By Ian Ross
A joint senior management and labour group trying to save the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) and passenger rail service from privatization are putting the final touches on a plan to re-invigorate the money-losing Crown agency and improve customer service.
An internal solutions group was preparing to submit their business plan to Royal Poulin, head of the commission, this fall. The plan outlines the types of things that could be done to make the railway more economically viable.
"The concepts and suggestions are nailed down and the plan is pretty much in near final format," says Brian Stevens, a member of the group and president of the Canadian Auto Workers Local 103. "Royal's office is ready to receive it."
The report recommendations were canvassed from people in affected communities in northeastern Ontario and from within ONTC.
Though reluctant to talk about specific recommendations due to potential competing interests from the private sector, Stevens says, among a number of issues to be addressed are ways to increase ridership on the Northlander and the Little Bear service, to develop new marketing strategies and improve
amenities on the train.
"We want to meet the policy objectives of the government in terms of economic and social development, and we also we want to explain that there's a valid proposition of the ONTC remaining as a Crown corporation," Stevens says.
The Ontario government was set to begin exploring options over the summer in order to divest itself of the freight operation and determine alternative methods of continuing passenger service. But community leaders from northeastern Ontario have temporarily curbed the province's privatization attempts.
Once the solutions group's report lands in the Ministry of Transportation's hands this fall, Stevens expects a final decision within at least eight weeks, though the government may opt to entertain expressions of interest from the private sector.
The province has been providing an annual $4.2-million subsidy for the agency, which includes freight and passenger service along with ferry and
Rail services losses amount to $8 million annually, to which the federal government also chips in about $2.5 million a year. To prop up ONTC, the province has injected an additional $4 million in each of the last two years.
Stevens says stemming from his discussions with Premier Mike Harris and his policymakers all indications are that the government recognizes the importance of continuing subsidies to passenger rail, but insists on seeing value for
their money and increased ridership.
"I sat with the premier and had an open and frank discussion and I have every confidence that our plan will convince the government and northerners that Ontario Northland will continue in this role.
"...This isn't an issue about subsidies, it's about what kind of service we're providing," says Stevens. "We think we've got that tackled."
Should the internal solutions group plan be accepted, Stevens says, a revamped ONTC will be a much different organization that is much more responsive to communities, business needs and the travelling public.
"It's my hope that you won't see this paternalistic railway baron mentality that's dominated the landscape in the last 10 to 15 years of the ONTC."
According to their report, structurally and staffing-wise there will be some organizational changes by re-deploying its 1,100 workers, short of massive job cuts, to focus on improving service.
"Everybody who works at the ONTC should enjoy coming to work and that hasn't
been the case the last four or five years," Stevens says.