“Connecting the North“, “A more humane way to travel” and “Love the Way” are just some of the marketing catch phrases used by Ontario Northland and VIA Rail Canada to attract and entice customers. Whether by bus, train or a combination of the two modes, these publicly owned companies are in the business of getting people to places they need to travel to.
However, once tickets have been purchased and suitcases packed, both providers — specifically the politicians and bureaucrats — seem to fall just a tad flat when delivering on their end of the bargain; providing safe and reliable transportation in Northern Ontario.
Coming home from a trip recently, I decided to try the ONTC’s motor coach service from Thunder Bay to White River and then connect with the VIA train I normally use to travel. Among other reasons, I wanted to save my partner 800 kilometres of round trip driving and the need for overnight accommodations.
Well, contrary to what the president of one Crown corporation would have you believe, the experience was incredibly stressful and complicated.
For starters, the bus was late departing the Lakehead.
On board, I had little room for my legs sitting down because of the closeness of the seats. To use the facilities, I had to step over the legs of those who were asleep and blocking the aisle.
It’s also impossible for me to do any work on my laptop without getting motion sickness while on the bus.
The driver made up the lost time and got me to my destination on schedule. However, there was no possibility of the bus dropping me off at the VIA station — a mere one kilometre off the highway.
There are no taxis serving this community of 900, so with my luggage in hand, I had to make a mad dash down Elgin Street to catch the train. Thankfully, it too was delayed.
Heaven forbid another shutdown of the Trans-Canada highway in the event of a storm, a collision or the collapse of a bridge. The ONTC’s travel advisory policy doesn’t appear to provide much peace of mind for its passengers.
My girlfriend is no stranger to the stresses of traveling through this region.
When she came to visit me over the holidays, she had to drive 300 clicks to the nearest VIA station — Longlac — as there is simply no passenger train service to and from the largest city in north-western Ontario.
Longlac Station is closed to the public, so she sat in her car and waited for VIA’s Canadian to pick her up. It was four hours late. Without the luxury of a vehicle, she would have potentially froze outside in temperatures hovering around -30°C.
There was also nowhere to plug a block heater, so after consecutive days of frigid conditions, her car wouldn’t start once she returned to Longlac. Just before the crack of dawn, she walked 20 minutes to a local coffee shop to escape the cold and eventually found someone to give her battery a boost.
Accessing public transportation shouldn’t be this complicated. It’s unfair to expect everyday people to have to fend for themselves and/or wait outside in the dead of winter. This wouldn’t be considered an acceptable level of service in Southern Ontario.
The basic needs of travellers — seniors, students, medical patients and families — aren’t being met. What little services remain are no more than a patchwork of inconvenient and fragmented routes.
Flying between places like Thunder Bay and North Bay is just too expensive and often requires a transfer in Toronto. Twelve hours behind the wheel or six-teen on a bus is very much unreasonable. Waiting endlessly for the arrival of the Canadian is flat out unacceptable.
Northerners want options to be able to get around safely, reliably and comfortably, without breaking the bank.
There’s no reason why the ONTC and VIA Rail can’t coordinate schedules so that passengers can connect seamlessly between the two providers. This is a common practice throughout Southern Ontario.
Extending the Sudbury-White River train to Thunder Bay would better provide communities along the north shore of Lake Superior with an all weather mode of transport. At the moment, this underserved corridor has one bus in each direction that shows up in the middle of the night on a highway that is subject to regular closures.
The province talks about wanting to make it easier for people and goods to travel in Northern Ontario. Here’s a suggestion : Less talk, more action.