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LETTER: Plan for return of passenger rail not running on time

The alternate railway connecting North Bay to Toronto - by way of Orillia and Barrie - was abandoned in the mid 1990s, meaning train service to GTA is off the rails

MidlandToday welcomes letters to the editor ([email protected]). Please include your daytime phone number and address (for verification of authorship, not publication).The following letter is from reader Éric Boutilier on passenger rail in the north.

If a political promise is made in Northern Ontario, but there's nobody around to see it through, does it still mean we get a passenger train back?

The provincial government made an announcement regarding the return of passenger rail service between Timmins, North Bay and Toronto. On the surface, this appears to be good news, as the province released its updated initial business case and has committed $75 million towards additional work and analysis.

This time around, instead of satellite imagery, Metrolinx and Ontario Northland actually set foot in the communities they have proposed service to and examined the condition of each station and platform. It also looks as if Cochrane, Kirkland Lake (Swastika) and South River are back in the mix as potential stops.

However, as I watched the press conference, I couldn't help but notice the Premier didn't mention anything about a timetable for resuming said train. The wording in the report - potential in-service date in the mid 2020s - remains a concern for northerners.

The process of ordering new or refurbished passenger coaches is one that can take many years to complete. For example, VIA Rail Canada is just now receiving the first shipments of train sets it placed an order for way back in December of 2018.

Any equipment on display during the announcement in Timmins is reserved for use only on the Polar Bear Express between Moosonee and Cochrane.

An agreement with CN is also required to use their tracks on the Newmarket and Bala subdivisions. Without one, we can forget about having any passenger rail service whatsoever connecting the north to Union Station in Toronto.

The alternate railway connecting North Bay to Toronto - by way of Orillia and Barrie - was abandoned in the mid 1990s. Portions of the line have since been sold and built up on.

Finally, the ONR needs a strategy to ensure its trains depart and arrive on schedule at its southern terminus. VIA Rail's transcontinental service — The Canadian — suffers from regular delays due to the sheer volume of freight train traffic between Toronto, Washago and points beyond.

Speaking of VIA, is Northern Ontario even on it's radar ... or for that matter, Parliament's?

The independent crown corporation doesn't appear anymore hurried to bring back regional rail services it slashed two years ago because of the pandemic.

The Sudbury-White River train's frequency was supposed to increase in April. It's now set for June 14th - with the caveat of additional delays if required.

Passengers who rely on either this service or the Canadian (in places like Sioux Lookout, Hornepayne and Greater Sudbury) remain severely inconvenienced by this temporary once-a-week schedule.

What's worse is that Ottawa recently announced an investment of $169,4 million dollars to build and modernize stations served by VIA Rail in the Québec-Windsor corridor. Whereas facilities like the ones in Longlac, Parry Sound and White River remain locked up and closed to the public.

The irony of moving forward with large scale transit projects such as VIA's High Frequency Rail proposal isn't lost on northerners.

VIA's response: We thank you for your reply regarding services in Northern Ontario.

The new reality of passenger rail in our country as obligated by the Federal Government is affordability, financial viability, and practicality. VIA must and will bring these criteria into consideration when decisions have to be made, while our annual subsidy remains the same. You may be assured that the suggestions of concerned Canadians, such as yourself, are taken seriously. Please also be assured that your comments regarding services in Northern Ontario have been noted for information.

Again, we thank you for writing.

VIA Rail Canada Custormer Relations
April 1, 2022

Bureaucrats and politicians from both levels of government have been too quick to pull the plug on services in Northern Ontario they deem unnecessary.

It took no more than six months to terminate the Northlander train - from the time it was announced by a former Minister from the Nickel City, to the time it was pulled from service September 28, 2012.

A decade later, it's clear the "enhanced bus service" strategy hasn't worked out - given that it's been reduced from two daily frequencies to just one north of North Bay.

The MPP for Nipissing and his government have certainly taken steps to undo their predecessors' mistake. However, they also committed to having passenger rail running no later than by the end of their first term in office.

We're not as far along in the process than they would have us believe. Until agreements have been signed, equipment orders placed and reservations can be made, northerners are still going to find themselves with limited options for travel.

They're talking up our train again though, so there must be an election on the horizon.

Éric Boutilier
Founder of Northern Tracks Blog