Rail Safety: Make Railways a National Priority Again

Government Neglect of Nation-Building Railways Has to End, Olivia Chow Demands

March 13, 2012

OTTAWA – NDP Transport Critic Olivia Chow welcomes the tabling of the Safer Railways Act in the House of Commons, but it is only a small step on the way to boosting safety and performance of Canadian railways. An overhaul of the government’s approach is needed to make rail travel as attractive and reliable as in other countries.

In her speech on the introduction of Bill S-4, Olivia stressed the historic significance of railways for Canada and the commitment of past federal governments to the country’s transportation backbone. This is in sharp contrast to the neglect that railways are suffering from under the Conservatives.

This year alone, VIA Rail’s funding is being cut by almost $200 million. Due to increasing underinvestment, rail lines across the country are becoming unsafe to operate.

Likewise, crucial safety improvements that have been demanded by experts for years are not being implemented. The NDP Transport Critic emphasized her agreement with key recommendations from the independent Transportation Safety Board, e.g. for voice recorders on locomotives and Positive Train Control to prevent derailments and collisions.

Olivia Chow also demanded a reversal of the recent VIA Rail cuts. Only with adequate funding can necessary safety upgrades be made and the state of good repair be maintained. Given that less than 7% of the government’s transport spending goes to rail, a re-prioritization has to take place, Olivia urges. What is needed is a clear focus on safety and infrastructure investments as part of a long-term vision for Canada’s railways.


Mr. Speaker, with its far flung population centres, Canada has been compared to a string of beads and an island archipelago. This is as true today as it was 176 years ago when the first railway was built in our great country.

Railways are not just a means of transportation; they tie us together at a much deeper level. Without them, Confederation would not have been possible. One of the few things that the separate colonial governments could agree on when they founded our nation was the desire to be linked and to thrive through the railways.

The Maritimes only joined Confederation because the building of an intercolonial railway was promised. Likewise, British Columbia only acceded because it was promised it would be connected to the rest of the country through a transcontinental railway.

The fathers of Confederation grasped the immense importance of railways for such a vast and sparsely populated country. This is why Canadian governments in the past have been supportive and involved in railways since the inception of our nation.

Depending on the types and location of railway projects, different approaches were taken by the government. The Intercolonial Railway was built under direct government supervision. Other railway links were established because loans were underwritten by the state. The most famous and important of the nation shaping railway projects was the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was made possible by private and public funds, as well as through massive land grants in the Canadian Prairies.

The railway, the longest in the world at the time, was completed in 1885 to great fanfare.

Creating a coast to coast railway connection was not only an economic imperative to string the provinces together, but it was also an act of nation building. The construction of railways created the economic basis for large parts of Canada. It also made our nation a diverse and striving one by bringing in immigrants from around the world as railway workers. Fifteen thousand Chinese workers built the most challenging and dangerous portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Long after the transcontinental links were built, a strong sense of federal responsibility remained, especially when times were tough. When the economy was down and the supply of immigrants had dried up during World War I, the government salvaged the assets of the three railways and merged them to form the Canadian National Railway.

After World War II, the slow decline of passenger railway services began. The large duopolists did not have a serious interest in passenger lines, as they focused on freight. Again, the federal government acted to protect national interests. Instead of letting passenger services disappear altogether under private sector management, VIA Rail was established in 1978 to ensure that passenger services would continue to connect Canadian cities. Yes, it was important to celebrate that year.

Unfortunately, more recent federal governments have tended to ignore the vast potential that rail services, both for freight and passengers, hold for our great country. Under the Conservatives, railways were largely deregulated in 1987.

Railway lines that were built to serve public needs with public money and land were now allowed to be abandoned by rail companies. As a result, Canada has lost over 10,000 kilometres in active rail lines since then, a loss of almost 20% of our rail network.

Another deliberate setback took place in 1995 when the Liberals and the Liberal government privatized the Canadian National Railway. In order to cash in on the coveted national asset, the government at the time sold CN on the stock market.

The benefits of railways are clear. Trains are substantially more fuel efficient than motor vehicles when it comes to moving passengers and cargo. By electrifying railway lines, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced.

Despite the shortcomings of federal safety regulations, travelling by train is roughly five times safer than using a car and it is still the main mode of transportation for our Canadian goods, with 70% of all freight in our country shipped by rail. Rail lines provide crucial links to our southern neighbour and its important markets for Canadian companies around the world.

In large urban centres, commuting by rail is vital in getting millions of Canadians to their workplace every day. VIA Rail connects our country’s most vibrant cities, carrying more than four million passengers a year, and it can do a lot more if it has government support.

Despite the impressive numbers, the picture is not so rosy. What used to be our nation’s prime mode of transportation and springboard for our national aspirations have been relegated to a back-row seat. The changes that the advent of air travel and cars have brought about cannot be denied or reversed. However, we are foolish to believe that we are helpless and that the only modern way to move goods and people is through airports and highways. Railways can be competitive and highly successful commercially. CN, for example, made billions of dollars last year. It takes the right government mindset and political will.

Countries in Europe and Asia, and lately even the United States, are showing us how efficient, fast and profitable railway passenger services can be. Instead of high-speed trains that run on their tracks, Canadians are stuck with slow diesel trains that roll on bumpy tracks that are owned by the monopolized CN and CP Rail. It is their tracks, their train-controlled centres and their trains that take precedence over any passenger train, a situation unheard of in countries like France or China.

Via Rail is forced to lease essentially all its tracks, as it owns close to none of them. By allowing the big private rail companies to abandon Canadian rail lines, both the passenger and freight customers, they are freer than ever to expand elsewhere, which means the lucrative U.S. market. CN has gobbled up various railway companies with its network stretching all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

CPR has made similar moves, purchasing thousands of kilometres of tracks in the United States to the tune of several billion dollars. No wonder Canadians are left behind.

The lack of attention from both large rail companies results in underserved rural areas with farmers who cannot ship their agricultural products, logging and mining companies that become uncompetitive as they cannot ship on time and car manufacturers whose sophisticated supply systems are upended by dismal rail services.

I have met many of the farm lobbying groups, whether it is Pulse Canada, Canadian Soybean or the wheat farmers. They have all said that they are losing millions of dollars because of unreliable rail service. Unfortunately the Conservative government has only made token efforts so far to address these issues.

To make the situation worse, passengers in Canada are left out in the cold as well. The government is slashing funding to VIA Rail by $200 million this year, according to its estimates. Crucial investment in overhauling aging cars and engines, as well as safety upgrades, cannot be made. The combined neglect of railway companies and the federal government has reached an unprecedented level of under-investment across the country.

A crucial link from Vancouver Island, and my colleagues know this very well, was recently shut down as it had become unsafe after years of pent-up maintenance. Likewise, the rail connection between Montreal and the Gaspé has been severed, leaving passengers stranded and a whole region cut off after 150 years of rail history.

The overall service levels have decreased so much that various train connections in 2012 are slower than they were in the early 1990s. The connecting Winnipeg-Churchill train has seen its schedule lengthened by about five hours since 2008. The Halifax-Montreal train is now almost three hours slower than it was in 1993. Not surprisingly, ridership has gone down from 279,000 in 1996 to 127,000 in 2010, which is more than half.

Even the service on the connection between Canada’s two largest cities, Montreal and Toronto, is slower than it was in 1992. Back then the train ride was just below four hours. Now it takes close to five hours.

The current state of Canada’s railways is made even harder because of government policies that favour air and road travel over trail. For the financial year of 2009-10, all levels of government, taken together, spent $1.2 billion on subsidizing air travel. This number is more than twice the amount that was spent in 2001-02. Likewise, government support for marine transportation increased by 90% over the same time span, now reaching $1.8 billion.

What about roads? They are our government’s pet projects. All levels of government spend close to $30 billion a year on highways and roads. Again, this amount has more than doubled since 2001.

Judging by the public discourse, transit is the ugly duckling when it comes to government support, but not quite. With almost $6 billion in government support, that is still light years away from passenger rail services. The rail service is treated as an afterthought. This is evidenced by the dismal amount of $430 million in government spending in 2009 and 2010. That is only a small increase of 12% over the 2001 levels, barely enough to keep up with inflation.

The new federal budget will put an X through that number, making it even lower, and more than a third of VIA Rail support is expected to be chopped, along with cuts to overall rail safety programs. Without a doubt, rail transport needs to be put on the national agenda again, not just for economic reasons but also to improve the safety and give Canadians the confidence they need when they make their travel arrangements.

As the transport critic, I welcome Bill S-4 and the step forward that it represents for Canada’s rail safety. I am joined in my appreciation of the safer railways act by my New Democrat colleagues. However, it can be argued that it has taken far too long to get this bill to the current stage. By the time the bill receives royal assent, it will be over five years since an independent panel made 56 recommendations to Transport Canada on how to make our railways safer. It is in the interest of all Canadians to make the bill a reality as soon as possible.

The tragic VIA Rail collision in Burlington last month shows that we need to do more to prevent future derailments, fatalities and injuries. It is time for the Conservative government to take action and satisfy long-standing demands from the independent experts on the Transportation Safety Board. The agency has been calling for voice recorders on locomotives since 2003 and they are still not in place. More talk is not what we need; it is action that we want. Likewise, the Transportation Safety Board has been calling for automatic safety back-up measures, in the case of equipment failure or human error, to prevent tragic accidents.

In 2008 the United States acted after a horrendous crash in California. By making positive train control mandatory, the U.S. is ensuring that an automatic safety system is in place, just like the one the Transportation Safety Board has been requesting for more than 10 years. Seeing the life-saving value of this technology, the experts on the board have refined the cause and have specifically demanded the introduction of mandatory positive train control in Canada since 2010.

The New Democrats urge the Conservative government to heed the Transportation Safety Board’s request to make our railways safer for passengers and rail workers alike. To enable VIA Rail to make its operations safer and to improve service levels, we also call on the federal government to reverse its funding cuts. Only by giving VIA Rail the financial resources that it needs, can we increase safety levels and restore confidence of Canadian confidence in rail travel.

Our demands are clear. We need Bill S-4 to pass. We want to ensure the Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation for voice recorders and positive train controls are implemented as soon as possible. We have to make passenger rail services safe and reliable again by restoring VIA Rail’s funding.

The time to act is now. By taking those measures, we continue to build on the legacy that was accomplished by our predecessors. Without the vision of this honourable House, that famous last spike would not have been driven into the transcontinental railway in 1885. Let us have similar foresight in making railways a national priority again.

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