the high cost of driving. The assessment will determine which streets are suitable for rapid transit and how they can be designed to improve mobility for everyone, and determine the form or forms of rapid transit that should be used. Shift is a City of London initiative that has great potential.
The integration and coordination of VIA Rail routes and services is vital to moving the population of London in, through and around the community. Bill C-640 lays the framework for that progress to happen.
I am very happy to stand in support of Bill C-640. It is good for the people of London and southwestern Ontario. It is good for all of Canada.