Rail bill won’t be passed until after winter break

Farmers and grain shippers won’t be getting long-awaited changes to grain transportation rules for Christmas this year.

Bill C-49, the Transportation Modernization Act, cleared the House of Commons at the end of October, but has only reached second reading in the Senate.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who has been urging the Senate to approve the bill for Royal Assent before the holiday break, appeared before the Senate’s transportation committee on Tuesday.

“I do feel there is an urgency to this bill,” the minister told the committee.

The proposed legislation would give grain shippers the right to charge railways with penalties for poor service, increase the powers of the Canadian Transportation Agency, and clarify the definition of “adequate and suitable” service by railways — some of the longstanding requests made by grain industry stakeholders. It would also implement a new long haul interswitching provision.

The Alberta Wheat Commission is also stressing the urgency to implement the new rail bill, pointing to problems with rail service this year. AWC cites data showing that CN Rail’s car order fulfillment in recent weeks — before the arrival of harsh winter conditions — has averaged only 50 to 60 percent.

“With delayed service, not only do we risk losing credibility with our global customers as we did during the backlog of 2013-14, but we also risk having fees associated with delayed shipments passed down to our already slim margins. With no provisions in place to hold the railways to account, farmers could be facing serious risk with moving this year’s harvest,” said AWC chair Kevin Auch in a statement on Wednesday.

Kelsey Johnson of iPolitics is covering Bill C-49 in Ottawa and joined Shaun Haney on RealAg Radio to discuss what’s happening with the transport legislation:

“I understand you’re anxious to get this bill through the Senate,” Saskatchewan Senator and transport committee chair David Tkachuk told Garneau. “First, the Senate has not been stalling this bill. Second, it is much more than a grain transportation bill.”

Transport Minister Marc Garneau (left) checking out hopper cars near Edmonton in May (Source: @Transport_gc, Twitter)

Tkachuk noted MPs took five months to approve the bill after it was introduced in May, while Senators have only had it for a little over a month.

“To blame the Senate for not getting it passed by Christmas is audacious,” he said, referring to concerns about text pertaining to long haul interswitching provisions, joint venture clauses, foreign ownership, and the Liberals’ proposed airline passenger bill of rights.

Manitoba Senator Don Plett also called the timeline “absurd,” while Alberta Senator Dennis Dawson told Garneau “unfortunately, (passage of Bill C-49) won’t be a Christmas present for you this year.”

Senators also asked Garneau why grain transportation was lumped in with other changes to the transportation system in C-49. Garneau indicated he would not consider separating the grain transportation text from the rest of the bill, which includes changes pertaining to airline passenger rights and rail safety requirements.

“It would be my hope to pass it sometime later this year,” Garneau told RealAgriculture shortly after introducing the bill in May, acknowledging at the time that it would be difficult to pass the bill before the summer break, as was the hope of farm groups and grain shippers.

Temporary federal rules designed to ensure adequate rail service for grain were implemented during the backlog of 2013-14, but they expired on August 1, 2017.

As it stands, it doesn’t look like Bill C-49 will be passed before the middle of winter, as Parliament is only expected to resume sitting near the end of January.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on December 13th with comments from the Alberta Wheat Commission.

 

Kelvin Heppner

Kelvin Heppner is a field editor and radio host for RealAgriculture and RealAg Radio. He's been reporting on agriculture on the prairies and across Canada since 2008(ish). He farms with his family near Altona, Manitoba, and is on Twitter at @realag_kelvin. @realag_kelvin

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