Four provincial cabinet ministers didn't tip their hand on the immediate future of a Sault Ste. Marie-to-Sudbury rail line as a deadline looms on Dec. 18 for a Montreal short-line carrier to drop freight service.
But both Sault MPP Ross Romano and Energy, Northern Development and Mines Minister Greg Rickford acknowledged the 278-kilometre line remains "critical infrastructure" that must be protected to serve industrial shippers in northeastern Ontario.
"These are critical parts of Northern infrastructure and we're going to do everything in our power to protect them," said Romano, the minister of training, colleges and universities, who's been working on the Huron Central file since 2018 with Rickford and Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney.
The three ministers and Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli, the minister of economic development, job creation and trade, hosted a Dec. 10 webcast to unveil Connecting the North, a draft transportation plan for this region.
The plan contains 67 "action points" pertaining to ongoing highway four-laning, support of Far North remote airports, moving ahead with restoring passenger rail in northeastern Ontario, and expansion of Ontario Northland bus routes in northwestern Ontario and into Manitoba.
Rickford said the Huron Central situation just emphasizes the need for a comprehensive regional transportation link that ties all these industries together.
The Montréal-based subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming of Connecticut, operators of the Huron Central, want the federal and provincial governments to package a $40-million subsidy for maintenance and safety upgrades to the track, similar to a deal reached in 2010.
The railroad moves product for Algoma Steel in the Sault, Domtar in Espanola and EACOM in Nairn Centre. CP Rail, the track's owner, leases the line to Genesee & Wyoming. The lease agreement runs through 2040. Forty-three employees work for the railroader.
In late 2018, in an interim measure to keep the freight trains moving, the province provided stop-gap funding of $980,000 to keep Genesee & Wyoming in place for another year while a long-term solution was worked out.
This month, funding discussions between Ottawa, Queen's Park and the company appear to be going right down to the wire.
Whether or not Queen's Park intends to provide another one-year operating subsidy for Genesee & Wyoming remains to be seen in the coming days, but Rickford said the province will support operations on a "very short-term basis," while working on a short-line railroad strategy for the North that fits into their wider regional plan.
"Ross and I have spoken about this countless times. Every single year a privately held company comes to one of the ministries or the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund with, essentially, a last-minute plan or idea for upgrades to that railroad.
"There are other short lines in Northern Ontario and this plan here identifies the way of ensuring that we can put resources in an appropriate ministry and look at the long-term sustainable business case for these short-line railroads."
Without going into detail, Romano said he continues to work with the railway, Ottawa and a local task force to address the situation to ensure rail service is competitive and sustainable for the long haul.
Rickford admitted working on this particular file has been "frustrating."
"We'd like to see an operator that can come in there with a longer term plan to make a viable short-line railroad that serves not Sault Ste. Marie and those businesses but fits into a bigger plan for short-line and railroad networks, particularly in northeastern Ontario," he said.
Rickford did not divulge if Genesee & Wyoming will continue to deliver or if another rail carrier might be under consideration.
Mulroney added she and Romano met with Huron Central officials prior to the pandemic to discuss the challenges they're facing. She acknowledged the tight deadline this month and said her ministry continues to monitor the situation.
"We are aware that this has important implications for Ross' riding and for the region," she said.
In introducing the 67 "action" items in the transportation plan, Mulroney said a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work across Ontario.
"What works in Toronto simply doesn't work in Northern Ontario," she said, alluding to this region's unique challenges of distance between communities, winter storms and rugged landscape. Mulroney said the people of the North deserve a "well-planned and effective" transportation system.
The draft plan, largely, didn't reveal any major new initiatives in covering a broad sweep of ongoing construction, planning, and support of transportation initiatives and infrastructure projects that are already underway.
Among the projects listed were the current four-laning of Highway 69 between Parry Sound and Sudbury, between Kenora and the Manitoba border, and between Thunder Bay and Nipigon as part of the government's $625 million in annual spending on Northern Ontario highway improvements.
To support the government's plan to restore passenger rail on the Ontario Northland Railway between Toronto and Timmins-Cochrane, a track audit is being accelerated on the agency-owned section of the line in the North Bay corridor to identify areas needing safety and maintenance upgrades.
Fedeli said the government is in the final stages of finishing the business case to return passenger rail service in the northeast.
"Dependable and efficient passenger rail has long been awaiting in the North and represents an essential, significant component of this plan," said Fedeli about his Nipissing riding. "It's great to see a transportation plan that is both ambitious and accounts for the unique needs and challenges that Northern communities face."
Mulroney called the draft plan a "living document" that, going forward, will change and evolve to meet Northerners' needs in identifying new opportunities for improvement. A Ministry of Transportation-led task force is being formed of mayors and Indigenous leaders to improve passenger rail, bus and local transit services.
On the highway safety side, more snowplowing equipment will be on the road, there will be increased use of anti-icing liquids, and more rest stops will be added for travellers and truckers. For folks in the Temiskaming area, where a highway safety group has been lobbying for a European 2+1 highway system on the Northern two-lane stretch of Highway 11, the province pledges to review its passing lane needs in the northeast in developing a plan to improve and construct more passing lanes.
On the Far North winter road system, the province is considering the use of ground penetrating radar to monitor ice thickness during road inspection, and using portable bridges and arch culverts to improve water crossings.
In keeping with the advance of road planning and environmental assessments taking place in the Ring of Fire, the province is also talking about starting an all-season roads strategy in coordination with land use and transportation planning exercises in these remote areas.
A preliminary design for a vehicle bypass in Cochrane between Highways 11 and 652 will be completed by the fall 2023, and the design and environmental assessment for the Little Current swing bridge on Manitoulin Island is due out soon.