District council was recently brought up to speed about Ontario Northland’s efforts to bring passenger rail service back to northeastern Ontario.
Ontario Northland, which offers passenger and freight rail service as well as bus services, is in the process of transforming, council heard. Following consultation with stakeholders, they’re also working on an updated plan they hope will receive a green light from the province in order to bring back passenger train service to northeastern Ontario at a reasonable rate and schedules passengers can rely on.
“So we’re the only transportation organization that has three of these modes of travel under one umbrella and we’ve spent the last six years really transforming the organization to make sure we have confidence of government, make sure that we hear from communities such as yourself to make sure that service is aligned with what your needs are,” explained Ontario Northland CEO Corina Moore.
Moore and Tracy MacPhee, also representing Ontario Northland, walked council through their updated business case, which for this area includes passenger train service from Toronto up to Timmins or Cochrane.
“As part of that, this updated business case, what it is to provide and what the result of it will be is to help inform a future funding decision on the return of passenger rails,” said MacPhee.
She said Ontario Northland is currently working with Metrolinx and collaborating with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to put this updated business case in front of government officials.
The plan is calling for a late-night, overnight departure from the northernmost point heading into Union Station in Toronto for a mid- to late-morning arrival, a schedule that would make it easier to attend an appointment in Toronto without having to spend a night there first.
“We heard loud and clear when the previous train operated that it was very difficult arriving in the late evening, spending a night in Toronto prior to being able to do your appointment for business meetings or whatever you needed to do the next day,” noted MacPhee.
The plan also includes a modified Sunday schedule arriving in Toronto during the early evening. “We are looking at how it can connect with bus service, with other services to make sure that it’s completely multi-modal so we’re connecting with taxis, Uber, bus – whatever it can, to make sure people can use it,” added MacPhee.
The train would continue to run at a speed of 60 km/hr.
MacPhee noted that the track between the two cities is owned partly by CN and Metrolinx in the Toronto region. A test train that will run from North Bay to Toronto’s Union Station will determine what state the track is in. “Right now it’s classified for freight train, we need to make sure that it can be classified for a passenger train to be operated on it. So, we’re in negotiations with CN. We expect to run a test train very soon.”
When the Northlander was in operation (its last day was Sept. 28, 2012) there were an estimated 41,000 passengers using the service on a yearly basis. The new plan predicts between 37,000 to 54,000 passengers per year.
Based on historical data, MacPhee noted that on a monthly average about 430 passengers arrived or left this region in the last four years of the train’s operation.
“And what we are assuming for this new service, if it does come to fruition, is operating based on seasonality, so four to seven train trips per week, depending on the type of season.” MacPhee also said factors like COVID have changed movement in rural areas evidenced by many people moving out of more populated centres into rural communities such as Muskoka, North Bay, and surrounding regions.
“So we think that’s actually going to increase the ridership as there will be more people that want to head into Toronto for what they still need to do for appointments, but be able to get home…” she added. The updated plan has more stops in key areas and focuses more on connectivity.
If they are successful in restoring train service here with funding from government, the restoration of passenger rail service is expected to take place in the mid-2020s, explained MacPhee.
They also said their focus is to get the passenger rail service in northeastern Ontario back “once we can get a funding decision to move forward with this, then we can start looking at some other alternatives and options,” she said, referring to enabling canoes, bikes, and snowmobiles on trains in order to increase tourism opportunities.
“And one of the things that we always want to push forward is that we know that it’s really exciting that there’s the potential to reinstate this passenger rail service and we’re obviously both excited to do that and we were both involved with the service when it ran 10 years ago, but we also have a really great bus service running today,” said Moore. “And it is new buses, they have wifi, there’s outlets — it’s like a home office for business people. My kids take it and watch Netflix. It is something that we really want to work with the District and all the municipalities to raise awareness about the current services because I think that there’s a lot of seniors and certainly students that could use that service and may not be aware as they should be. So, any assistance and cooperation that we can get from all of you would be wonderful.”
District chair John Klinck thanked the pair for their presentation and said there are many councillors and supporters committed to bringing back rail service to the area. “I think you are in good hands and you’ve been preaching to the converted here this afternoon so don’t hesitate to reach out if you need us as a resource and, you know, we do have a great number of our constituency that are rather well connected to the political element at Queen’s Park and we’re not shy about leveraging those sorts of things as well, so by all means, anything that we can do to help, we’re here for you.”
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