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Passenger rail revival plan rolling out this fall

Politicians on board with All Aboard Northern Ontario’s concept to restore north-south service

A northeastern Ontario passenger rail advocacy group is tabling a plan this fall to lay the groundwork to restore a popular service that was cancelled by the provincial government in 2012.

With growing political support on their side, All Aboard Northern Ontario is proposing a conceptual plan to re-introduce service on the Ontario Northland Railway between Cochrane, North Bay and Toronto that could start as early as 2019 and increase in frequency by 2021.

“It’s really exciting to see that we’ve got the potential here for presenting something that makes sense,” said the group’s founder, Éric Boutilier.

The old Northlander name is being banished to history to be replaced with a revitalized service called the Northeast Lynx.

Boutilier said the proposal they’re putting forth is scalable based on the ridership numbers and the financial performance of each phase of the plan.

It’s a one-ticket integrated transportation solution that uses buses as a feeder system to bring passengers from outlying communities to the train and ties into the mass transit system in the Greater Toronto Area.

Crafted by rail consultant Greg Gormick, the report will detail the startup and annual operating costs, and identify the rolling stock and infrastructure requirements to make a credible case to convince the province to bring back the train.

“It’s basically answering the questions that I’ve been asking myself for the last few years,” said Boutilier. “What’s it going cost and what’s it going to take to bring it back?”

Funding for Gormick to write the report came from the Temiskaming Municipal Association and the Northeastern Ontario Municipal Association.

Gormick scrolled through his extensive Rolodex of retired and active rail industry professionals who contributed their time and expertise, including former Amtrak president David Gunn, now living on Cape Breton.

“We’ve been able to draw on a million dollars’ worth of talent for free.”

He expects to publicly release the report in North Bay in late October or early November, but not before it’s peer-reviewed by rail industry experts.

“I want to make sure it’s bulletproof.” Gormick said his plan would still need a higher level of study. But he’s buoyed by the positive professional feedback he’s received, including from Ontario Northland management, “that this is doable.”

Should it be adopted by the province, and if the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission and Ottawa can get CN Rail to play ball on access to a critical section of track, the All Aboard group is confident the service can be running as early as next summer.

Gormick isn’t talking about pricey high-speed rail but pragmatic high-performance rail that’s affordable, reliable and comfortable.

“It’s not a big bang approach. It can be rolled out over three years, and the advantage of that is it keeps initial costs down, and it allows you to gauge the market and the ridership and the revenue.”

The integrated approach of bus and train will be the Northern Ontario equivalent of GO Transit and Toronto Transit Commission, Gormick explained.

“If you look at the success of both of those systems, they’re multi-modal, and the key has been seamless transfers and connections. We’re looking at the same thing.”

Conceivably, the catchment area of the train can be broadened by tapping into transportation systems in the GTA and can tie into southwestern Ontario where Gormick has been working with Oxford County on a similar passenger rail strategy, the Southwest Lynx.

For the first phase, Gormick proposes making use of Ontario Northland and GO Transit locomotives and coaches before going to the used equipment market for the next steps.

He knows of a pool of more than 60 available coaches and café lounge cars sitting idle in U.S. yards that can be acquired at a reasonable cost and rebuilt at Ontario Northland’s refurbishment shops in North Bay.

The coaches are well-built, service-proven and have years of running life ahead of them. Locomotives can also be sourced the same way, he said.

Infrastructure-wise, Gormick said based on his inspection of track conditions north and south of North Bay, the line remains in remarkably good shape considering passenger service was discontinued six years ago. Trains could run at an acceptable and schedule-friendly 50 miles per hour.

Some work needs to be done to build new stations and reach agreements with the private owners of former Ontario Northland stations to lease a portion of those buildings and fix up the platforms.

Gormick isn’t ready to reveal the total price tag in the report due to a “wildcard” in CN Rail.

The service would need access to CN’s Bala Subdivision, a busy piece of track between Richmond Hill and Washago.

To tackle that challenge, he proposes stitching two sidings together to create 13 miles of double track, a cost estimated at $30 million. Gormick said he received no feedback yet from CN on his idea.

Should the Ford government approve a return of the service, Gormick said Ontario Northland would negotiate a train service agreement with CN, and, if necessary, additional political muscle could come from federal transportation minister Marc Garneau.

The All Aboard group is coming off a successful summer of meetings with staff of Transportation Minister John Yakabuski and Energy, Northern Development and Mines Minister Greg Rickford, as well as Timiskaming-Cochrane MPP John Vanthof and Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus.

But the man squarely in the group’s corner is the one who controls the purse strings at Queen’s Park, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, in whose riding the Ontario Northland is headquartered.

“Vic has reiterated to me on a number of occasions his commitment to get this done over his term,” said Boutilier.

“It’s a matter of providing the details on what specifically needs to be done to make sure the train gets back, and make sure that it’s a success.”

To Boutilier, restoring rail service to a market of 750,000 in central and northeastern creates sustainable communities, helps stem out-migration, offers a convenient segue to frequent Highway 11 closures and bad weather driving conditions, and caters to the travelling needs of seniors, the disabled, medical outpatients, and post-secondary students.

He has no doubt that people would flock to use the train if marketed properly and kept affordable, and based on the many stories posted on the All Aboard website from subscribers who shared their recollections on the impact of the 2012 cancellation of the train.

At the time, the province said the railway was financially unsustainable and that ridership had flat-lined. Passenger service between Cochrane and Moosonee remained uninterrupted.

Through a freedom of information request, Boutilier obtained government records indicating that between 2001 and 2012, the Northlander averaged 35,000 annual passenger trips, and trended upward to 39,500 in 2011; numbers deemed acceptable for the size of its market by a government consultant.

Should this template prove successful, the group said service could potentially be extended north to Kapuskasing and down the CP Rail corridor to serve communities between Sudbury and Toronto.