Carrot Dangling Over The Return of Train Service

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Premier Doug Ford at Heddle Shipyards
Premier Doug Ford at Heddle Shipyards

Is the government truly committed to “Get it done”?

OPINION –To the people of Northeastern Ontario, you have my word. We will bring the Northlander back to Timmins and Cochrane” said Premier Ford during his swearing-in ceremony at Queen’s Park this summer.

Folks, this could only mean one thing; we’re getting our passenger train back … right? Just like when it was promised to us in 2018?

His statement, similar to one his government made four years ago when first elected into office, is about the extent of what has been accomplished insofar as bringing back passenger rail service to Central and Northern Ontario.

Sure, there’s that initial and updated business case lingering on the shelves of Metrolinx and Ontario Northland. It only took the province a mere three to four years to publish their findings.

While campaigning, the incumbent party did announce $75 million for, among other things, work on more feasibility studies. And yeah, sometimes we see the occasional test train scoot back and forth between Cochrane and Toronto.

However a potential in-service date in the mid-2020s is the furthest thing from a guarantee. A mere pledge and a proposal in the preliminary stages are not going to cut it for the traveling public.

Now that the election is over, the Premier and the Minister of Transportation need to show us the goods and provide specific details as to when and how our train is going to be restored.

A solemn anniversary

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since the Northlander was unceremoniously removed from service.

On September 28th 2012, without so much as a public consultation, the preceding party in power axed Northeastern Ontario’s one and only passenger train to the South in favour of what it described as enhanced bus service.

With the stroke of a pen, the number of travel barriers faced by seniors, students, medical patients and people with disabilities increased exponentially.

We’ll probably never find out what compelled former Premier McGuinty and his government to make this decision. It may very well have come down to politics, apathy or an unwillingness to replace an aging fleet.

Regardless, we know — based on government data and a report published just a few years prior — that Northerners regularly rode the Northlander.

Contrary to certain claims of ridership stagnation, demand for this service was up nearly 15% during its final full year of operation — despite routine delays and a decision to bypass or to refrain from providing bus-train connections to and from larger cities along this route.

Annual ridership data : 2000-2009 | 2010-2012

Annual on-time performance data : 2000-2009 | 2010-2012

Barriers in the North, breakthroughs in the South

A decade later, it’s quite clear just how disconnected Northern Ontario has become.

Only one motor coach a day now serves communities on Highway 11 North and Highway 17, along with just three a week between Timmins and Hearst. Westbound service beyond this town no longer exists.

Busses to Hornepayne and Manitoulin Island, flights to Kapuskasing, as well as passenger trains throughout much of Algoma District have also disappeared.

Meanwhile, the provincial government not only restored/expanded GO Train service to London, Niagara Falls and Oak Ridges, but provides passengers with discounted weekend fares across the GTHA and free travel between GO and any of its transit partners.

The Premier and his colleagues ought to be reminded that actions speak louder than words.

The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t used as an excuse to delay transit projects in Southern Ontario, yet Northerners find themselves waiting … waiting … and waiting for the government to come through on its promise to resume the Northlander.

Travelers seeking medical care or post secondary education — often not available in their home communities — have grown tired of white knuckle driving and regular highway closures. They want their train service restored.

To borrow an old adage from one of my college professors : Don’t tell me … Show me.


Éric Boutilier is the founder of Northern Tracks Blog