Second reading of Bill C-627, An Act to amend the Railway Safety Act (safety of persons and property)

Hon. Art Eggleton:

Honourable senators, I rise to speak on Bill C-627, An Act to amend the Railway Safety Act (safety of persons and property).

Safety at railway crossings, as we all know, is a very important issue. With increasing amounts of goods shipped by freight and growing passenger rail, there has been an increase in rail-crossing accidents. There have been more than 2,300 crossing-related accidents since 2003 and, sadly, one third of those incidents result in serious injury, even death. Approximately 20 per cent of all rail accidents in Canada are at crossings.

This bill proposes increased powers for railway safety inspectors and for the Minister of Transport. They can better instruct an owner of a rail crossing or a railway company to fix problems when rail safety and the safety of persons and property are threatened.

Some concerns, however, were expressed in the House of Commons that this bill may be redundant and, in fact, could create some confusion. Michael Bourque, who is from the Railway Association of Canada, said:

Section 4 of the current Railway Safety Act already states that “regard shall be had not only to the safety of persons and property transported by railways but also to the safety of other persons and other property” in determining whether railway operations are safe, or whether something constitutes a threat to safety.

In addition, under section 31 of the current Railway Safety Act, railway safety inspectors, on behalf of the Minister of Transport, already have the power to order a rail line or crossing to be closed, or the use of railway equipment to be stopped, if they deem it to be a threat to safety.

So, he’s saying it’s already there. These issues of possible redundancy need to be addressed by committee.

I also have concern that these proposed changes are coming in the form of a private member’s bill, not a government bill. The Railway Safety Act is complicated and altering one section may impact another. We need to ensure that no unintended consequences will occur.

Honourable senators, as I pointed out in my speech at second reading of Bill C-52, ensuring rail safety is more than just regulatory changes and more than just giving new powers. It’s also about capacity and resources. The government has failed in that regard and we have not heard a real commitment from this government to up the ante.

When it comes to level crossings, the government does have a plan. It’s called the Grade Crossing Improvement Program, which provides a contribution of up to 50 per cent of the cost of a crossing improvement project. The maximum contribution to a recipient for a single project is $550,000. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But there are increasing voices from municipalities saying that information on the program is scarce and that the money is hard to access. Because of this, $3 million went unspent last year, honourable senators. These are important resources that could save lives and they were left unspent.

Further, the fact remains that the government has cut Transport Canada’s rail safety budget by 20 per cent over the last few years. The government has admitted to hiring only one additional safety inspector since 2013. This is on the heels of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy and the Auditor General’s scathing report on rail safety.

I will remind you what the Auditor General said. Only 26 per cent of all required safety audits were done, he pointed out — only 26 per cent. None were completed on VIA Rail, despite the fact that they transport over 4 million passengers a year. The AG also found that the inspections themselves were inadequate and that the inspectors’ training was poor. This simply is not good enough. More resources are needed. More safety inspectors are required. More safety audits must be done. The stakes are too high and the consequences are too devastating not to do more; so I look forward to the hearing at committee on this bill.