Elizabeth May Third Reading Speech on Bill C-52

I rise to speak today on a bill that is important and has my support, but it opens up an area of public policy that really bears fuller examination. This bill gives us a chance to discuss that. I speak of Bill C-52, a bill for rail safety. As we all know, the issues of rail safety have become increasingly of concern to Canadians.

The title of Bill C-52 is the safe and accountable rail act, but I think it needs to be acknowledged that, while the bill is certainly welcome and is a step in the right direction, it actually only speaks to the accountability side of safe and accountable. It speaks to what we do in the event of accidents, such as who is responsible, how much insurance they must carry, and who can sue after the fact under the polluter pays principle. It does provide a number of important improvements, particularly for municipalities and others affected by rail accidents. It does create a minimum insurance requirement of $1 billion. These things are welcome.

However, the issue of rail safety continues to be one of deep concern. So many of the witnesses before committee spoke to the fact that Bill C-52, while welcome, does not go nearly far enough, and the steps that have been taken so far by Transport Canada to improve rail safety in the wake of the disaster at Lac-Mégantic also are moving too slowly and, even if fully implemented, do not go far enough.

I would like to take a moment to point out that, if we look at Lac-Mégantic as an example—and this was an example put forward by witnesses at committee—a $1 billion minimum insurance requirement for class 1 railways is something that was legislated mandate. The class 1 railways have already been carrying it. Certainly we never wanted to see the Lac-Mégantic disaster. May we never again see a disaster of that scale. However, now that we know it is possible, it behooves us to put in place the insurance requirements that would meet a disaster of that scale, which would, according to witnesses, be closer to six times that amount, or $6 billion.

Looking at the issue of rail safety, over the last number of years we have had what I would almost put forward as a perfect storm of changes in the private sector, in government, and in the types of goods we are shipping. They come together in ways that leave us less safe than we have been before, even with the improvements Transport Canada and the minister have made. For instance, as recently as 2009, only 500 cars a year were carrying highly flammable fossil fuels, the flammable crudes that take up most of our discussion these days. We know the number has gone up in the last two years, but in 2013 we were up to 160,000 car loads. This is a phenomenal increase in hazardous goods moving on our rails, and that leaves out other types of hazardous goods, whether chlorine or other hazardous substances.

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs took this statistic and converted it into millions of barrels and said that, as of now, we have a million barrels of crude oil, flammable class 3 liquids, per day moving on our rails. It also pointed out that in 2013, the last year for which I have statistics, which I found through the witnesses, there were 144 accidents that involved dangerous goods, 7 of which resulted in dangerous goods being released.

We have seen steps taken. I referred to them briefly before. The transportation safety boards in Canada and the U.S. make findings about safety but do not have the regulatory power to implement them.

The transportation safety boards on both sides of our border found some time ago that the DOT-111 railcars constituted an unsafe way to transport such hazardous and flammable materials.

We have taken some steps, as has the U.S., but there is a long lead time for the implementation, so now we are taking class 1232 trains and retrofitting them for crude oil. That must be done by 2020 and for less flammable materials by 2025. Still, until 2017—so we have 2 more years to go—the unsafe DOT-111 cars will still be rolling through our communities; 80,000 DOT-111 railcars will be still in service in the U.S. and Canada until 2017.

Why did I speak of the trends? We have essentially less safety and more hazardous goods. The rail industry, in theory, whether moving passengers or goods, is one of the safest and most environmentally appropriate way to move people and goods. This needs to be reiterated because it is an essential part of our infrastructure, and one of our arguments as Greens is that it is an essential part of our infrastructure that we have been ignoring too long.

We need to upgrade in the passenger context, and we need to invest in more modern trains and better rail beds. We need to continually upgrade the access to passenger rail and invest in VIA Rail for Canadians from coast to coast—and ultimately to coast, at least insofar as the Hudson Bay train would get there. Coast to coast to coast rail service makes sense, and modernizing it to bring it into the 21st century is an important investment for Canadians. It is an important part of our transportation infrastructure.

In the case of goods travelling by rail compared to by truck, it is safer in terms of accidents on our highways and, in theory, it reduces greenhouse gases. It is by far the safest way to transport hazardous goods. The difficulty we have is what has been happening in practice. Over the last decade or so—certainly not just in recent years—we saw a change through the smart regulatory regime; we have seen a change through private sector pressures to improve productivity; we have seen a change through government cutbacks; and ultimately we have greater risks because of the change in our industry.

Let us look, in terms of reduced safety, at the first point I wanted to make. The freight industry in Canada is private sector, whereas VIA Rail is a Crown corporation. We are now dealing with the pressure of for-profit companies, and one certainly understands their point of view, but as a result of their pressure to improve the profit bottom line, we heard from the rail sector labour force, and particularly from the unionized members and the union in that rail sector, of a continual cutback in engineers and onboard rail crews that has led to greater safety concerns.

We have also seen a failure to pay sufficient attention to maintenance along tracks. A number of the significant derailments that have occurred recently occurred because of failure to keep tracks and bridges operating properly. We even had a fatality because of the failure to keep a railway trestle in proper repair.

Back in 2005, a CN train derailed at Wabamun Lake in Alberta and resulted in a substantial spill, in which CN Rail was ultimately fined $1.4 million, which was a very modest fine, given the scale of that spill. The inquiry into that found that the rails over which that train was travelling were worn out and they had not been kept in adequate repair.

That was certainly a significant event, but there were a number of derailments right after it in 2005. This started creating more concern about the use of rail for freight that extended right across Canada, asking what more we could do and what the Transportation Safety Board was doing to ensure rail safety.

The second piece that made us less safe has been in the government decision to move to safety management systems. It is essentially a form of deregulation that came into effect some time ago.

I direct the House to a finding in a report released in 2007 by the Canada Safety Council. It reported that the system is one that:

…allows rail companies to regulate themselves, removing the federal government’s ability to protect Canadians and their environment, and allowing the industry to hide critical safety information from the public.

One would think that having gone to a system such as this, Transport Canada would have a supervisory authority to review these SMSs, or safety management systems, to ensure their adequacy. However, it does not appear that is the case.

The third part of the less safe system is cutbacks at Transport Canada. We now have fewer engineers than we used to have available in Transport Canada to do the work of reviewing rail safety. According to a number of media reports, Transport Canada currently has, and has had since 2009, 30 critical rail safety positions that have remained vacant. These are for engineers who could do such things as anticipate and organize the removal of DOT-111 cars from the tracks. Missing critical people in rail safety and critical people at Transport Canada who deal with hazardous goods is not a good sign to Canadians. We saw budget cuts at Transport Canada in 2012 that seem to now put in stone the fact that these positions are not likely to be filled again.

We have hazardous goods moving through communities, as the committee was reminded by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and citizen groups concerned with hazardous goods rolling through communities, yet we have not filled critical safety positions within Transport Canada.

The third part relies on what is happening in the private sector and why we are seeing more and more freight, and particularly more and more dangerous freight, on our tracks. I am a huge supporter of passenger rail, as members can probably tell by now from my speech. I have travelled Canada’s rails, criss-crossing the country as often as I get the chance. Often, I have done it in the context of political campaigns and whistlestop tours, where it really matters to know that we are going to arrive at our destination some time near the scheduled time on the VIA Rail schedule.

As anyone who pays attention to rail in Canada knows, VIA Rail has to rent the tracks from CN and other rail owners. VIA Rail is not in control of the switches or the red, yellow, and green lights. In other words, passenger rail in Canada and on-time arrivals are virtually entirely hostage to freight. When we have increasingly long trains that can no longer pull over onto sidings and VIA Rail passenger rail that is short enough to stay on the sidings, VIA Rail passenger trains often have to wait for hours for the convenience of freight to go by.

We have not given adequate concern or attention as Parliament or Transport Canada’s regulators to the length of freight trains and the fact that they are often stacking cars, and then again to the kinds of material that they are shipping. The horrors of Lac-Mégantic woke us up to what they are shipping. I do not think that any of us will ever forget the horror of the morning of July 5, 2013, of the disaster that killed 47 people.

The Transportation Safety Board had already approved what looked like a perfectly satisfactory system of safety on the part of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. It had provided its safety management system to Transport Canada, and it was entirely legal on July 5, 2013, for an engineer to leave an idling train above a community, having set hand brakes with the assumption that the air brakes would not fail. The engineer actually set seven hand brakes when, in fact, the minimum number of hand brakes on the company chart was nine. The Transportation Safety Board has since found that nine hand brakes would not have held the train if the air brakes had failed.

As we know, the disaster of Lac-Mégantic is one of a train barrelling into a community that lay entirely unaware of the disaster that was about to befall it. Not only did the community not know that it was legal and that Transport Canada had approved a system that allowed an idling train to be left unattended with hand brakes on above a community, but no one really knew what kind of flammable and dangerous materials were on board, because it was reported as crude oil.

It was in fact Bakken shale, which is an entirely different chemical composition, and as we know, to our horror, it formed a fireball that destroyed much of that community, killed 47 people, and injured many more.

As we stand here today on May 12, 2015, are we sure that such a disaster as Lac-Mégantic could not happen in another Canadian community? Despite all the safety measures I mentioned, and in the face of Bill C-52, the safe and accountable rail act, we have to say no.

We know a lot more about Bakken shale, and there is a greater requirement that communities be notified if it is moving through the community, but Bakken shale is not the only unconventional oil. If we mix bitumen with diluent, it also becomes far more flammable than bitumen by itself.

I should mention parenthetically, because I think it is of some interest to people, that if bitumen by itself is heated so that it can be put into a railcar without the presence of diluents, it is virtually not a dangerous material at all. It cannot spill and it does not blow up.

However, we have not taken safety measures to ensure that diluent will not be moved by rail. Diluent is the stuff they mix with bitumen. It was diluent, which is toxic and hazardous, that was being shipped to northern Alberta through the city of Calgary in those railcars that were hanging so precipitously over the Bow River during the flooding when the bridge gave way. The municipal workers of Calgary had to thread cables through those railcars to keep them from falling into the river. The material in those railcars was diluent, and it was headed to northern Alberta to be stirred in with solid bitumen so that it would be capable of being shipped, whether by pipe or by rail, without resorting to steam-liquefied bitumen, which can actually be moved into railcars without adding diluent.

A wide range of toxic and and dangerous substances are being moved by rail, and I want to turn to the evidence of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, as presented by Paul Boissonneault, fire chief of County of Brant Fire Department and current president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. He has pointed out a number of things that we could do to make the situation safer. One would be to divert some funding for firefighter training to assist people in communities and local fire departments to be able to confront threats. Firefighters should never be exposed to something as dreadful as Lac-Mégantic and neither should the community, but we do have a serious gap that the fire chiefs have pointed out in terms of preparation for firefighters.

They are also looking specifically at other hazardous goods. The bill deals with various forms of crude oil and the most flammable and dangerous forms of crude oil, which are not really crude at all, such as Bakken shale or bitumen mixed with diluent. However, the firefighters also point out that the propane and chlorine that move on our rails also need to be brought into the bill for further measures for safety.

We need to have much more information sharing, and the bill makes some good first steps. The bill would allow requirements relating to information sharing between railways and municipalities in response to emergencies, but we do need greater levels of detail in that information, and the communities have a right to know.

We need to do much more in strengthening the Canadian Transport Emergency Centre to be part of current regulatory activities. We need municipalities to be sitting down with Transport Canada and with the shippers to find better and safer ways. There are some that we know about; one is called “positive train control”. It is used in the United States and is in its rail safety act, although it is not fully implemented yet. It constitutes an on-board computerized system that creates very clear advance information and very immediate real-time information about where brakes are weak, where parts of the trains are overheating, whether speed is out of control, and whether there are problems on board. Positive train control is now part of the U.S. rail safety act; it should be part of ours.

We can also take steps to regulate for shorter freight trains. Braking is far more dangerous and difficult when trains are essentially too long to stop.

We have an opportunity to do much more in Canada to create real rail safety. While I will be voting for Bill C-52, I want no Canadian under any illusion that passing the bill will create a safe rail transport system. It will not, and Canadians deserve a real safe rail system in this country.