Smoke and mirrors checking the choo-choo tracks

There was a lot of hype and publicity surrounding Ontario Northland’s most recent test train to measure transit times between North Bay and Toronto.

For the first time in nine years, a passenger train operated on this route with the purpose of collecting data to support the ONR’s latest business case for reintroducing passenger rail service to the region.

Yet despite all the fanfare and politicians boarding coaches normally used on the Polar Bear Express, Northerners are no closer to regaining their train that was unjustly taken away from them by the government.

This demonstration, while to some degree useful, falls short of addressing some very important issues that still hinder a return of the Northlander.

The Ministry of Transportation has not provided any meaningful information or timetables related to the purchase or refurbishment of passenger coaches.

There is no agreement with CN for use of their tracks south of North Bay, nor does there appear to be a strategy in place to address the freight train congestion problems plaguing the Bala subdivision.

VIA Rail’s existing service through this corridor between Toronto and Washago — which is part of the same route previously used by the Northlander — is highly unpredictable and subject to regular delays.

The Canadian’s on-time performance is very much like a yo-yo. You just never know whether it’s going to show up early, late or on time.

A passenger train that’s too often delayed is neither reliable nor practical for most people.

A little less division, a little more collaboration

Timmins was recently named the northern terminus station for the ONR’s passenger rail proposal. Despite the lack of facilities, this city of 42 000 remains a logical end point destination given the abundance of services and the potential for generating frequent riders.

The government’s approach to deciding between Timmins and Cochrane could have been handled differently though. There was no need to create conflict between these two neighbouring communities.

An extension of the existing Polar Bear Express train to Timmins would not only provide Cochrane with a rail connection to the south, but also ensure that passengers from Moosonee and First Nations communities don’t have to transfer multiples times.

In this day and age, it seems rather ridiculous that a traveller should have to switch from a train to a bus, and then board another train … all within the span of an hour.

The decision to snub Cobalt, Iroquois Falls, Kirkland Lake and South River — places that had passenger rail service up until 2012 — is yet another example of the government creating unnecessary animosity between Northerners.

Moving forward ?

The MTO’s commitment to this project — beyond the business case phase — remains fuzzy and unclear.

[ Quote : After the Updated Business Case is developed, the project could move into procurement. ]

Without a rolling stock order, this isn’t exactly a statement that builds confidence or trust within the general public.

Metrolinx and the ONR have selected option six from the Initial Business Case as the baseline to further develop the proposal. Among other things, they suggest a seasonally adjusted service ranging from four to seven days a week.

This approach to intercity transportation is problematic though. The average person shouldn’t have to scrutinize timetables to figure out which day(s) the train operates on.

Planning appointments or visits around a limited schedule is counterintuitive and can at times be very frustrating. Those who ride VIA’s Sudbury-White River train understand just how impractical traveling has become with only one frequency a week — reduced from three due to the pandemic.

The Premier, the Minister of Transportation and various MPPs insist that they are not taking shortcuts in order to restore train service to North.

As more progress is made on the Northlander proposal, it is imperative then that up-to-date imagery is used when making assessments.

Planning on the basis of Google Streetview is not acceptable. Some of the photographic images contained in the ONR’s latest Preliminary Rail Feasibility Study are from Google as far back as September 2009.

[ Source : Google Maps ]

Northerners were promised a train no later than by the end of the party in power’s first term in office. That’s changed to the mid-2020s … maybe.

Is Queen’s Park truly committed to restoring passenger rail to this region or not?

One thought on “Smoke and mirrors checking the choo-choo tracks

  1. Test train: Since nothing else AT ALL is ready to begin Northlander service, this is a blatant political move and really says — for any thinking person — that you should vote for the Conservative government but forget about any hope of a passenger train returning

    Without news of procurement of passenger equipment, possibly in conjunction with VIA, there is NO hope of having the Northlander for a few years AT BEST.

    The federal government needs to wake up about the treatment of the very limited passenger train access between Toronto and Washago and on the rest of the Canadian’s route and provide (a) firm guidance to railways in adding track capacity, including double-tracking, so passenger trains are not subject to delay (b) installing and enforcing heavy fines for passenger train delays — heavy enough so that multi-million revenue earners like CN and CP cannot treat it just as a minor “cost of doing business”.

    The total nonsense of train, to bus, to train again or similar tactics is clearly a strategy to make it as difficult as possible for people to use public transportation — something that most government levels favour since they perceive voters to be completely “car addicted” therefore not interested in even the best possible public transportation. To understand the stupidity of such thinking, the long history of building multi-lane”freeways” at huge taxpayer expense, only to soon discover a need for still more such road projects

    An aside: No one is sure if the move to all-electric vehicles will just duplicate vehicle ownership. Will as many people be able to own and drive such ‘cars’? Will the electric grid be able to regularly fulfill “refuelling” needs of all cars, trucks and whatever else may be on the roads? Will the new cost of electricity make current gasoline and diesel costs “cheap?

    The use of the term “business case” as applied to public transport is a clever tactic by right-leaning “pro-business” types. Their reasoning is simply that if it isn’t profitable, we really can’t afford it as “taxpayer burden”. Such an attitude requires an immediate request for there to be realistic “Profit & Loss” statements for all road systems under all jurisdictions. Talk about “taxpayer burden”?!

    Using Google “streetview” to plan something speaks exactly to the lack of skills, political slants and contempt for all voters. It would be appropriate for users of such “skills” are now in some more worthwhile line of work.


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