Stakeholders have one month to delay CN Railway’s decision to stop running passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.
In January, the company announced that, because $2.2 million in federal funding for passenger service had been cut, the service provided by Algoma Central Railway would halt on March 31. CN has since extended that deadline to April 29.
A new working committee, spearheaded by Sault Ste. Marie and comprised of communities, First Nations, tourist operators, and cottage owners, is seeking a one-year extension to give stakeholders a chance to come up with alternatives to sustain the rail line over the long term. The group has hired a part-time coordinator, Dave Murphy, who has worked for the Sault’s Economic Development Corporation and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund.
“Our first objective is to secure the one-year extension of the funding for the continuation of the passenger service, which is scheduled now to cease April 29 in the absence of any extension,” said Joe Fratesi, Sault Ste. Marie’s CAO and chair of the Algoma Passenger Rail Stakeholder Committee.
The cutting of the service is expected to negatively impact tourists and private landowners who have, for years, used the railway to access their destinations.
The Sault has pledged $50,000 to the group, Wawa and Hearst have each pitched in $5,000, and Dubreuilville has contributed just under $1,000, Fratesi said.
Last month, the group hired BDO Canada to collect data and do an analysis of the economic impact of the train service. Fratesi said the group had hoped to have preliminary data by the end of March, at which time it was aiming to meet with federal Transport Minister Lisa Raiit to present the report and plead the group’s case for an extension to the rail subsidy.
The group has already received support from Sault MP Brian Hayes and Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes.
The campaign has even received a letter of support from painter Robert Bateman, who called the geographic area through which the train travels a “Canadian art history heritage area,” and “endorsed the use of eco-tourism rail corridors (as) a way for Northern Ontario to diversify its economy and lead to sustainability of its local communities in an environmentally respectful way.”
Fratesi said the committee has not yet discussed what a long-term solution might entail, but suggested it would likely require the cooperation of both the federal and provincial governments.
“If we secure the one-year extension, obviously we’ll have our work cut out for us,” Fratesi said. “The more permanent solutions will be more complex because it’s going to be longer term.”
CN has agreed to continue operating the service if the government reinstates the subsidy, and Fratesi said it would be “ludicrous” to expect the company to offer passenger rail without it.
“They’re in the freight business; they’re not in the passenger business, and they’re in the profit business, and their shareholders would expect them to do nothing less than at least break even and perhaps turn a profit,” Fratesi said. “So I don’t think it’s realistic to expect CN to subsidize the operation of the passenger service.”