Ford carrot-dangling the return of the Northeastern Ontario rail service

But is the government truly committed to getting it done?

Eric Boutilier“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 the one his government made four years ago when first elected to 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 its 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 will not cut it for the travelling public.

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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 will be restored.

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

On September 28, 2012, without so much as public consultation, the previous 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 Dalton McGuinty and his Liberal government to make this decision. It may very well have come down to politics, apathy or an unwillingness to replace an aging fleet.

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

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

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 should be reminded that actions speak louder than words.

The COVID-19 pandemic may not have been 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.

Travellers 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 adage from one of my college professors : Don’t tell me … Show me.

More information on the Northlander

Annual ridership data : 2000-2009 | 2010-2012

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

Éric Boutilier is the founder of Northern Tracks Blog.

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The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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