Saskatchewan MP Ralph Goodale has introduced a private member’s bill that would require railways to give three years’ notice instead of 60 days to scrap a producer car siding.
Bill C-586 would amend the Canada Transportation Act so that the process to discontinue a producer car siding is similar to abandoning rail lines. It received first reading in the House of Commons Oct. 27.
“If they (railways) are proposing to discontinue the line in that three-year period they have to have a hearing before the Canada Transportation Agency and the burden of proof is on the railways, not on the users of the line,” Goodale said in an interview. “So if the railways want to abandon a siding, they’ll have to prove it’s in the public interest to abandon that siding.”
Western Canadian grain farmers have had the legal right to order and load rail cars with their own grain, bypassing the elevator system, since 1902. (See sidebar)
“The fact that they (farmers) have the right is the safety valve against commercial exploitation,” Goodale said.
Producers loaded 12,198 cars last year, a fourfold increase since the late 1990s.
Farm groups, including the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) and National Farmers Union (NFU), have asked the federal government for changes to better protect sidings. The issue arose a year ago when Canadian National Railway (CN) gave notice it was going to discontinue 53 sidings – nine of them in Manitoba.
Rob Merrifield, minister of state for transport, urged CN not to be so hasty and to work with farmers first.CN agreed to delay the process, but eventually went ahead, noting that the sites were seldom used.
In an email last week, CN spokesman Warren Chandler said approximately three-quarters of the closed sites had not been used in recent years and the remaining quarter had fewer than five cars each over a two-year period.
Sidings must be inspected and maintained. CN still manages 120 stations of the 280 producer loading sites located across the Prairies.
Goodale said the total number of sites has dropped from 700 a decade ago. “There are fewer sites available, but there is a much larger number of cars being loaded, which says farmers are using the right more and they find it to be valuable,” he said.
Private member’s bills seldom become law, but the odds are slightly better in a minority Parliament. A lottery determines which bills get debated first.
If the bill gets to second reading, Goodale said he hopes it goes to House of Commons’ agriculture committee because the committee members are more familiar with producer cars than the transport committee.
Goodale said his bill might find general support, even among Conservative MPs. “I would think this is the kind of measure that has a chance of getting consensus in the House,” he said.
Asked to comment on the bill, Canadian Pacific Railway spokesman Mike LoVecchio said in an email that the CPR has an ongoing dialogue with producers using producer sites. “We also meet or exceed all regulatory requirements,” he said. “We’re committed to that approach.”
CN is committed to producer car shippers, Chandler said.CN moved more than 7,000 producer cars last crop year. “CN sees the current closure system as reasonable although we have no plans to close further sites at this time,” he said.
This is the second private member’s bill Goodale has introduced this year. Bill C-548, introduced last June, seeks to ensure the Canadian Wheat Board’s operations and mandate are controlled by farmers, not the federal government. [email protected]