Commons approves amended transportation bill

The fate of much-awaited transportation reforms is now once again with the Senate

The Liberals used their majority in the Commons to defeat opposition attempts to accept all the amendments proposed to the transportation modernization legislation, and then approve their own changes to the bill.

The bill goes back to the Senate for approval before it can receive royal assent and become law, although many of its provisions won’t come into effect until regulations are subsequently approved.

The Senate is expected to approve the latest changes to the bill fairly quickly, while taking a final shot at pointing out shortcomings in the legislative package. That should meet requests from agriculture groups for the law’s passage without delay so grain growers are not hobbled in the next crop year by poor rail service as they were in 2017-18.

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Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s final package of amendments to the bill adopted five of the 19 changes proposed by the Senate. He said a couple of days before he presented his proposals to the Commons that they would “reflect changes the Senate has proposed.” Most shipper groups thought they came up far short of that.

They included giving the Canadian Transportation Agency a limited power to investigate rail service issues with approval of the transport minister, amending long-haul interswitching to better suit shipper requests, and including soybeans and related products in the maximum revenue entitlement program.

Garneau said requiring ministerial approval of any CTA service investigation retained “an appropriate level of oversight by the government.”

Shipper spokesmen said the need for ministerial approval gives the upper hand to the railways, as the government took no action as service to grain and other shippers deteriorated through the winter.

The government adjusted the Senate amendment on long-haul interswitching to not disadvantage shippers whose closest rail interchange was in the wrong direction for the destination of the shipment. The CTA will determine a rate for a movement of up to 1,200 kilometres within 30 business days.

“We are committed to working with all shippers to ensure that these benefits are properly understood by all, and that they are used to the fullest extent possible in order to strengthen their negotiation leverage with the railways and hold them fully accountable for the quality of the service they provide,” he said.

He rejected the Senate proposal for final-offer arbitration on freight rates based on cost. It will remain an arbitration-based process to settle a dispute during a negotiation of a confidential commercial contract with a railway, he said.

The government will “publicize aggregated freight rail information that will help shippers in their commercial negotiations with the railways, and lessening the need to access remedies such as the FOA. Through this bill, shippers, including captive shippers, are offered many alternative remedies such as LHI, reciprocal financial penalties, shortened timelines for agency decisions, and access to improved informal dispute resolution mechanisms.”

Conservative Agriculture Critic John Barlow said the government’s inaction on grain transportation “for almost a year has been mind boggling.” It had numerous opportunities to get the changes needed to address the rail situation passed sooner but did nothing.

It rejected suggestions to split the bill in two to deal with the rail issues on an expedited basis, he said. “Last fall, with a larger-than-average harvest and the challenges CN and CP were facing in terms of meeting the contracts, we saw the rail line numbers dipping with each weekly report that was coming out.

“The crisis our farmers have been facing since last fall is still there, and it is not going away any time soon,” he said. “It is going to impact their fall season. They cannot move grain right now. Many of them are finally in the fields seeding. Road bans are in place in many of the western provinces, inhibiting their ability to actually transport grain to the terminal.”

A recent report said “almost half a billion dollars’ worth of grain is sitting in storage bins across Western Canada. That is grain that our producers and our farmers cannot sell. They are unable to sell their product and get it to the terminal and then to the coast.”

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