Speech on Rail Freight Service

Mr. Speaker, I rise today not only as the member for New Westminster—Coquitlam and Port Moody but in my capacity as western economic diversification critic for the NDP.

Like my NDP colleagues, I will also be supporting Bill C-52, an act to amend the Canada Transportation Act, to send the bill to committee for further discussion. We do, however, have serious concerns with the bill as my hon. colleagues before me have pointed out, including the member for Trinity—Spadina, who is the NDP transportation critic. She outlined some of those concerns in her speech earlier.

Rail transport is the backbone of the Canadian economy. More than 70% of all surface goods in Canada are shipped by rail, so we can see how critically important it is to get this right. Eighty per cent of service commitments for agricultural rail customers are not met by rail companies because of issues such as delays, insufficient number of rail cars, inefficiencies and unreliable service. The rail freight service review found that 80% of shippers are not satisfied with the services they receive. Eighty per cent is a significant amount. Over three-quarters of all customers have a concern.

I just want to talk about the importance of rail to my riding of New Westminster—Coquitlam. Specifically I am talking about Port Moody where we are celebrating 100 years of history. Just this weekend I was at a book launch hosted by the Port Moody Heritage Society for Tracks in Time. Obviously the title is in reference to trains and the influence that trains have had on the development of our community and on the west coast, and in fact, of all Canada. The rail system is of critical importance to our community. We celebrate the Golden Spike festival in Port Moody every Canada Day. This just points to how important trains are to our community.

Talking about the importance of trains not only to the community but to the rest of my riding, it is important to focus on the efficiency and the service that trains provide to Coquitlam, Port Moody and of course New Westminster. It is important for the economy not only in my riding but in western Canada and indeed all of the country. It is critical that we look at ways to improve train service in this country.

I want to provide a bit of background. I know other colleagues have commented specifically about what the bill would do and would not do and some of its shortcomings.

Rail freight customers from farmers to mining companies are suffering from the virtual monopoly of power of the railway companies. In most parts of the country shippers cannot choose between rail service providers because they only have access to either CN or CP. Even in a few places where both rail companies provide access, one is virtually priced out of the market, leaving the shipper with no real choice. Shippers routinely suffer from service disruptions, delays and various forms of non-performance by CP and CN. Deliveries and pickups are not done on time or skipped completely. Frequently the number of ordered rail cars is not matched by the delivered rail cars and sometimes cars are damaged.

A broad range of industries are affected by the situation, especially agriculture, forestry and mining. In western Canada these industries play a significant part in the economy. Chemical and automotive businesses in the rest of Canada are also affected.

A large portion of these goods are destined for export. Lacklustre rail services are thus hurting Canadian exporters' abilities to compete in global markets. For example, soybeans from Argentina enjoy a competitive advantage in markets such as Japan and China because they are delivered faster and more punctual than soybeans from Canada, despite the fact that the total distance covered is significantly shorter for products from Canada. For years shippers have been unhappy but no concrete action was taken by the Conservatives. Since 2007 a “talk it out and wait” tactic was employed, starting with the promise of an expert review panel.

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, University of Calgary Chancellor Jim Dinning, failed. Dinning released a report in June 2012.

The Minister of Transport promised government legislation on the topic to be tabled in the fall. Parallel to the end of the mediation process, the member for Trinity—Spadina tabled a private member's bill, Bill C-441, the rail customer protection act, in June 2012. The private member's bill, coupled with advocacy work from the shipping community, put pressure on the minister to follow up on his promise and actually table legislation.

The shipping community is organized in a coalition of rail shippers. The coalition is a loose and rather informal entity. Organizationally this group is attached to the Canadian Industrial Transport Association. The coalition consists of 17 members that represent mining, forestry, agriculture, chemical and manufacturing industries. One of the original 18 members repeatedly has been brought up in the U.S. Senate, both on the floor and in committee without decisive legislation as of yet.

The surface transportation board, a federal body, is working on regulations to address pricing and service issues, while judges have repeatedly supported shippers in court cases. I just wanted to point that out.

What is the NDP are looking for? What can be specific about?

We know farmers and the mining and forestry companies have been hurting for years due to unreliable freight services, without getting any help from Ottawa. To truly address the issue and also to give the NDP leverage in rural areas, the member for Trinity—Spadina has become an advocate for strengthening the shippers' position. She has been very active on this file.

The NDP position is quite simple. We are standing with business and exporters and we are committed to getting them the fair and reliable freight services they deserve. That will have an impact on not only western Canada but on the entire Canadian economy.

The member for Trinity—Spadina has worked on this issue, including forging ties with key industry associations and tabling an NDP bill. One of the goals is to continue to grow those ties with the NDP as the party that stands up for legitimate business interests and pushes back against market power abuses.

While Bill C-52 falls short on a number of stakeholder demands, it is prudent to support the bill as the shipping community is largely content with the legislation. They are also quite desperate to see some legislation address their issues.

The task is now to address the shortcomings and strengthen the bill to the benefit of the shippers and also to promote our involvement with the entire process. That is what we are doing here. We are trying to highlight some of those key issues that need to be worked on at the committee stage.

Bill C-52 will only cover new service agreements, not existing ones. Many shippers will be stuck with unreliable and unfair services, without any conflict resolution process in the case of violations to existing service agreements. Arbitration is only available for shippers that are negotiating new contracts.

Instead of offering quick and reliable help through conflict resolution to shippers, Bill C-52 would give arbitration a narrow scope for a small group of shippers and the outlined arbitration process could end up being too costly for companies like the Canadian Propane Association and others.

I want to finish by letting the House know there are others that support the position we are bringing forward. They are key stakeholders, like agriculture, mining and forestry industry associations, that have been calling for freight legislation for years, for example, Pulse Canada, Grain Growers of Canada, the Forest Product Association of Canada and the Mining Association of Canada.

In conclusion, I want to say that we are in support of it at second reading. The NDP will push for amendments at committee stage to protect shippers from the abuse of market powers through the right to comprehensive service agreements and conflict resolution processes.