Algoma Rail passenger service closing
Algoma Central Railway.
CN has said it is cancelling its passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst effective March 30 because the federal government is cutting off its $2.2 million subsidy used to operate the service, effective April 1.
CN refused to comment further, said Lindsay Fedchyshyn, regional manager of CN's public affairs department.
“This is another devastating blow to the tourism industry in Algoma,” said Ian McMillan, director of Tourism Sault Ste. Marie.
The passenger train service is an essential tool to the residents in rural Ontario and to the tourism industry because of the reliance to get access to rivers, lakes, streams, various lodges and outfitters throughout the year, he said.
McMillan added: “That service is a significant economic generator for outdoor activities and unique activities that this area can offer,” McMillan said. “It is a significant transportation link in Northern Ontario.”
CN officials told the cities of the major communities along the ACR line – and their employees – about the cancellation Friday.
The decision is apparently based on Transport Canada's policy objective to only provide remote passenger rail services to communities that would not have access to the national transportation system. The communities served by ACR all have highway access.
As a result, the ACR is no longer eligible for the funding because the major communities are accessible by highway.
There was no public consultation or notice about the move by the federal government to cancel the funding. CN has also been aware of the slashed funding since mid-November but did not tell communities until recently.
This is not the first time the federal government has attempted to cut funding for the service.
A similar decision was made in 1995 but strong lobby efforts and coordination of efforts from the various communities affected resulted in a reduced service being implemented.
Linda Savory-Gordon, a board member with the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT), said the subsidy is not a lot of money when looked at from the federal government point of view but the cancellation of the subsidy will have a huge impact on businesses and the tourism industry.
“There are lots of possibilities that can be developed to operate a viable passenger service that will attract tourists,” she said.
The not-for-profit organization has more than 600 members who are dedicated to preserving and enhancing passenger rail service in Northern Ontario.
Savory-Gordon points to the pilot Searchmont Polar Express experience sold out in just over an hour this past Christmas and the successful Group of Seven trip to Wawa that is also doubling its capacity this year.
“There was no indication of this. It was totally out of the blue and no one expected it,” she said.
Al Errington, co-chair of CAPT and the owner of Wilderness Island, a resort on the ACR rail line, blames the problem on the incompetence of CN to run the service effectively and efficiently and a problem at the provincial and federal government levels to support economic opportunities.
“This can put me out of business,” he said. “Right now I have 400 people booked for summer and no train.”
Errington said he's hoping lobby efforts by the affected communities, stakeholders and CAPT will result in a reversal of the decision, and a longer term solution developed that would see the federal and provincial governments work together to support rail service.
“Other provinces have done it. It's time for Ontario to do it,” he said.
Errington argues that Canada is the only G7 country that is not paying attention to transportation mechanisms. He says a transportation plan is needed that includes rail service.
“I believe that CN has the money to run this service but because it's no benefit to the shareholders, why should they,” he said.
The privatization of the infrastructure has led to the demise of rail service, he argues.
CN owns the ACR, which has been operating the passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst with government subsidies since 1977.
The federal government has historically supported remote railways to provide access to the national transportation system to individuals living in remote areas, including the ACR.