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Better bus service delivers "hope" for passenger rail

Rail advocates applaud Ontario Northland expansion, prepare regional multi-modal plan
Ontario Northlander

The expansion of regional bus service by Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) "paves the way" for a bright future in passenger rail, said two citizens' advocacy groups.

All Aboard Northern Ontario and All Aboard Ontario (formerly Transport Action Ontario) called the province's strategy to deliver five-a-day-per-week bus service to several underserviced communities "the first sign of hope" for a fully-integrated bus and rail regional public transportation system.

“Any improvement of our system is welcome, whether that it be rail, bus or any other mode that is applicable and affordable,” said Eric Boutilier, founder of the North Bay-based All Aboard Northern Ontario, in a Jan. 24 news release.

Boutilier, who is lobbying for a return of passenger rail service to the northeast, said since 1990 Northerners have experienced a steady erosion in regional airline, bus and rail services by Porter Airlines, Bearskin Airlines, Greyhound and VIA Rail.

The biggest blow was the decision by Queen's Park to discontinue the Northlander rail service between Cochrane and Toronto in 2012 as part of the government's partial divestment of the ONTC.

All Aboard Ontario president Robert Wightman added that it's been a while since praise could be extended to any player in the region's public transportation system.

"What heartens us is that the announcement of new bus service for Sault Ste. Marie and White River, and an improved Ottawa-Sudbury service, clearly demonstrates the ONTC team has a vision. They’re not just giving us more of the empty words we’re used to receiving from so many transportation agencies and politicians; they’re actually taking real and justifiable action.”

Their applause for the ONTC is the preamble for an upcoming consultant's report which, they say, crafts a regional "transportation system of the future" that's logical, affordable and sustainable.

The consultant's plan will deliver a "comprehensive, integrated operation" drawing on what's worked elsewhere in North America, such as GO Transit, where bus systems feed passenger traffic onto rail routes.

The groups believe that a similar case can made in Northern Ontario for a "multi-modal, high-performance public transportation system" starting with the ONTC bus expansion plan.

At its core is the conceptual plan for a new and improved rail passenger service on the existing Cochrane-North Bay-Toronto route.

The plan should make for great provincial election fodder when it is released later this winter and presented at a series of town hall meetings across the northeast, as well as delivered to all the political parties.

“Just constantly bleating about how we deserve a larger and better rail service now isn’t going to cut it," added Boutilier.

"Passenger trains are expensive tools for the provision of public transportation and their use has to be based on solid market demand and planning that factors in all the requirements to sustain them. A core rail system serving this region and linking us with southern Ontario is a noble and worthy objective, but just demanding that it be implemented overnight is naïve and totally unrealistic.”