Feds promise rail service legislation by mid-December

Federal transport minister Denis Lebel says the government will table a rail service level guarantee bill in Parliament by mid-December.

He said he could not discuss the detail of the government position, but it will respond to shipper complaints.

“Will they (shippers) get everything they want? Probably not,” Lebel said. “But we will give them the tools they need.”

The legislation will be tabled before Parliament rises for its Christmas break in mid-December, he said.

It will not be debated in Parliament at least until next year and then only depending on the priority given it by the Conservative government.

Bob Ballantyne, chair of the Coalition of Rail Shippers, said shippers want the right to a service level agreement with railways, a credible dispute resolution process if railways do not meet the standard and the ability to have railways penalized for not meeting service standards.

Ballantyne said he’s concerned that the government isn’t signaling its intention to introduce strong shipper rights in the forthcoming legislation.

Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway have been lobbying strongly against new regulations, arguing market forces should allow the development of service agreements between shippers and carriers. Any regulatory obligations could derail railway investment, they say.

Shippers have argued that it is not a fair fight. Railways have the upper hand, and any negotiation on service standards is biased against them.

“We’ll see how well CN and CP have done on this,” said Ballantyne. “The minister’s comments are not too encouraging.”

The rail service issue is longstanding: shippers have complained about poor rail service in areas where they are a virtual monopoly while government has been slow to respond.

The Conservatives appointed former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning last year to try to find a way to achieve middle ground, but his effort failed and his report said a significant gap remains between the two sides.

Lebel’s legislation in the next several weeks will outline the government’s proposed solution.