Hollowed out rail services hamper northern travelers

[ White River VIA Station ]

Can the federal government, Transport Canada and VIA Rail make travel through Northern Ontario anymore complicated? I’m asking for a friend, because public transportation in this region clearly wasn’t designed for ordinary people needing to get from point A to point B.

To begin with, VIA doesn’t connect any of the largest cities in the north together. They don’t even make arrangements with regional transit providers to make bus/train connections possible like they do elsewhere in the country.

The services that remain — Sudbury-White River and The Canadian — suffer from chronic delays ranging from many minutes to multiple hours.

Most of the intermediate stations that haven’t been torn down are locked to the public. So if passengers don’t have access to a vehicle, they must brave the elements — potentially risking frostbite during the winter or heatstroke and mosquito bites in the summer — should their train refrain from arriving on time.

The deficiencies in our region’s transportation network became abundantly clear to me over the holidays. There was a major snow storm that made the only highway along the north shore of Lake Superior impassable for a number of days.

While the Budd Car did complete its journey without a hitch, I ultimately postponed my trip to Thunder Bay for fear of being stranded in White River. The probability is that train service beyond this small community would have allowed me to get to my destination — regardless of highway closures, bus or flight cancellations.

The irony of VIA Rail’s apology for travel disruptions in the Québec-Windsor corridor and ensuing criticism by Canada’s Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, isn’t lost on Northerners.

VIA seems to have a bad track record (no pun intended) for stopping just short of places where people need to get to.

Seriously, whose idea was it to skip out on a city of more than 100 000 (Thunder Bay) just a few hours further up the line from White River?

The CanadianToronto
pop. 2 794 356
*Vancouver (BC)
pop. 662 248
The OceanMontréal (QC)
pop. 1 762 949
*Halifax (NS)
pop. 439 819
Jasper-Prince RupertJasper (AB)
pop. 4 738
*Prince Rupert (BC)
pop. 12 300
Montréal-JonquièreMontréal (QC)
pop. 1 762 949
*Saguenay (QC)
pop. 144 723
Montréal-SenneterreMontréal (QC)
pop. 1 762 949
Senneterre (QC)
pop. 2 782
Sudbury-White RiverGreater Sudbury
pop. 166 128
White River
pop. 557
Winnipeg-ChurchillWinnipeg (MB)
pop. 749 607
*Churchill (MB)
pop. 870
Sources : Statistics Canada, VIA Rail Canada* End of the line

Where’s the love VIA?

[ Longlac VIA Station ]

Northern Ontario is the poor cousin of what’s left of this Crown corporation’s hollowed out system.

Of the Canadian’s eleven scheduled layovers, only three communities don’t have indoor facilities or waiting areas open to the public. Two of them are situated in Hornepayne and Sioux Lookout.

During the off-peak season, VIA Rail provides discounted Sleeper class tickets for a select number of communities in Eastern and Western Canada. These up to 50% off fares provide passengers with private cabin or semi-private berth accommodations, meals, snacks and beverages, among other perks.

You guessed it, none of them are offered in northern cities or towns.

AlbertaEdmonton, Jasper
British ColumbiaVancouver
New BrunswickBathurst, Campbellton, Miramichi, Moncton
Nova ScotiaHalifax, Truro
QuébecMontréal, Sainte-Foy
Source : VIA Rail Canada

Maintaining the status quo

The Trudeau government and executives at VIA Rail appear oblivious or indifferent to the challenges faced by Northerners. They are however quick to deflect constructive criticism or responsibility for said issues.

Canada’s intercity rail network is rotting away, literally. There are now buffer cars on the ends of some passenger coaches that VIA has identified structural conditions with. They may very well pose a safety concern in the event of a collision.

While a Request for Information (RFI) has been issued by VIA, there are to date no plans to replace any or all its 70+ year old fleet.

Is the federal government simply letting our trains wither away only to then cancel the service outright?

Ottawa, VIA, you can do better than this. These shortcomings are embarrassing and they epitomize the state of land based transportation in rural Canada.

Northerners need safe, affordable and reliable transportation alternatives that connect them to their communities — big and small.

For the love of all things good, fix it.

[ Parry Sound VIA Station ]

2 thoughts on “Hollowed out rail services hamper northern travelers

  1. I fully support your enthusiasm for a renewed passenger rail service in Northeastern Ontario and I’m old enough to have experienced several overnight trips from my former home in Kirkland Lake to Toronto in the 70’s. The great advantage to this was you could do a day’s business in Toronto and be back home the next morning with no expensive hotel bills. Then came the Northlander with its nine-hour daytime trip getting you into Toronto in the early evening when businesses were closed which meant the need for two nights hotel bill because the return journey was also in the daytime. Compare that with a 7 hour drive in your own car! I’ve lost count of the number of times I sat in my car on Highway 11 at the New Liskeard rail crossing as the passenger train rolled by and I could count on one hand the number of human heads that appeared as I gazed at the flickering images through the carriage windows running past me. The train was virtually empty!

    If the new Northlander is to succeed, it will need to be fast and reliable and preferably get you to your southern destination in time to get your business done and preferably include an overnight return option (or even both ways). The only other option is to run it at a financial loss as a necessary public service to sparsely populated and widely separated Northeastern Ontario communities who deserve more from their governments than they are getting.


  2. I totally agree with you DR George Duncan
    While many other countries are increasing service Canada as let it fall to the wayside .
    Lets start with the Budd Car Sudbury to White River
    A couple years ago i took the Budd Car in White River travelling to Sudbury .
    reason was to promote it and talk to people .
    Unfortunately i am not so good at promotion .
    But i did have a good chat with the 2 engineers on the train 2 people i had worked with at CN many times before I retired .
    Both told me the present situation is definitely not the correct one .
    They were in total agreement that it should be extended to Thunder Bay .with a population of over 110 thousand .
    Right now if you live in Thunder Bay you have to travel to Armstrong a distance of 213 km .
    Not to mention the communities of Marathon , Terrace Bay , Pays Plat , Schreiber , Nipigon ,Red Rock .
    As far as the Northlander proposal to run trains Toronto to Timmins with connections to Cochrane ( by bus ) I would imagine to connect with the Polar Bear express TO Timmins Moosonee ..
    Again not the right solution for Northern Ontario .
    My understanding is 3 train sets have been ordered .
    If you must run from Toronto to Timmins instead of North Bay to Timmins let use two train sets Toronto to Timmins and one set Timmins to Hearst .
    Serving the communities of Cochrane ( Connecting to the Polar Bear express ) Smooth Rock falls , Fauquier , Moonbeam , Kapuskasing , ValRita , Harty , Opasatika < Mattice , Hallebourg and Hearst .
    With Canada increasing it s immigration to over 266.000 in the next 2 years a good sound Infracture is needed ..
    Lets have a good reliable transportation system .
    get all levels of government involved
    businesses like Casinos and the tourist industry would all greatly benefit from such a move .
    Lets not make it about politics but about the people of Northern Ontario .
    As always my humble opinion
    Jacques Ouellette
    interim Leader of The NORTHERN ONTARIO PARTY


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