Transport Minister Marc Garneau says he will accept several amendments to his transport modernization bill proposed by the Senate and supported by farm and resource sector groups.
A letter to shippers’ groups dated April 27 said the minister would present a motion in the Commons to amend Bill C-49 “to reflect changes the Senate has proposed.”
They include giving the Canadian Transportation Agency power to investigate rail service issues, amend the long-haul interswitching to better suit shipper requests, and include soybeans and related products in the maximum revenue entitlement program.
“This bill represents historic gains for those who depend on Canada’s freight rail system,” the letter said.
He also promised more useful waybill and transportation performance data for shippers to assist in negotiating confidential contracts. Transport Canada will work with the Agriculture and Natural Resources departments to organize a meeting with shipper groups “before the summer to discuss these provisions and how you may be able to use them to their maximum effectiveness.”
As well, there will be a ‘data workshop’ to collect shipper views under the transport bill to ensure “that regulations are developed in a way that meets the needs of interested parties.”
The minister’s letter came within hours of a call by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and its three Prairie members, echoing an earlier statement from Grain Growers of Canada, for the government to accept 19 Senate amendments to the bill so it will become law before Parliament’s summer break in June.
There are five scheduled weeks of parliamentary sittings left with the option of two more before Parliament begins its summer recess in June until Sept. 17.
The transport bill is just one of the government’s legislative headaches. It’s still trying to get its hefty budget bill approved by the Commons so it can be passed on to the Senate. It’s also committed to bringing in legislation to ratify Canada’s membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. A wide swath of agri-food groups want that measure passed quickly so Canada enjoys the full benefits of membership in the trade alliance.
On top of those issues the government is struggling to find a solution to the dispute over the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion including possible legislation to authorize the project as well as ongoing uncertainty over its marijuana legalization plans.
CFA was joined by the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan and Keystone Agricultural Producers of Manitoba in its call for the government to accept the amendments “to help avert railway shipping backlogs, like the one grain farmers have been struggling through over the last five months.”
Railway service delays have led to major cash flow concerns, steep financial penalties, and risks to farmers’ international customer base, CFA president Ron Bonnett said. Farmers need assurance this summer’s crop will be reliably delivered to grain terminals in ports as well as other customers.
“Seeding season has already started, and producers need certainty to plan for delivering next year’s crop. We are hopeful that the amended bill will be passed into law without further delay.”
Grain Growers president Jeff Nielsen said the Senate “heard farmers’ voices and did its job and provided sober second thought.” The amendments “will provide meaningful tools that the shippers need to hold railways to account, increase competition and bring better rail service to the grain industry.”
The CFA’s letter to MPs said, “For the second time in less than five years, grain elevators across the Prairies have been overflowing with quality products that can’t be shipped to customers overseas. Once again, railways were unprepared to carry the available grain to port. If grain doesn’t move, farmers don’t get paid. This leads to a cash flow crunch and enormous stress due to systemic flaws that are outside farmers’ control. Farm groups estimate that more than 45,000 grain producers have been affected in the last year, either directly or indirectly.
How can Canada build a reputation as a world-class grain supplier “when its rail transportation systems are repeatedly unreliable? In 2013-14, a rail backlog cost western grain farmers and the rural economy more than $6.5 billion, a terrible loss to national prosperity overall.”