Binkley on railway legislation fail

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...

The Binkley Report

Conservative MP Ed Holder prompts joy when

pointing out the obvious on railway legislation

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

One of the ongoing frustrations of reporting from Parliament Hill is watching MPs flounder about when they’re supposed to be scrutinizing key pieces of legislation on our behalf.

While the poor performances are especially acute in this Parliament because of the tight rein the government tries to keep on the standing committees, it’s been a long time since the committee work of MPs has really stood out in the one place where they can shine if they come prepared.

So a recent intervention by London West Conservative MP Ed Holder on legislation to require the railways to be more cooperative with their freight customers was almost a moment of joy.

All he did was point out the key failing in the bill — the fact that it was even necessary.

Most Canadians would understandably not get excited about a railway bill or most transportation legislation for that matter. However, it’s worth putting Holder’s intervention on the record in hopes it might inspire other MPs to show similar insight. He’s about as much a free spirit as Conservative MPs can be and often brings a sensible perspective to matters his colleagues mostly spout rhetoric over.

What he asked a panel of railway industry executive was, “How did we ever get to this point (requiring legislation) ... why didn't you folks just do this before?” The question could equally have been asked of spokesmen for freight shippers.

The legislation has been five years in the making with a major inquiry into shipper complaints about lousy service. There have been countless reviews and studies and a high-level attempt to iron out the differences between the two sides. Even after all those openings, the government, with the support of the opposition parties, had to resort to legislation to resolve the service complaints.

And that’s mainly because the two sides, despite no end of prompting, failed to negotiate a comprehensive level of service deal to avoid government intervention. Depending on whom you ask, differences in ego and personalities and a lack of leadership seem to be the main reasons for the bill, which will become the law this spring.

Holder said he doesn’t think “legislation is always the answer.” However, CN and CP’s domination made the rail freight sector “a different kind of marketplace. That's been a supported marketplace that requires different obligations.”

The railways have invested billions of dollars to improve freight delivery for their customers in recent years and shippers have acknowledged this, he continued. “When I hear the shippers say you're not doing enough and I hear the railways saying you're doing too much, I'm almost at that point where I'm thinking we're getting pretty close to where it needs to be,” Holder said of the bill.

The legislation will require the railways to negotiate service agreements with their customers in a process that is backstopped by mediation and arbitration by the Canadian Transportation Agency.

It was also illuminating to see none of the other MPs pick up on his line of questioning.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who has kept the political pressure on the service issue for years, says if the railways and shippers can settle their differences in commercial negotiations, the legislation will never have to be used after it becomes law later this year. But then, if they could do that, Holder wouldn’t have had to point out the obvious to everyone.