By Éric Boutilier
Five years after the provincial government canned the Northlander passenger train without so much as a single public hearing, is there any point in launching a new campaign to revive it?
A more appropriate question might be whether Ontarians are all entitled to transportation that is as safe, reliable, comfortable and affordable as what is provided at public expense for residents of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). If the answer is “yes,” then the Northlander is part of the equation and the case for its revival needs to be made.
It is for this reason that a new advocacy group, All Aboard Northern Ontario, has been formed. It is to provide a credible voice for the concerns of all Northern Ontarians who face a mounting number of transportation challenges.
When Queen’s Park arbitrarily cancelled our Northlander in 2012, we were told its loss would be more than compensated by “enhanced bus service.” Instead, daily bus service between Hearst and Kapuskasing was reduced to three days a week. Communities such as Cobalt saw their service cut from three times daily to once a day. Flights provided by Bearskin Airlines between Kapuskasing and Timmins, and by Porter from North Bay to Toronto and to Timmins were abandoned.
Instead of improvements, what we have received is a publicly-funded, multi-year exercise in navel gazing by our government. Known as the Northern Ontario Multi-Modal Transportation Strategy, it is based on a government claim that it wants to “ensure that the transportation system is improved and managed in a way that supports northern prosperity over the coming 25 years.”
Nice words, but we have reason to be sceptical. What has emerged is a recommendation to improve the region's highways and airports, but empty platitudes on passenger trains, which served this region well for more than a century. All the draft report says is that “new and improved passenger rail service could become a reality, should a viable business case and sufficient passenger travel demand exist” and that it would evaluate rail service business cases “where appropriate.”
This lukewarm endorsement flies in the face of affordable and popular rail passenger improvements now being made all across the U.S., including services to places such as Maine, which have similar population densities and travel patterns as those along the Northlander’s route.
A 2009 study obtained by All Aboard Northern Ontario under a freedom of information request revealed the government’s own consultants had determined the Northlander had been “generating some 35,000 annual passenger trips out of total market base population of 200,000 (north of Toronto)” and found this to be “acceptable performance in terms of indicating support of the service by actually using it."
In fact, the Northlander’s ridership increased after that study was delivered, rising to 39,579 in 2011. Yet, despite many public pleas to maintain it, the train was scrapped.
Queen’s Park is, in our opinion, doing a serious disservice to Northern Ontarians by sidelining the rail option, even while it endorses it in the GTHA by investing billions in the expansion of the GO Transit rail system. While no one expects to see a similar level of rail investment in our region, one has to wonder why efficient and effective all-weather rail is a solution for that region, but not ours.
That question is at the heart of All Aboard Northern Ontario’s campaign for the revival of the Northlander and improvements to the federally-funded VIA services in this region. They, too, were sliced to ribbons in the past by cavalier decisions made in Ottawa by politicians and bureaucrats who have no idea of the transportation challenges facing Northern Ontarians.
The time has come for our governments to be fair and equitable with Northern Ontarians. It is our intention to ask the tough, evidence-based questions of both governments on this issue. Using data obtained under our freedom of information requests and the services of rail industry professionals, we will also be producing a report to clearly demonstrate the costs, time frames and long-term benefits in reviving the Northlander. The report and other information will be posted on our website (www.allaboardnorthernontario.com) and presented in a series of public town hall meetings along the Northlander’s route.
If Northern Ontario is not to be consigned to a future as a “no man’s land,” as was so callously said recently by a member of the current provincial government, then some fire needs to be applied to the question of our transportation system’s future. With an election looming, it is the intention of All Aboard Northern Ontario to supply that fire.
Éric Boutilier is the North Bay-based founder of the All Aboard Northern Ontario citizens’ committee.