Senate approves rail bill amendments requested by farm groups

Update, March 29: Bill C-49 passed third reading in the Senate on Thursday afternoon, sending the bill, with the Senate’s amendments, back to the House of Commons for MPs to consider after the two-week Easter break.

The Senate transport committee has approved several changes to Bill C-49 that had been requested by farm groups.

After receiving the bill in December, the committee conducted its final clause-by-clause consideration of the transportation legislation on Tuesday.

In addition to amendments on issues unrelated to agriculture, such as airline passenger rights, the changes made by the Senate committee include giving the Canadian Transportation Agency “own-motion power” or the ability to initiate its own investigations into poor rail service without receiving a formal complaint from a shipper.

Senator Rosa Galvez introduced the amendment, noting shippers currently fear retaliation if they file a complaint against a railway.

“The own-motion power could allow for the agency to address issues affecting multiple shippers or even an industry, proactively dealing with systemic issues,” she explains. “An industry or group of several shippers, rather than individual shippers, could bring a complaint to the agency.”

If the amendment stands, the CTA could investigate a rail service problem “when there’s evidence of a real and emerging problem,” says Galvez.

The committee approved a motion from Senator Don Plett to tweak the long-haul interswitching terms in the legislation, removing some of the restrictions on when a grain elevator can access the interswitching provision.

Plett and Senator Diane Griffin also spoke in favour of an amendment that was carried to add soybeans to the “schedule 2” document that lists which commodities are covered under the maximum revenue entitlement (MRE) — the volume-based cap on railway revenue for shipping crops. Griffin noted soybeans weren’t a major crop in Western Canada when the list was created in 2002.

The Grain Growers of Canada, Pulse Canada, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, Alberta Wheat Commission, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, and the Western Canadian Wheat Growers were among the groups that asked the Senate committee to make amendments.

Assuming the Senate approves the changes made by its transport committee, the amended bill will return to the House of Commons for MPs to decide if they accept or reject the updated text.

It’s not clear whether Transport Minister Marc Garneau and his Liberal House colleagues will agree to the changes, as Garneau has indicated he’s reluctant to change the “balance” of the bill.

“Some of the proposed changes are fuelled by the recent frustration with the poor service levels that some shippers have experienced,” Garneau told the committee on Tuesday morning, prior to the amendments passing. “While I appreciate this challenging situation and that seeking further changes to a bill is a legitimate part of our legislative process, I will stress again that Bill C-49 has been very carefully crafted, and these types of sector specific changes risk disrupting the delicate balance that has been established.”

A spokesperson for the transport minister told RealAgriculture on Wednesday that Garneau is “currently studying the Senate’s amendments and it would be premature to comment as we speak.”

Further amendments by the House would send the bill back to the Senate.

It’s also not known where C-49 will rank in the Liberals’ list of priorities when the House resumes after the two week Easter break that starts Thursday. Farm groups are urging the government to pass the bill as soon as possible — certainly before the House rises for summer, which is currently scheduled to happen on or before June 22nd.

Kelsey Johnson, Ottawa-based reporter with iPolitics, joined Kelvin Heppner on RealAg Radio on Tuesday (while the Senate committee was still working on its amendments) to discuss where Bill C-49 is headed — listen here:

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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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