Efficient rail service to deliver grain saves money for shippers, farmers, and purchasers

Elizabeth May

Madam Speaker, it is an honour to rise tonight at adjournment proceedings to pursue a question I asked.

I am really pleased to bring it up when not too much time has passed since the question was raised. It was toward the end of March this year, when we were seeing Prairie grain shipments almost at a standstill while the shippers, CN and CP, were unable to bring forward enough rail cars to move the grain. It was a crisis proportion, but it was not the first time this had happened.

I will just briefly review the question I asked, which was to point out that millions of tons of grain were stuck on Prairie farms and in grain elevators. However, it was connected to a problem we were also experiencing on the coast of British Columbia, where freighters and container ships waiting to pick up that grain in the Port of Vancouver were backed up and using the waters of the Salish Sea as essentially a free parking lot. The Port of Vancouver was backed up, so as the container ships were waiting to go in and out of the Port of Vancouver, which could each have three and four different containers within them, they would go back to collect grain and then sit off Plumper Sound in the Salish Sea in my riding waiting to know if the grain had been delivered.

The knock-on effects of poor service by CN and CP are a real pain and economic trouble for the Prairie grain farmers, an inefficient Port of Vancouver, and a significant cost in quality of life to people living in Saanich—Gulf Islands and Nanaimo—Ladysmith, where these container ships are sitting off of Gabriola.

Members will be surprised to know that these legal anchorages for container ships off the Saanich—Gulf Islands and Nanaimo—Ladysmith are available legally, but in that sense largely unregulated, and there are no fees paid for sitting in the waters off Ganges, Plumper Sound, or Pender Island. The residents of those areas essentially see these enormous factory ships, often with lights on through the night. I have talked to my constituents who said that after they turn off all the lights in their house they can still read a book because of the lights from the ships stuck there waiting.

It is a real cost in quality of life that we do not have an efficient rail service to deliver grain on time. It costs money to the shippers, farmers, and those buying the grain. There needs to be a whole-of-government approach, at least Transport Canada needs to start figuring out how we make sure we move goods quickly and effectively. Perhaps through a computerized system, the Port of Vancouver could tell the grain farmers when to move the grain.

By the way, we used to have a better system when we had the wheat board. The wheat board did a better job in synchronizing shipments, and this problem did not come up. However, we had a crisis in 2014. On Vancouver Island, we were two days away from livestock operations not being able to get any feed because none of the mills that process the grain into feed had any grain. The farmers had to band together and hire trucks. Again, a big cost, poor service.

I know that Bill C-49, which we just voted on in the House, would help. There would be penalties for the shippers. From 1918 until 1995, this railway was a crown corporation and it worked much better. What do we do to get goods moving in this country, do we need to make it a crown corporation again?

Adam Vaughan – Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development

Madam Speaker, our government understands the challenges faced by our farmers every day. We are committed to ensuring they have access to freight rail systems that effectively moves their goods to market. That is why we have introduced Bill C- 49, the transportation modernization act, which would put in place the right conditions, over the long term, for a safe, efficient, effective, and transparent freight rail system, which benefits all rail users right across the country.

We are delighted that this bill, which both the member opposite and I voted for today, would provide robust, long-term solutions for many of the challenges facing our freight rail transportation system and its users. It would provide for enhanced accountability through reciprocal financial penalties between shippers and railways. It would improve transparency through increased reporting from railways. It would provide captive shippers with a way of accessing an alternate rail carrier through long-haul interswitching. It would encourage investments in hopper cars through changes to the maximum revenue entitlement process, which would be retained for the benefit of the grain sector. In short, it would help avoid the kind of situation we are witnessing now. It would also provide the Canadian Transportation Agency with the powers it needs to investigate systemic issues of its own notion.

We understand that rail service this year has not lived up to expectations, both for grain and for other commodities. That is why our government continues to work with railways to ensure they are taking the necessary steps to improve service and to move grain and other commodities to market. Railways have provided us with their plans for relieving the backlog, and we will continue to keep a watchful eye on their performance to ensure that these plans have the desired effect.

What our government has not done is introduce a short-term approach, like minimum grain volume requirements, which could risk negative consequences for farmers, grain shippers, and shippers of other commodities. Minimum grain volumes could result in preferential treatment of some corridors, even within the grain sector. As a result, they are not a silver bullet. Their benefits are not felt evenly, and they can have real implications for shippers in the grain sector, and for other commodities.

As to the particular question the member opposite raised about nationalizing the rail system, I am pretty certain that is not in our government’s forecast in terms of potential legislation that may be introduced. However, I will note that in the city I come from, one of the greatest inhibitors to stronger passenger rail movement is the conflict between rail that is carrying cargo and passenger movement, in particular commuters in the GTA.

Also, there is a missing segment of the rail lines between Sudbury and Ottawa and down towards the east coast, which was given away and abandoned by rail companies. However, if used properly, it could reroute some of that cargo and free up rail capacity for commuters, which would take cars off the road. Switching away from cargo on the rail and getting passengers is one priority, but the other option is to make sure that other commodities which can move by different methods do not plug up the rail system as well.

Therefore, realigning, reassessing, and recommitting ourselves to a long-term rail strategy in this country is one of our government’s priorities. The member can see that in budget 2018 with the significant investment we have made in modernizing VIA to get it back into a position where it can start to grow its customer base and move people more effectively, and in clever ways, so that we can make our strategic investments in infrastructure and also reduce greenhouse gases.

As for grain, I am glad that the bill has come through the vote today. It is progress, and we continue to move forward to make sure that grain shippers get the service they need from this government.

Elizabeth May

Madam Speaker, I agree with the member’s comments on passenger rail. It used to be the case that the U.S. had the same conflict. Passenger rail could never arrive anywhere on time because it had to rent the track from freight, and freight controls the traffic lights.

I recently took the train from Seattle to San Francisco. It was a 24-hour trip, and it arrived spot on time. They have renegotiated. With government leadership, they got freight to yield to passenger rail. Therefore, I like the thinking I am hearing from the parliamentary secretary, and I hope we can move on that.

However, I do want to flag a concern I have. CP right now has put forward an unacceptable offer. Teamsters are voting right now. May 23 is what they are calling “judgment day”. I am sure that the Minister of Transport is paying close attention.

I will be very blunt in that I do not trust these guys, CN and CP. I do trust our workers. We need more workers and more rail cars so that we can get goods delivered on time.

Adam Vaughan

Madam Speaker, one of the concerns we have in the city I represent, or in part of a riding that used to be part of the area of Toronto that I represented until redistribution, is the Dupont rail corridor that goes through midtown Toronto, which would be an excellent service for commuter rail. The challenge is, that is the main freight rail as it moves through the most dense part of the City of Toronto.

Those who followed the Lac Mégantic situation and saw the resources moved by rail through that Quebec town to great disaster will know that only a few hours earlier it came through midtown Toronto. If the derailment that happened at Lac Mégantic had happened close to downtown Toronto, as the Mississauga derailment did almost a generation ago, the death toll would have been off the chart. This is one of the reasons we need to move volatile substances off of rail cargo, out of residential areas, and find a rerouting of that system. Perhaps even a pipeline may be one of the alternatives.

However, the reality is that what we actually need is a rethinking of the rail system to accommodate people and to accommodate the environmental outputs that are possible. In the city of Toronto, that means rethinking how cargo moves through Toronto.