There is perhaps no clearer example of the failures of privatization than the sell-off of British Columbia Railway. The BC Liberal government sparked public outrage when they broke their 2001 election promise and privatized BC Rail. Now, nearly a year and a half after the deal was sealed, BC Rail is in rough shape. The deal with Canadian National Railway is mired in scandal and the rail line is plagued with accidents.
Stretching from Vancouver to Fort Nelson, the railway is a vital part of British Columbia’s economy. 2,320 km of mainline operating track makes BC Rail the third largest regional railway in Canada. BC Rail hauls over 120,000 freight car loads of lumber and other forest products per year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BC_Rail). Publicly owned since 1918, it was also a major tourist attraction. Every year thousands would board the Royal Hudson, a 1940 steam locomotive, to enjoy the scenic trek through British Columbia’s breathtaking Rocky Mountains. The excursion trips were canceled shortly before the privatization of BC Rail.
From the beginning, the BC Rail deal was rotten to the core. During the 2001 election campaign Gordon Campbell specifically promised not to sell the railway. So, true to his record, it was only a matter of time before it was announced that the government was accepting bids for the railway. The May 15, 2003 announcement outraged many; over 30,000 British Columbians signed a petition demanding that it remain in public hands. But this was only the beginning of the problems.
On November 21, Canadian Pacific Railway formally withdrew from the bidding complaining that the process was “extremely prejudiced” in favour of CN Rail. Several other bidders complained about the process before it was announced that CN’s $1 Billion bid had won them the 999 year lease. Of course, it is only coincidence that CN Rail has donated some $150,000 to the BC Liberal Party since 1994 (Tieleman, March 11 2004, http://www.straight.com/content.cfm?id=1342).
The deal turned from bad to worse on December 28 when police raided the legislature in connection with the deal. There is still a veil of secrecy surrounding the investigation that somehow connected drugs, money laundering and the BC Rail deal to several key ministerial assistants. David Basi, a key political player and ministerial aide, was forced to resign over the scandal.
But of course, none of this was enough to stop the BC Liberals from pushing through their corporate agenda. On July 15 of last year CN Rail took possession of the company. The immediate effects were devastating. Hundreds of unionized workers were laid off as CN Rail closed BC Rail facilities across the province.
The debate between private and public ownership is not just some philosophical disagreement of political ideologues. The consequences of privatization are very concrete. Privatizing BC Rail has placed it under all of the pressures of the capitalist system. The never-ending quest for profit plays a terrible role in our society and specifically in BC Rail. The number of accidents on the rail line has shot up a staggering 500% since last year.
In 2004 there were two train derailments on the BC Rail line. On Monday, December 5 2005 BC Rail saw its tenth train derailment of the year. Many believe that the cause of these accidents is the length of the trains. When BC Rail was operated publicly, the length of the trains rarely exceeded 100 cars. After being privatized, those same tracks carried trains sometimes exceeding 130 cars through environmentally sensitive areas.
On November 4, CN was ordered to limit their trains between Squamish and Clinton to 80 cars. But the order came too late for the Cheakamus River. On August 5, 2005 a train derailed into the river dumping over 40,000 liters of sodium hydroxide into the salmon habitat. The river instantly turned from its usual rich green colour to a foggy brown as silt and sodium hydroxide swept downstream killing every species of fish in its path. Thousands upon thousands of dead fish now line the shore of the once healthy river. It may take generations for the river to recover.
The BC Rail privatization has been an absolute disaster. It serves as a powerful indictment of not only the BC Liberal government, but of the entire capitalist system. This is just one more sign that private interests are incapable of protecting jobs and the environment. The BC Liberals have shown that they have no problem tearing up contracts; it’s time they tear up this one.
Take Back BC Rail!