By: David Bradley
In the arena of public scrutiny it’s been a rough couple of years for Canada’s railways. First, there was the federal government’s review of rail service and subsequent legislation. Then there was the tragedy at Lac Megantic, QC, the fall-out from which is still ongoing. More recently, problems relating to the shipment of grain have added to the scrutiny and regulation.
As the mode of transportation that most closely shares its workplace with the public, the trucking industry has at times faced its own share of negative public attention. Anyone who was in the industry during the spate wheel separation incidents in the 1990s will know what I mean. It didn’t help the situation at the time when certain rail interests tried to capitalize on the trucking industry’s misfortunes by “piling on” through a strategy of deliberate misinformation and half-truths to advance their own self-interests. Remember CRASH, the so-called Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, anti-truck lobby which was essentially funded by the railways?
However, we know how things worked out. The trucking industry, rather than trying to deflect blame, took responsibility and worked closely with government to implement a series of measures that significantly improved truck safety. At the same time, the railways’ anti-truck rhetoric was so transparent and obviously self-serving that their whole strategy became discredited and was eventually abandoned.
Back then we cautioned the rail lobbyists that “those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Now that the shoe is to some degree on the other foot, there are those who might think we would be tempted to “give some back” and use these latest incidents and issues to talk down the railways. But, that’s not how we do business. The fact is that Canada needs both trucks and trains. The two modes work together every day. We actually compete on a very small percentage of the total freight. There is enough for everyone and we all have our challenges.
So, it’s a bit disappointing to see some people attempting to deflect attention and responsibility for some of the current railway troubles by trotting out some of the same old chestnuts that we heard back in the 1980s and 1990s.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this was contained in an editorial recently published in one of Canada’s largest daily newspapers, in which the author argued that the wrong parties were charged in the wake of the Lac Megantic tragedy. (It had recently been announced that three railway workers had been charged with criminal negligence causing death). According to the editorial’s author, a self-described transportation writer and policy advisor, the blame for Lac Megantic lies at least in part with the trucking industry which he claims is a chief beneficiary of government spending policies that favour the funding highway infrastructure, whereas the railways pay for their own infrastructure.
He excuses railways that cut corners on safety as an understandable and natural response to competition from other modes that can only be solved by asking the Canadian taxpayer to subsidize increased railway profits.
Similar sentiments appeared earlier last spring in an editorial on the proposed grain handling regulations published in one of the country’s national newspapers by a research fellow for a public policy centre based in Western Canada, who lamented among other things, that the federal government was investing money in fixing Montreal’s Champlain Bridge while the railways had to pay for their own infrastructure. Moreover, the writer claimed that shipping by rail is 16 times safer than trucking. Where on earth did that come from? We’re told Canadians should be relieved to know that all that scary stuff moves by rail and not by truck.
As always these sorts of arguments are spurious at best. Truckers aren’t interested in getting into the long distance shipment of crude oil, for example. Even if they wanted to, there aren’t enough drivers or highways to handle it. I am always mystified by the suggestion that trucks don’t pay their fair share through taxes, fees and tolls, for the infrastructure they use.
The purveyors of this myth conveniently ignore the corporate welfare that was doled out to the railways by the people of Canada for over a century and a half. How ludicrous for anyone to allege that it is not the rail sector but the trucking industry and public investment in and ownership of the highways that are to blame for the Lac Megantic tragedy. Surely, such an argument can’t be taken seriously and must be recognized for what it is — a pathetic attempt by certain railway apologists to deflect attention away from their favourite mode and distract from identifying and holding to account those responsible for the Lac Megantic and other recent incidents.
I have no sense that these editorials are part of a coordinated effort on the part of the rail sector. For our part, we have no interest or desire to resume the kind of inter-modal squabbling that was such a feature of days gone by. It’s not good for anyone’s business and gets us no closer to resolving the legitimate concerns and challenges faced by either mode.