Bureaucratic shuffle may mean continued delay of rail bill

A shuffle at the top rank of Transport Canada has shippers worried that long-promised legislation to balance the market power of the railways and their customers will be delayed.

Louis Levesque will move from deputy minister for international trade to the same post at Transport Canada Nov. 12, replacing Yaprak Baltacioglu, who will become secretary of the Treasury Board.

Levesque joined the federal government in 1991 but from the resume supplied by the government, he has no experience in transportation issues. In Ottawa, that appointment of an outsider to deputy minister usually means any major initiative goes on hold until the newcomer is up to speed on the department’s files.

Shippers worry that the legislation, already delayed until this fall, will get pushed back until next year. And then it could put off even longer while the Canadian Transport Agency conducts a rail-costing review already scheduled for 2013.

Baltacioglu, who came to Transport from Agriculture, was well versed in the details behind the efforts by resource industry shippers to convince the government to pass legislation based on the findings of Rail Service Freight Review launched in 2008.

Its report advocated service guarantees for the shippers with financial penalties for failures. The railways have been fighting the legislation as an unnecessary regulatory burden, which has helped delay its introduction.

In fact, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is the only minister who keeps talking up the legislation. Transport Minister Denis Lebel rarely speaks about it and has shown little interest in the issue. He insisted last spring the government still planned to introduce a bill this fall.

Last month, shipper organizations representing the major resource sectors such as forestry, fertilizers, mining and agriculture called again on the government “to address inefficient and inadequate rail freight service.”

They met ministers and MPs, but came away no wiser about the government’s plans.

The shippers want legislation that will enable them to establish more balanced commercial relationships with the railways. This would include the right to a service agreement between a rail company and a customer, backed up by a dispute settlement mechanism.

Western farm groups have been among the most vocal supporters of rail freight service legislation because they export about 80 per cent of their grains and oilseeds and need rail transport to deliver it to the United States or ports for loading on ships.

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