Hours before the start of a two-week Parliamentary recess, the Senate passed the transport modernization bill with 19 amendments that farm groups and others were seeking.
However the move sends the bill back to the Commons for approval. As Transport Minister Marc Garneau opposed any amendments to it in an appearance just before the Senate committee voted in favour of them, it’s probable the Liberals will use their majority in the Commons to again approve the bill in its original form.
Or accept a couple of amendments and send it back to the Senate. Parliamentary experts say the Senate would either have to pass that version of the bill or risk holding up the improvements contained it from becoming law for even longer.
Parliament will be in recess until April 16 so the Senate action will hold up final passage of the bill until May and maybe later.
Farm groups welcomed the Senate amendments. “It’s clear the Senate heard farmers’ voices and did its job and provided sober second thought,” said Grain Growers of Canada President Jeff Nielsen. “With the proposed improvements, Bill C-49 will provide meaningful tools that the shippers need to hold railways to account, increase competition and bring better rail service to the grain industry.”
He said the government’s version of the bill left too much power in the hands of the railways while the amended version adds soybeans to the Maximum Revenue Entitlement, improves shipper accessibility to long-haul interswitching, requires the railways to provide more information during final offer arbitration and enables the Canadian Transportation Agency to investigate shipping bottlenecks on its own initiative.
The Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley Commissions joined GGC in urging the Commons to approve the amended version of the bill. “Prior to the legislation passing, grain farmers in several regions in Western Canada have seen significant delays this year with rail car fulfillments in the poorest weeks reaching critical levels experienced during the backlog of 2013-14.”
The revised version of the bill “is a major step forward for Canadian grain farmers,” said AWC Chairman Kevin Bender. “The legislation likely won’t fix the current backlog that farmers have experienced in several areas this year, but we are extremely pleased to have mechanisms in place that will help avoid this issue in the future.”
Alberta Barley Chair Jason Lenz said, “Farmers rely almost entirely on freight rail transportation to move our products to our international customers and this legislation ultimately strengthens Canada’s position as a major grain exporter.”
Garneau asked the Senate committee to approve the bill as written to preserve “its exquisite balance.” A lot of work went into the preparation of the bill included the voluminous 2016 report on the review of the Canada Transport Act.
The modernization of freight rail legislation “was a very long time in coming,” he said. “There have been conflicts between the railways and shippers, whether we’re talking about grain, potash, minerals or containers, and that goes back a long time.”
The bill constitutes “a balanced and fair approach for both sides, recognizing that there were some long-standing grievances with shippers that needed to be addressed, while at the same time recognizing that our railways carry all of these commodities. They must remain viable economic entities, and do important things like renew their infrastructure on a periodic basis.”
Shipper groups have said “that many of the things that they had been asking for were in this bill,” he said. “We also received positive comment from the railways. Were they both 100 per cent happy? No.”
However amending the “to add things or remove things will create an imbalance,” he said. “This is a very balanced budget.”
For example the government retained MREs “but we are making some adjustments to incentivize the railways to renew their rolling stock because it’s absolutely essential that they do continue to modernize their railway stock and, in some cases, increase it to deal with, for example, greater quantities of grain.”
Both the shippers and railways have expressed their issues with bill. Shippers have received a definition of adequate and suitable rail service, reciprocal financial penalties, more accessible and timely remedies for shippers, on both rates and service and long-haul interswitching, new reporting requirements for railways on rates, service and performance to enhance transparency and retention of MREs.
“We’ve have done a great deal to modernize the legislation to try to achieve this balance that I spoke to you about. Not all of it are the railways happy with. But they have accepted it, and they will be moving forward with these new regulations.”