Advocates of passenger rail service in Northern Ontario have stepped up their lobby efforts with the formation of the Northern and Eastern Ontario Rail Network (NEORN).
Launched in August, NEORN—which is part of Transport Action Ontario—will act as an umbrella group for organizations spanning the North that are seeking a return of passenger rail service to the area. The group was spurred to formalize in March when the province announced it would divest the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC).
“We just feel we’re part now of a really important organization that has more influence and knowledge,” said Linda Savory-Gordon, who represents the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT).
Educating the public on the importance of passenger rail service will be at the forefront of the group’s efforts.
But it’s also working to draft resolutions seeking support from Northern municipalities, First Nations, and chambers of commerce, which it would then pass on to the province.
Though the province continues to invest in highway infrastructure, Savory-Gordon maintains this model isn’t viable over the long term.
With the rising cost of oil turning driving into a mode of transport for the elite, and building and maintenance costs totalling trillions, rail offers a more feasible, affordable option, she said.
“With rail, the same infrastructure is there,” she said. “The same rail beds are there since the turn of the century. Since the late 1800s, early 1900s, it has never been dug up and relaid the way a highway has to be every 10 years.”
She also eschews the argument that there isn’t a market for this type of service because the North is too vast and there are too few people for it to be affordable.
Harry Gow, the representative for Transport Pontiac Renfrew, which covers an area spanning Mattawa to Ottawa, said precedence for changing political will with regard to the railway has been set.
When the Algoma Central Railway started falling into disrepair, prompting both a pulp mill and a steel mill to threaten closure, CAPT lobbied the province, which eventually coughed up $30 million to rebuild the rails. Gow believes a similar campaign is needed now.
“While I hate to be a crisis-monger, I kind of think that change normally comes with crisis,” Gow said. “The coalition has shown to date, even when it was informal, that it is capable of using these opportunities to force the attention of the super highway-centric Ministry of Transportation people in Toronto to stand back and let the politicians invest money where it ought to be invested, which is in, at least for land transport, a more ecologically and sensible mode of transport, namely railways.”
Gow points to surrounding regions such as Michigan, Quebec, Detroit, Chicago, New York and Vermont that all have invested heavily in passenger rail service.
He believes the decline of rail service in Northern Ontario can be reversed with a will to do it.
If a plant closes because of lack of access to rail, it would likely move to the southern U.S. or Mexico, impacting jobs and the economy.
“This is a very serious issue, unless everyone is supposed to relocate to the main line of the Canadian National between Montreal and Toronto and Sarnia— and that ain’t gonna happen,” Gow said. “Then, as railways evaporate in Ontario, industry and jobs will evaporate with them and that is the issue for business.
That’s why it’s important that business get behind the push to reinvent the Ontario railways.”