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MTO releases passenger rail survey

Ford government on the hook to fulfill 2018 campaign promise to restore northeastern Ontario passenger rail
Northlander train conductor (2012)
The last run of the Northlander train service in 2012 (File photo)

The Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO) has released the findings of its recent survey addressing the "unique transportation needs of people, Indigenous communities and businesses along the rail corridor between Toronto, North Bay and Cochrane/Timmins."

In 2018, the current provincial government made a campaign promise to restore passenger rail service along the Toronto-North Bay-Cochrane/Timmins corridor.

"Vic has reiterated to me on a number of occasions his commitment to get this done over his term," said passenger rail advocate Eric Boutilier in October 2018, three months following the Ontario PC election win.

In seeking feedback, the MTO observed: "We are planning for a better multi-modal transportation system along the rail corridor, including improvements to bus and train service in the region."

The survey results include responses from more than 7,200 people.

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Topics covered include the respondents' regional travel behaviour, their transportation options, and previous use of northeastern rail with survey questions designed to "understand needs and travel patterns along the corridor, including the purpose of trips, mode of transportation, frequency of travel and preferences for departure times, train frequency, travel time, and costs."

A sampling of the survey answers: 

Respondents were asked about their experiences using the Northlander service in its last two years of operation:

  • 56 per cent of respondents said they used the previous service, of which 41 per cent rode it once or twice, and 40 per cent rode it a few times a year
  • of the 8.3 per cent of respondents that self-identified as Indigenous, 69 per cent reported riding the previous Northlander service

When asked for reasons why they used the Northlander service:

  • 66 per cent indicated to work, read or entertain themselves while travelling
  • 63 per cent identified concerns travelling in winter road conditions
  • 50 per cent indicated a preference for travel by train
  • 49 per cent indicated a desire to avoid road traffic
  • 36 per cent disliked driving for long-distances

Of the 44 per cent of respondents that did not make use of the Northlander in its last two years of operation:

  • 38 per cent indicated that the departure hours were not a good fit with their schedule
  • 17 per cent indicated travel time was too long
  • 15 per cent indicated ticket fares were too high
  • 15 per cent indicated the travel time was unreliable

Next steps for the survey data includes the MTO exploring "options to reintroduce passenger rail service along the rail corridor and help guide efforts to improve the transportation system in northeastern Ontario."

Passenger rail advocates have been monitoring the situation closely for years.

In December 2020, when the MTO unveiled its Connecting the North: A Draft Transportation Plan for Northern Ontario, rail advocates again accused the Ford government of dragging its feet on the passenger railway file.

Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli has said the transportation plan is "especially exciting for Nipissing. Dependable and efficient passenger rail has long been awaited."

However, in January, Fedeli lowered expectations for a speedy restoration of passenger rail service in the north by indicating the government would not be rushed into action.

"We're going to do it right,"  he said.

The MTO echoed Fedeli's statements, with, "Our government is committed to identifying opportunities for a modern, sustainable transportation system in the north. We’re working diligently on this. We want to get this right and we will not take shortcuts."

In January, North Bay council weighed in on the subject by passing a resolution asking Premier Ford and Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney to restore passenger rail by the 2022 election while also seeking contributions from the federal government.

The resolution has been forwarded seeking the support of MPP Fedeli, MP Anthony Rota, and the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities.

Meanwhile, the MTO confirmed it has received the initial business case for Northeastern passenger rail but there is still no firm timeline to report. 

"We are making progress on our plan for passenger rail service in the North. We are working with the ONTC (Ontario Northland Transportation Commission) to speed up work on a track audit on a section of the North Bay corridor." 

– BayToday