There’s a buzz of excitement and a new vision surrounding the promise of the return of the Ontario Northlander passenger train service.
On Tuesday, July 18, Associate Minister of Transportation Stan Cho helped cement that excitement by holding a roundtable discussion with stakeholders at Deerhurst Resort to talk about its return.
“This is a reality. The Northlander is coming back and the trains are set to arrive in the mid-2020s and to make sure that it’s operational very shortly after they arrive, that means a lot of work has to go now,” the Minister told Huntsville Doppler following the meeting. “It’s not just the technical aspect, whether it be engineering or track work or station upgrades, it’s also about preparing the local businesses and municipalities for what we know will be… increased ridership,” he said, adding that 60,000 annual train users are anticipated by 2041, and community stakeholders are being asked for their feedback and told to prepare for its arrival.
The passenger train will initially focus on a route that includes 16 stops: Toronto (Union Station), Langstaff, Gormley, Washago, Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Huntsville, South River, North Bay, Temagami, Temiskaming Shores, Englehart, Kirkland Lake, Matheson, Timmins, and Cochrane. Cho said that as the ridership data is analyzed once the train returns, there will be an adaptive process that may see the route modified. “We expect this to create $132 million dollars in economic benefits and that’s thousands of jobs in the north and so we want to make sure this is something that’s connecting people to jobs, healthcare, and education… but also that it’s safe.”
It’s been eleven years since the Northlander passenger train was abruptly discontinued under the Dalton McGuinty government in 2012. “It never should’ve been cancelled,” said Cho. “We’re bringing it back bigger and better than ever with brand-new technology and making sure that everyone is consulted.”
Parry Sound-Muskoka Member of Provincial Parliament Graydon Smith said there is an opportunity for product development in local communities impacted by the train’s return. “I look at it similarly to when Porter came to Muskoka, there was an opportunity to develop around people arriving at a specific destination or destinations, in this case throughout the riding, and once they get there how do you get them to the next thing… there was a good conversation about what needs to happen over the next few years to create a seamless experience.”
Smith said there are a few different lenses from which to plan for the return of the passenger train, whether it be for medical appointments, visiting friends and family, employment purposes, or tourism—”all of them are important and all of them are going to take some planning between now and over the next few years.”
Asked about how to make sure it is sustainable, Smith said it’s important to make sure it is a service people want to use and that includes making it comfortable, accessible, and reliable. “I think the plan is very clear, to offer an excellent product for people to ride on that gets them reliably to the places that they need to go and I think it’ll be extremely well used,” he said.
“I’m very excited to see it come back,” added Smith who was Mayor of Bracebridge when the passenger train was discontinued and said many people were upset to see the service end. “When I was campaigning last year I was surprised honestly at the number of people… that brought it up… so I’m really excited that we can deliver this.”
Asked about ensuring the plan continues no matter who is in power, Smith said: “I think the best way to defend against something going away is A, it needs to be a good product and B, it needs to be well used and I think sadly the previous government didn’t offer a good product and because of that it wasn’t well used.”
Huntsville Mayor Nancy Alcock was at the meeting and said the discussions about the return of the train were a catalyst for other initiatives being undertaken such as public transit in Huntsville and an on-demand public transit project the District Municipality of Muskoka is exploring.
She said the return of the train aligns with an initiative being discussed at Huntsville’s standing committee on active transportation and public transit. “One of the things that they’ve been talking about at that committee is the development of a transit hub in Huntsville. And so the hub would connect the Ontario Northland bus service with the Ontario Northland train and a more beefed up Huntsville transit and tie in with the regional transit as well as any other new and emerging forms of transportation as well as a whole industry with respect to bicycle tourism,” she explained, adding that it isn’t going to be happening overnight but it is a plan that’s in the works.
Another example Alcock gave is the number of employees that are brought into Huntsville from Barrie and other communities to work at places like Tim Hortons or Deerhurst. “Maybe businesses have something to say about how they would link into the train service coming back, so it’s that kind of groundwork that I think is really important,” she said, adding that currently employers are hiring buses or car services to transport employees and the train may be an alternative that also gives those workers another option and perhaps a bit more freedom.
She said from a municipal standpoint there are considerations that also need to take place. “Where do we need to be preparing? Whether it’s the road that enters the Huntsville Train Station. Whether it is the work that we’re already doing with respect to our public transit…,” said Alcock, adding that the fact that the Minister wants to hear from communities is really important and solidifies the fact that plans for the train’s return are an exciting reality.
Asked what happens now that Huntsville’s Train Station was sold to a private entity by a previous council, Alcock said: “Everything we do with respect to that is a bit unchartered, but I will say this that the owners have always had the concept of being part of the community and the community requirements. The fact is it still is a functioning train station. We still have commercial service going through there and that didn’t change. We still have viable tracks going through there. They will be an important part of our discussions… they’ve already been approached as to what this will look like in the future. They want to be part of it, so that’s a good thing,” she said, adding “Everything we do these days involves partnerships and that’s a good thing. I’m probably a little too Pollyannaesk but on this one, it makes all the sense in the world. They want to be part of it.”
Alcock said the opportunities are endless and as Mayor of Huntsville she was appreciative of the meeting. “I get a sense from him [Minister Cho] that he really is interested as to what the impact of bringing the train will be on all of the communities from here all the way to the James Bay coast. This communication is really important.”
In April 2022, the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission released the Updated Initial Business Case which included a preferred route from Toronto to Cochrane, with a connection to the Polar Bear Express service to Moosonee.
In December 2022, the Ontario government purchased three new train sets as part of its plan to bring back the Northeastern passenger rail service. The $139.5 million investment marked a significant milestone in reinstating service between Timmins and Toronto. The train sets are on track and bringing back the train in the mid-2020s is an achievable goal, reiterated Cho.
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