Missing the mark on the North’s passenger rail plan

[ Former Porquis Junction ONR Shelter ]

The Ministry of Transportation and Ontario Northland have finally unveiled an Initial Business Case for passenger rail in Northeastern Ontario … and it’s about time the public was provided with an update.

It only took a mere three years into the current government’s term (and a freedom of information request), but Northerners now have a slightly better understanding of what’s required to restore their train.

The Good

I’ll give them credit for including Timmins as an option despite the absence of a rail passenger facility. The City with a Heart of Gold is the largest community north of North Bay. This is a painfully obvious location to conclude a passenger train’s journey in the region.

There is also merit in providing timely and practical rail/motor coach connections at Toronto’s Union Station and via GO Transit’s Highway 407 bus service linking Richmond Hill (Langstaff) and Pearson Airport.

Heated station shelters are indeed needed to protect passengers from the elements. Ticketing on-board the train and online will help minimize costs. Addressing rail infrastructure concerns and capacity issues will also ensure the service is reliable and punctual.

The Bad

The government’s proposal falls flat when it comes bypassing a number of northern communities. Four towns previously served by the Northlander — Cobalt, Iroquois Falls, Kirkland Lake and South River — are no longer considered viable stops without so much as an explanation.

Thirty three years ago, there were a total of two dozen scheduled and flagged stops along this corridor.

Considering the emergence of mobile phones and electronic tickets, I don’t understand why public servants haven’t considered advanced reservations as a means to provide train service in smaller municipalities. Simply put, if there are no people embarking or disembarking at a particular stop, the train continues on its way without ever slowing down.

Excerpt from an Ontario Northland media release from 2010 :

“… the train will only stop if passengers are visible on the station platform or, if passengers on the train have advised that their final destination is Porquis Junction.”

This is a common concept that has been applied on the Polar Bear Express and by VIA Rail — on remote portions of the Canadian and the Sudbury-White River trains.

Ontario Northland is more or less repeating the same mistakes made in the past by choosing to ignore smaller towns situated along the rail line.

I’m also curious why there are so many station infrastructure requirements to resume the service. Notwithstanding the need for a rail fleet and an agreement with CN for track usage south of North Bay, couldn’t the existing platforms be used on an interim basis? I mean, VIA will stop at a railway crossing to pick up and drop off passengers.

Finally, in order to decide once and for all between Timmins or Cochrane as a terminus, why couldn’t the government just serve both communities?

If the province builds a station at South Porcupine, wouldn’t it make sense to extend the Polar Bear Express south to connect with the other train? This would simplify travel between Timmins, Cochrane and Moosonee, as well as reduce the need to transfer multiple times.

The Ugly

Will any of this matter if our elected officials don’t uphold their end of the bargain?

Everything is hypothetical and contingent on our politicians, the Minister of Transportation and the Premier following through with their word.

“… the #PCPO will bring back Ontario Northland passenger rail service by the end of our mandate!” — MPP for Nipissing (November 25, 2017)

Not once has the public received an explanation about what changed when he and his party made this campaign promise, to now postponing it until 2024/2025.

On the flip side, Bloomington GO Station is set to welcome its first passengers on June 28. The province spent $82,4 million constructing this state of the art facility. It has also set aside billions for subways, light rail transit and commuter train projects in the Golden Horseshoe region.

Amidst Amtrak’s 50th anniversary celebration, U.S. President Joe Biden reminded Americans the following :

“… We’re in competition with the rest of the world.  People come here and set up businesses.  People stay here, people grow because of the ability to access — access transportation, access all the infrastructure.  It’s what allows us to compete and — with the rest of the world to win the 21st century. We’ve got to move.”

I’m not sure what it says about how Queen’s Park views Northern Ontario. It took the previous government six months to dismantle the Northlander. It could very well end up taking a total of 13 years before our passenger train ever sees the light of day.

How much longer does the Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade and his colleagues believe Northerners should have to go without?

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