Rail service legislation passes unopposed

The federal government’s bid to set and hold Canada’s railways to agreed-upon levels of service by law has passed unopposed despite calls to tighten its terms.

“Once adopted, this new Act will contribute positively to relations between shippers and railway companies, and enhance the effectiveness, efficiency and reliability of the entire rail freight supply,” federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel said in a release Thursday hailing passage of Bill C-52 in the House of Commons.

The bill, which was first tabled in December, also passed first reading in the Senate on Thursday afternoon and returns for second reading on Tuesday (June 4).

C-52, a.k.a. the Fair Rail Freight Service Act, gives shippers the right to enter into a confidential contract with a railway company and lays out a framework in which shippers and railways can negotiate service agreements.

The bill also provides the trigger for a “fast and efficient arbitration process” to establish terms of service if commercial negotiations end in dispute.

The bill also allows the Canadian Transportation Agency to levy administrative monetary penalties of up to $100,000 on a railway for each subsequent violation that “does not follow the arbitrator’s decision” from an arbitrated level-of-service agreement, the government noted.

C-52 was the government’s response to recommendations from the federal Rail Freight Service Review Panel in 2011. The panel, the government said, sought to encourage the use of bilateral service pacts between shippers and railways to bring more “clarity, predictability and reliability” to rail service.

“Weak”

In March this year, however, a coalition of shippers called for a new round of amendments to C-52, claiming they were now getting the worst rail service they’d seen in three years.

The coalition, which included the Western Grain Elevator Association and crop commodity groups as well as mining, feed, fertilizer, forestry and automotive companies, asked in March that the bill better define “adequate and suitable accommodation” and “service obligations.”

The shippers also asked that C-52 allow an arbitrator to rule on a wider range of items in a service level agreement, allow single shipper tariffs to be eligible for final offer arbitration, allow a shipper to identify the matter in dispute before an arbitrator, and remove the ability for the railways to use “the network” as an excuse for inadequate service.

Olivia Chow, the opposition New Democrats’ transport critic in the Commons, last month described C-52 as a “weak bill” that would only “partially address” the situation rail shippers face in Canada.

Despite “clear evidence” from rail freight customers, she said April 20, the Commons transport committee “ignored the pleas for key changes and sent the unchanged, insufficient bill back to the House.”

Chow, a Toronto MP, had “worked closely” with the coalition on her proposed amendments to the bill, but said the committee, controlled by the majority Conservatives, rejected them all.

At third reading and adoption on Thursday, however, the Commons passed C-52 by a vote of 255 to zero.

C-52, Chow said last month, “is only the first step in addressing the abuse of market power by the railway companies for freight services. Much more needs to be done and together with my New Democratic colleagues I will hold this government to account.” — AGCanada.com Network

Related story:
Extra teeth demanded for rail service bill, March 27, 2013

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